This often crosses over into our musical performance. We prioritize the importance of the musical elements we are performing without even realizing what we are doing. We strive to perform the correct pitches even if that means sacrificing the rhythm and timing. We don’t even realize that we are playing the wrong timing because we are locked into that classroom mentality of taking our time and getting the right answer (pitch).
Which musical element is most important? In theory, every musical element is equally important. Pitch, rhythm, dynamics, articulation and other forms of expression all come together to create the sound that we are trying to capture in our performance. A compromise in any of these things results in a performance that is less than perfect.
However, the audience may not be acquainted with every detail of the performance to the same degree that we are. A slight embellishment in pitch may be perceived as an intentional adlib or even go unnoticed in some styles of music. Rhythmic mistakes are not as forgiving, though. Even non-musicians in the audience can feel when a song gets thrown off rhythm and loses its drive. Suddenly, it feels as if the performer is being pulled through the song. Energy is lost and the connection between the performer and the audience is compromised.
Great performers need to learn how to feel the pocket of the beat and do everything possible to maintain it. If a pitch needs to be altered or compromised in order to stay on target rhythmically, so be it. The feel and emotional experience of the performance are more important than the accuracy of each detail. Rhythm tends to be a musical element that has a greater impact on the overall feel of the song, especially on faster songs.
I will never forget the musicianship my drummers displayed several years ago at an elementary school concert. This concert took place on a warm spring day in the school gymnasium with no air conditioning. The large number of people in attendance only added to the overall temperature of the room. There were powerful fans mounted on the walls, but we left them off for the beginning of the concert. The orchestra was playing first, and we were afraid that the sound of the fans would drown out the playing. The principal decided that it was getting too hot, plus the band tends to play louder anyway. Just as we hit the downbeat of the beginning of the first song, she turned the fans on. The music for the entire percussion row blew off their music stands. Each player continued to keep the beat with one hand while squatting down and picking up the music with their other hand. The music never stopped, and by the fifth measure we were all back to business as usual with the music on the stands. Some of the audience members did not even realize that anything happened. Now that’s what I call driving the beat!