Music Teacher's Helper Blog

Developing a sense of pulse in performance

The majority of my students have an innate sense of pulse. They feel the beat of the music intuitively and naturally maintain an even tempo in performance. However, I do have a few students who excel at other areas, such as expressivity and tone, but struggle constantly with tempo, pulse and consequently rhythm. When I first started teaching I struggled to correct the element of pulse, because it was a skill that I had naturally possessed and therefore I had never had to learn it myself. I spoke with other teachers and consulted the literature and came up with the following tips for developing a steady sense of pulse in students.

  1. You can’t have good rhythm without a sense of internalised pulse. Many students who play with rhythmic inaccuracies are actually struggling to hear the beat of the music that they are trying to execute, so it is vital to establish the pulse before trying to subdivide the beat.  Play excerpts of the piece at different speeds and get the student to clap the pulse or walk in time to the music. Ensure that the student spends time listening first, before trying to clap along. They need to hear the pulse and internalise it first, before trying to clap it.
  1. Once the student is clapping along consistently, stop playing and encourage them to keep clapping the pulse, then drop back in after a bar or two. Once the student can maintain the pulse without you playing for one or two bars, try experimenting with longer passages.
  1. To establish a sense of meter, set a metronome and write a passage of crotchet beats with accents underneath, to emphasis beat 1 of a bar. Once the student has mastered one meter, change the accents to include changing meters. Remember to include asymmetrical meters also (for example, 5/8 or 7/8).
  1. Every student is different and I often need to try more than one approach before finding one that works.
  1. Fluency is the key, right from start of the process of learning a new piece. Take sight-reading as slowly as necessary to enable the student to maintain a steady pulse throughout. Encouraging fluency from the start means that students are never given the opportunity to ‘practice’ not keeping a steady pulse.
  1. Most phones, computers & MP3 players have built in microphones. Use these to record exercises for your students to work on at home.
  1. Persistence! Like any skill, persistence and repetition is the key.
If you have any tips for developing a sense of pulse in performance, please feel free to contribute via the comments below.

 

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]

2 Comments

  1. Robert Blais

    I do two things. I have worksheets with rhythmic patterns which I have them clap in two ways: For rhythms that have the smallest note value of an eighth-note, I ask them to say 1 & 2 & 3 7 etc. while clapping the rhythm. For patterns that are based in sixteenth-notes, I have my students clap the beat while saying 1 &a 2e&a 3e a, etc, depending upon the rhythm. This is so they can confidently subdivide, but also so they look at sixteenth patterns as specific words. By going back and forth with increasing difficulty they become much more fluid at reading rhythms.

    The second thing I do is have them use a computer program called Earmaster. It requires them to tap out rhythms with the accompaniment of a metronome.

    Bob Blais
    Artistic Director
    Green Mountain Youth Symphony
    and
    Blazin’ Cellos and Basses

  2. Ed Pearlman

    Language is far more complex, rhythmically, than music, and yet we use it every day. If a student writes words with syllables and emphases that match the troublesome musical passage, they’ll get the pulse immediately and will not forget it.

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