Teaching rhythm to students is a real challenge. Some just “pick it up” naturally and others need, in the words of Ian Dury and the Blockheads, “hitting with the rhythm stick!”
So if you have a theory student preparing for an ABRSM exam (or similar), what can be done to inspire them to write a good rhythm worthy of a full 10 marks?
Tip 1: “Follow my leader!”
I like to switch my metronome on at around 80 BPM or better still, I’m now using “Drum Beats+” on my iPad. This really easy to use app generates drum loops. A favourite preset of mine is “Phat N Hairy 90,” probably because it describes me quite well! The age I mean!!!
Firstly, I clap or beat out on a percussion instrument a two-bar rhythm, encouraging them to copy me exactly. We keep going over and over with this same rhythm until they can replicate it perfectly. Then I change the “question” rhythm with new loop and see if they can respond by copying the changes.
Tip 2: Q&A
With the drum beat still looping, I then get them to make up their own rhythmic response. I don’t give them time to think about it because they can often freeze up and then it’s “game over!”
Sometimes, if they struggle with creativity, I will sing food items to generate a rhythm, for example:
Me: “I’d like a tiramisu!”
Student: “I’d like a burger!”
After they’ve built some confidence, I might try to encourage them to use a more complex reply. How about using a take-away menu?:
Me: “Tikka masala and pilau rice!”
Student: “Lamb jalfrezi and naan bread!”
Tip 3: “Write it down, it’s a good ‘un!”
Now comes the tricky bit; writing it down!
Hopefully, the student has been developing some rhythm counting skills so with practice they can learn to write out the rhythms they are hearing. A good starting point is to tap out a steady beat with the foot whilst clapping the rhythm over the top. At a drastically slowed down tempo, the rhythmic values should become more obvious.
A good idea is to get the student to write out the rhythm in a notation programme like Sibelius or using one of the many apps now available, so that they can hear the rhythm performed back to them by the technology. This really helps them to better understand how rhythms sound and if they are making mistakes in their notation, how to pin-point the error.
Tip 4: “Mission Impossible!”
But what if the exam question is in a difficult time signature like 4/2? Easy!
Convert the question into a more usable time signature like 4/4 and then after composing a rhythm in this easier time signature, finally convert the rhythm back to the original time signature to finish!
Tip 5: Leave a tip!
What advice can be given a student to get the best possible marks in the rhythm composition exam question?
• Finish the rhythm on a main beat of the bar (measure), not a sub-division
• Ideally, finish the rhythm on a longer note to give it a sense of finality
• Avoid having longer time values early in the rhythm as this can generate a premature sense of conclusion
• Use similar time values as was given in the question so that the rhythm “glues” nicely together
• Obviously, make sure that each bar (measure) has the correct combined time value!
• Make sure that each bar (measure) is correctly grouped