Five Tips for Teaching Rhythm

May 21st, 2012 by

Last month I wrote about developing a steady sense of pulse in performance. Interestingly, the comments left by others at the end of the post addressed the notion of teaching rhythm, rather than pulse.

I found this fascinating, because the student who I was thinking about when I wrote the blog doesn’t struggle with rhythm directly. Of course, if you can’t keep a steady pulse then rhythm consequently becomes problematic, but the student is perfectly capable of clapping or playing a rhythm correctly if I am keeping the pulse for her. So her problem lies with pulse, and problems with rhythm and fluency occur merely as a symptom of that.

However, the focus on rhythm rather than pulse in the comments section of last month’s blog, made me realise that rhythm obviously at the forefront of many teachers’ minds.  So, listed below are my top 5 tips for helping students counteract rhythmic problems:

  1. Use speech patterns

Language has a natural rhythm, so using words to replace rhythmic gestures is a very intuitive way for students to learn. There are many variations to this approach, but a simple way of thinking about it is to assign words to common rhythmic gestures – for example, four semiquavers could be ‘watermelon’ (wa-ter-me-lon), a triplet might be come ‘pineapple’ and two quavers could be ‘apple’. Students clap the pulse and say the rhythm prior to performing it on their instrument.

  1. Focus on sound

Be more concerned with how the rhythms sound, rather than their names and values. Once students know what they sound like, show them the notation. This approach will allow them to recognise them and perform them straight away, rather than stopping to ‘count it out’.


  1. Use recordings

Many students can play the rhythm correctly in the lesson, with their teacher their singing or clapping along, but may struggle to remember the rhythm when they are at home. I often record short passages on my students’ phones for them to listen to at home. Remember to record the passage at a speed that is appropriate for the student to play.

  1. Fluency is key

Encourage fluency from the first read through. Obviously there will always be passages of fingerwork that need more attention before they are able to be played fluently, so reduce the tempo of the whole piece to a speed that allows fluency and rhythmic accuracy. Rhythm is all about proportions (whole notes, half notes, quarter notes), so any time that fluency is lacking, the proportions don’t align, leading to rhythmic confusion.

  1. Persistence!

Like any element of teaching, persistence is the key. Rhythm needs constant attention and repetition to be well ingrained in a student.

Posted in Music Theory, Performing, Practicing, Teaching Tips

About the Author

Nicole Murphy
Nicole Murphy is a pianist and composer residing in Queensland, Australia. She has been teaching both piano and composition privately and in schools for over 8 years, with students currently ranging in age from four years to eighty-five years. She holds a Bachelor of Music (Honours Class I) from the Queensland Conservatorium of Music and is currently working towards a Masters of Music. As a freela... [Read more]

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