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Five Tips for Teaching Rhythm

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.

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]

6 Comments

  1. Julian

    My sister in law uses words to teach rhythm but animals rather than fruit. She uses Frog, Monkey and Alligator, with Wallaby for triplets. This is a lot of fun, even for grown-ups!

  2. Unmesh Datta

    I am a music student of Trinity College of Music and found your advises very interesting and effective. Specially your advice on the rhythm and use of recodrings. practice makes us perfect 9if not 100%, at least can lead to the near perfection!!!), and listening to own recordings is one of the best way to rectify the errors. This can be compared to a positive critisicm from any wellwishers. i will look forward to your further tips and advises.

  3. Lachlan

    This is fantastic Nicole, thank you! I am a drummer here in Brisbane and I’ve been finding it difficult to explain rhythm to some really young students. I’ll definitely remember the tips on speech pattern.

  4. Ian

    This is a great post. I find that teaching students who don’t get the basics, like basic pitch and rhythm, are truly the firmest tests of our skill as teachers.

    I think I’m a great teacher when I’m teaching talented people who are interested in learning and pick things up quickly. They are easy to teach! How quickly that changes when I have a student who doesn’t get these things. It takes every last bit of will to keep myself from coming unraveled! And sometimes I lose it and let my frustration become totally obvious! That’s when I have to thank the student for giving me a reminder of how much I have to learn.

    Rhythm or pitch are particularly difficult for me because I never had issues with either, so it’s difficult to relate to somebody who can’t sing “Happy Birthday” without changing keys 3 times, and who drops beats or completely loses the pulse at the slightest hint of syncopation. It was natural for me, and for most of us so more difficult to relate.

    These are great tips. I find it becomes more and more about finding the most effective way to get them to focus and believe that they can do what you are asking them to do, regardless of whatever it is that is challenging them. And about being most astute at picking material that is challenging, but not too challenging for whatever the student’s mindset can tolerate. Some people give up on themselves at the slightest challenge, regardless of whether it is within their realm of capability, and they are the most difficult ones to keep motivated.

    Thanks for the great site.

  5. Bob Browning

    Bravo, Nicole. I couldn’t agree with you more! Using phonetics to teach rhythm patterns should be the most natural way to learn them. We learn speech that way, why not rhythm patterns. I found myself adding a 2(b). to focus on sound. Focus on feel might go well with focus on sound. I’m reminded how my grandson reacts to rhythm patterns with movement patterns of his own. I probably don’t take advantage of this in teaching my students nearly as much as I should. Your article called this to my attention. Thank you!

  6. Lasse

    Have you used any programs and/or games to help to teach rhythm and pulse? I have been playing a game called “Rhythm Sheep”. It is fun and I think it could be used to train rhythmic skills. I’m not a music teacher (rather learning myself), but I think that kind of game could help. What do you think?

    Here is the game: https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=turskagames.rhythmsheep.free