Music Teacher's Helper Blog

Rhythm War Stories

Do you have any rhythm war stories–student rhythm problems that have seemed intractable, or bizarre, or puzzling, or just comical?

Here are a few of mine, following up on last week’s blog. I hope you’ll add some of your experiences by clicking “Add Comment” below; I’m sure others, like me, would like to hear more!

Carol could not count beats as she was playing. After some experimentation we found that if she moved enough physically while playing, she could feel the beats and play the timings of the piece quite well. It turned out that she was so visually oriented that if she thought of “beat one,” for example, she would actually visualize the letters “O-N-E” and become distracted.

In an October blog (Music is Time) I mentioned my 72-year-old student, Harry, who at one lesson reduced all the quarters and eighths of a piece to straight eighth notes in order to “save time.”

Ruth and Christine had very unusual rhythm problems. One performed with a group regularly but came to me with a “rhythm problem” that involved a simple rhythm in 4/4 time. The other was the leader of an amateur group but always managed to rush the beat while leading her players. Both had such puzzling and persistent rhythm issues that I was suddenly reminded of the book, Soprano On Her Head, and tried a radical approach. I got up the nerve to ask a seemingly weird question to each of them: “Did you cross-crawl when you were a baby?” Astonishingly, neither had. One had had an accident with a hot stove, and the other had some other reason I can’t recall, but both had bypassed the crawling stage and gone straight to learning to walk. I asked them to practice cross-crawling (right hand-left knee, left hand-right knee) and it actually helped! (The Soprano book discusses the theory behind this.)  Now that’s a real rhythm problem!

John played jazz guitar.  After some time of working with him on some swing jazz, I noticed that he sometimes skipped whole parts or repeated a part one time too many, without taking notice. The reason, it turned out, was that instead of listening for an AABA tune played twice through, he would work hard to count 2 A’s, 1 B, 3 A’s, 1 B, and 1 A–which might be correct if he pulled it off, but didn’t make very much musical sense.  The same problem seems to happen to people who try to memorize a sequence of notes instead of fitting them into the beats or the phrases they belong to.

Stuart often would tap his feet but to a different beat than the one he was playing!  Some people seem to do this when they treat tapping the toe as just another task to perform instead of as an expression of the beat they are playing.  Whatever the cause, it always seems to indicate some internal confusion about timing, some conflicting understanding about what’s important.

David was a pianist for a folk band I was coaching.  He used to place a metronome on his music stand, with the light flashing. He always knew that if the band argued about timing, it was never his fault because he could watch the metronome. After listening carefully, I noticed that although David kept the tempo on the main beats, his offbeats were always a little ahead of where they should be. To the other players, this implied that the beat was always going to arrive a little sooner than they expected, and they responded by rushing.

Phil was a pianist in a different dance band, and he often rushed the beat. After talking about it, I learned that he never felt he was quite good enough to keep up with everyone, so he erred on the fast side when possible.  I guess he thought that on the whole, he’d average out to the right tempo!  Little did he know that he was actually playing too fast most of the time.  It was reassuring to him to learn that he was not only able to play fast enough, but also able to play too fast.  He had to realize that rhythm is either on or off, and can’t be averaged out.

It may seem daunting to tell a student that rhythm is either right or wrong.  But the good news is that if we listen to ourselves and others, it’s not so hard for anyone and everyone to settle into the “groove.”  Pasting on endless worries about whether to go faster here or slower there can never substitute for just listening and responding physically with our instruments, supported by our bodies, our knees, toes, breath, or whatever works.

Tell us your stories!!  Just fill in the comment form below.  I look forward to hearing from you!

About the Author

Ed Pearlman
Ed Pearlman has focused on performing, teaching, and judging fiddle music for over 30 years, offering performances and workshops throughout the USA and in Canada and Scotland. His original training was with members of the Chicago and Boston Symphonies, and he played with orchestras and chamber groups at Yale and in Boston. He currently teaches privately in Maine and at workshops around the countr... [Read more]

1 Comment

  1. run dogg

    thanks for the tipps – I’m teaching my daugther piano – very helpful.

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