Contemporary music is full of sundry rhythmic challenges. Before we even get there though, let’s make sure we are completely fluent in the rhythmic language of common practice music. My favorite workout for basic rhythmic exercises comes in Paul Hindemith’s perennial favorite Elementary Training for Musicians. If the title seems condescending, wait until you read what he has to say about singers!
“As for singers, nobody denies that most of them are launched on their careers not because they show any extraordinary musical talents, but because they happen to have good voices. On account of this advantage a singer is usally excused from any but the most primitive musical knowledge — knowledge such as could be acquired by any normal mind in a few weeks of intelligent effort.”
Ouch, Paul, ouch. The text takes you step by step from reading a simple series of vertical lines as regular pulses through the furthest traditional notational difficulties of Hindemith’s time. He even has a remarkable prescient turn in a page where he describes the derivation of what have been come to be known as “irrational meters”, with denominators other than powers of 2. But my favorite feature of the text is the way he forces a physical incorporation of the rhythmic concepts at hand with what he calls coordinated action. This consists of speaking the given rhythm while conducting with one hand, tapping it with the left hand while conducting with the right, tapping it with the foot while conducting, and every possible combination of limbs and rhythmic interactions.
While a given exercise may be simple with only your dominant limbs in play, a simple redistribution of the material across your body can force a radical re-learning of the rhythmic concept at hand. The literal embodiment of rhythm in a deep and conscious way (not just toe-tapping) has a transformative effect.