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Rhythm

Rhythm is THE most important skill for any musician. Don’t believe me? Imagine these two performances:

  • Wrong rhythm with all the correct notes, dynamics and articulations
  • Wrong notes and no dynamics with the correct rhythm

The second one will actually sound more like the song in question. 

It’s imperative that you teach your students to have a strong sense of pulse and rhythmic vocabulary. This lesson will explore some basic tools to help you do that.

Rhythm Systems

Metric Counting

It’s likely the rhythm system you know most thoroughly, and perhaps the only one you know, is metric counting. This is where we count across each bar/measure and place notes within the context of beats, for example, counting 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + in 4/4.

Even within this fairly standardised system there are variations. Some musicians will say every “and” and others will leave them out when there are no notes to place on them. 

Go with whichever one of these you personally find easier to start with but bear the other option in mind for when students are struggling. It might provide a helpful slant to their perspective at times.

Syllable Systems & Unit Counting

Aside from metric counting there are actually many other rhythmic systems. Here are some of the most commonly used:

  • Kodály syllables: ta, titi (there are many variations on these)
  • Unit counting: saying “1” for crotchet/quarter note and “1 2” for minim/half note, regardless of where they sit within a bar/measure
  • Takadimi: has some similar sounds to Kodály but is actually beat-based rather than note-based and so is more similar to metric counting
  • Gordon: another beat-based system using “du” as the main beat syllable

I recommend you use some type of syllabic system with beginners at first, especially if you’re going to teach young beginners. You can then introduce metric counting when the student is ready for it. 

Whether you choose a modified version of Kodály like me or some other system that you’re more familiar with is entirely up to you. Metric counting alone, however, is awkward and difficult for our youngest students and not always the best option for many older students either. They will be better equipped to understand and feel rhythms if they two different rhythm systems side-by-side in this way.

Rhythm Teaching Tools

Movement

Students of all ages need to move to rhythms to really feel them. 

If you’re a shy or reserved person this may be a little (or a lottle!) uncomfortable for you at first. But if you want to be a great teacher, do it anyway. 

We need to go beyond clapping drills and explore a large variety of movements, both gross motor (big) and fine motor (small).

  • Clap
  • Tap
  • Patsch (tap on lap)
  • Finger tap
  • Stamp
  • March
  • Sway
  • Dance
  • Jump

That list is just a start, but it may already be well outside the confines of what you might expect piano lessons to look like. Try one new way to move your bodies to rhythms each week and you can get more adventurous as you gain confidence.

Games 

Games are important to every aspect of teaching to me but I think they deserve a special mention here. 

The first area of gamifying theory which occurs to most teachers is note names, but I believe rhythm should get the top game billing. It takes a lot of practice to embed the vocabulary of rhythm patterns students need, and games are perfect for this. 

Metronome

The metronome is a controversial object in many teaching circles. Some teachers have it on almost constantly in their lessons. Others swear off it completely.

I believe the best way to find your balance between these 2 sides is to understand that the metronome is a practice tool – not a rhythm tool.

I’ve put it in the Rhythm module because that’s where many teachers and students believe it resides. But the metronome is far more useful to control the tempo for practice repetitions. It does almost nothing to “fix” a student’s poor rhythm skills. 

Many students will not be able to play along with the metronome instinctively. Those with an underdeveloped sense of rhythm will find it nearly impossible. 

So focus on developing real rhythm fluency in your students using patterns, vocalisations and games and leave the metronome in the practice arena.

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