Music Teacher's Helper Blog

Teaching Sight-Reading: Part 3 – “The Rhythm of Life!”


In a previous musical life, I worked as an organist for ballroom and latin dancers! Okay, you can settle down now! Stop laughing already! I know it wasn’t very rock ‘n’ roll but it did have its benefits…

On the whole, the dancing communities I encountered were lovely and it was a pleasure to supply a quickstep or a rumba for them to elegantly glide around the dance floor.

But there was just one or two, you know the kind! The ones that spend too much time each week in the tanning salon and their over the top outfits would make a drag queen blush! In the early days, I could swear there were moments when I thought they were going to drag me from the stage and lynch me!

Why am I telling you this story? I learnt quickly that tempo and rhythm are very important elements in dance music and worth respecting if you wanted to avoid the wrath of a self-righteous dancer! Tempo is vital to the “survival” of the dance and capturing the correct rhythmic feel is integral to its character and groove. I learnt the hard way that “it don’t mean a thing if it aint got that swing!”

So what steps (pardon the pun) do you take to teach tempo and rhythm? Some ideas…

Master TEMPO by playing along with:

  • a metronome (doesn’t really work that well except for those with experience. Keep at it!)
  • you the teacher (always have another instrument that you lead with in each lesson
  • a recording using “Speedshifter” on PC/mac or tablet to start slowly and then gradually build to full speed
  • Sibelius files which have the option to open in their Scorch app and then be emailed to pupils so they can play along with the “performing” sheet music
  • an amateur band, orchestra or choir is a fast way to learn the shared responsibility of “keeping up!”
  • dancers!!!! Nope that’s probably a really dumb idea! Take my word for it, things can get ugly! Ha, ha!

Master RHYTHM by:

  • saying the rhythms instead of counting them really works at first. “Tea” works well for crotchets (quarter notes) and “cof-fee” for two quavers (eighth notes). Tea, cof-fee, tea, tea! With a string of swing quavers in a certain beginner’s song, I use “I like to eat my way through saug-sage and mash!”
  • each lesson spending time clapping out a notated rhythm over a steady beat from a metronome, foot tapping teacher or a drum loop
  • if you teach piano or another polyphonic instrument, try getting your pupils to “slap” out the two opposing rhythms, left hand on left thigh and right hand on right thigh
  • using various percussion instruments is a fun way to learn “signature” rhythms by imitation
  • watching dancers! On second thoughts, don’t give those crazy people the attention they crave! Ha, ha!

P.S. If there are any dancers reading, I love you really! Really I do!

How do you teach rhythm and tempo? Please add your comments on this subject or how to escape the anger of dancers!


See other posts by Reuben Vincent


About the Author

Reuben Vincent
Reuben Vincent is a freelance musician working as a composer, producer and private music teacher, based from his purpose built recording studio in Bagillt, Flintshire, North Wales, UK. His main instrument is the piano although he is also known for a "mean" solo on the Kazoo!!!


  1. Robin Steinweg

    You’re a born wit, Reuben! You have some brilliant ideas here. I’ll have to look into Speedshifter and the Scorch app (is that strictly a Sibelius thing? I am a wee bit techno-challenged, but determined to stretch.
    I often use syllables to teach rhythm. I tailor them to the student, or just find fun-sounding words. Swing? “Shuffle off to Buffalo”–or “to Kalamazoo” if there are 8th note triplets (Kalama, Kalama, Kalamazoo). 🙂 I use their names (Emily, Emily–Michael Dane)–or a friend’s name. Guitar students? “Strum, Hannah” in 2/4, or for 3/4, “Strum, Hannah Denker.” I look for phrases that they’d think hilarious whenever circumstances allow (Twix. is. barking, barking).
    For myself, it helped that my mother was a working drummer while she carried me. And since she also drummed in our family’s dance band, it helped my sons when I carried them.
    As for the dancers… they can be an unpredictable lot, and one might do well to steer clear or at least practice inside a cage for protection! lol

  2. Reuben Vincent

    Ha ha Robin. Very witty yourself. I like the idea of using the pupil’s name to help teach rhythm. I shall try that. Scorch app works best with Sibelius files. It will open pdf files but they won’t play; Sibelius files will which is a fantastic learning technology

  3. HitItAcademy

    Really enjoyed reading some of your posts – thank you!

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