Teaching Rhythm

What’s more challenging than teaching piano students to read notes?

Teaching them to count.

At least this has been my experience.

I think that this is because rhythm is more abstract. A note is a note. A 440 is the second space from the bottom in the treble clef. Start on middle C and count up six.

But what is a quarter note?

A quarter note gets one beat…right?

Well, most of the time.

What’s a beat?

A unit of time that can be any speed. From very slow to super-fast.

It’s no wonder that beginning piano students young and old find the concept of rhythm a bit hard to grasp.

When teaching students to understand rhythm and apply it to their music (i.e. counting) I think there are a few things working against me.

Number one – Rhythm involves math. Enough said. I am aware that there is some old wives’ tale that musicians just love math and are naturally good at it. Maybe, but I haven’t met many musical math wizards. I am certainly don’t fall into that category myself.

Number two – It’s relatively easy to imitate rhythm once it is heard. Studies show that rhythm is somewhat hardwired into the human brain beginning with the mother’s heartbeat. Language is also rhythmic. A lot of students really don’t count they listen and hear how the rhythm goes and then imitate what they have heard.

Number three – It’s hard enough to get the right fingers on the right notes and getting the right fingers on the right notes at the right time. Yikes!! The default is that the rhythm goes out the window. From the student’s standpoint, this is an acceptable sacrifice.

Of course, we know better, don’t we?

Number four – The solution is part of the problem. The solution, of course, is to slow down and count out loud. But for some reason most students seem to HATE doing this. I took a poll this week and asked my student why they don’t like counting out loud.

The top two answers…

“It’s annoying”

and

“It’s embarrassing”

Ok annoying I get, but embarrassing?

Really?

Number five – We only see our students once per week. We can go over this stuff with them ad nauseum but if they don’t think about rhythmic concepts between lessons the information never gets form short-term to long-term memory.

Things have become more intense for us in the past few years. As music in the school system gets reduced or cut, we no longer have music educational reinforcement going on during the week.

So, it’s all up to us.

First of all, I’ll admit that I have been coming across this problem more than usual lately.

When I ask a student who has been in piano lessons for three years how many beats a half note gets and the say “a half” I feel like turning in my membership card to the planet earth.

It is soooo discouraging. Ugg! I feel like such a nag.

Can you relate?

How do I tackle this challenge?

The same way I tackle them all.

First things first, I get a nice drink. No, no! not a tall glass of Pinot Grigio more like a Grande Pike from Starbucks.

Then I take a deep breath and thank God I know how to play the piano.

After that, it’s time to get down to teaching my students to count. Once and for all.

First, I explain to them that the rhythm is more important than the notes. We can have music without notes (percussion) but we music have rhythm. 

I always demonstrate this by playing Bach’s minuet in G with no rhythm i.e., every note is the same, and then I play it with all of the wrong notes but the correct rhythm.

Then I used my painting example.

I tell my students that music is organized sound it moves through time. Time is where the music exists, and the rhythm is the timing of the music. Rhythm is our canvass.

I ask my students to imagine a painter trying to paint with nothing to paint on.

I do this because mindset is everything. If I can get my students to see how crucial rhythm is to the music I can begin to break through and really teach them.

Start from the very beginning.

If a student is struggling, I review everything. Starting with note values, rests, and time signatures.

We work in four steps

Step one- I ask the students to explain what is going on with the rhythm. The time signature, note values etc.

Step two – Write in the beats.

Step three – Clap and count out loud. I insist that they count the number of beats in the measure. If you are playing in 4/4 count one-two-three-four.

Step four – Count out loud while playing. I usually ask students to play hands separately, and then put hands together.

If we can get this far, we are off and running.

Now the trick is to get the students to actually practice counting during the week. So I give my students some written homework, specific practice instructions, and last but not least, the final “YOU MUST COUNT!” lecture.

Since going online, I also check in mid-week with my students who I think need the extra help.

I created a program called Rhythm Rx. It has 10 progressive lessons.

Each lesson has 8 four-measure exercises. Each exercise is given twice so that the student can write in the beats, count, and clap the exercise. Then the student can turn the page and play the same example without the beats written in. The exercises build upon one another so that concepts can be repeated and fully learned. The book ends off with two pieces that the students can count and learn to play independently.

You can download it if you are a full Platinum Member.

You can check it out here.

Rhythm Rx