Instilling Good Rhythmic Habits

Good counting is as important as good notereading. Instill good habits in your students from the first lesson

Here are some ideas you might find helpful in teaching good rhythm skills.

Praise Counting, Too

Praise counting as a separate skill from note-reading. This heightens the student's awareness of rhythm and makes it something to master and thus win your commendation.

Everyone Has Rhythm

There is no such thing as an arhythmic student. Some are more adept than others, surely, but no student is completely devoid of rhythmic capacity. Sometimes the student becomes frustrated--especially an adult, especially battling difficult rhythms--but you mustn't let him become discouraged. Assure him he *will* catch on; you just don't know exactly when. Even though you might be frustrated, too, you must never betray this to the student, as this exacerbates the problem.

Large-Muscle Activities Are Helpful

Teachers often use marching to music only for their youngest pupils, but large-muscle activities are valuable to students of all ages. Using these big muscle groups helps internalize the rhythm, particularly when you're trying to get the student to feel a basic pulse which underlies a "note-y" passage. Try walking, placing the footfalls on the main pulse while singing the other voice (or chanting or whatever your vocal skills allow!). For example when dealing with 3 over 2, put the main pulse in the feet and overlay the other rhythm in song.

Start the Way You're Going to Continue

At the beginner or transfer student's first lesson, bring the student's attention to counting. Matter-of-factly announce, "While you play, I'm going to tap my pencil and count out loud." With a beginner, I also recommend pointing to each count of the measure. This three-pronged approach applied consistently produces students with an excellent rhythmic foundation: count, point, and tap for each piece at each lesson.

The student will realize that you intend to do this at every lesson and will expect it rather than be flustered by some unforeseen addition. At some point down the road, he will start to *prepare* for it by counting aloud at home!

I prefer to teach "unit counting" to beginners rather than "meter counting," as beginners seem to grasp counting concepts more quickly this way. It also reinforces the idea that every time the count is "one" a new note must begin.

Be generous in writing in the counting in your student's music. Write it in the same place every time. I like the area between the treble and bass staves. A color also helps the counting stand out from the other printing and numbers on the page. I use a blue pencil and write large numbers so there is no confusion that these might be fingering aids. When my students see blue, they know the information is about counting.

When introducing eighth-notes (see below), require the student to write in the counting for each piece. All of it. They may moan and groan, but tell them they must do this for a month, plus count out loud at home and use the metronome. After that, the choice is all theirs. (By this time, of course, they won't have any trouble counting eighths, and you can sleep well at night no matter whether they decide to carry on these three tasks or not!)

Introduce the Metronome Early On

Don't wait to introduce this tool! Little ones in their earliest lessons can begin to use the metronome, matching claps or steps to its tick.

After your student is reasonably proficient in its use, be sure to assign materials each week calling for the metronome. You want to keep his skills sharp. Besides, hearing that tick prepares him for hearing you tap your pencil!


This is a separate file.

Teach Rhythm Thoroughly

When you do introduce eighth-notes, take it very slowly. Cut back the complexity of other elements in the pieces so the student can concentrate on learning to count eighths. Be very alert for any signals that the student doesn't understand. (One of my favorite techniques is to ask the student, "On a scale of 1 to 10, where 10 is water and 1 is mud, how clear is that?" Anything below an 8.5 needs more attention before the student leaves the studio.)

Don't leave counting to chance. Don't force your student to resort to some make-shift personal system of interpreting notes and rests. Teach it thoroughly and systematically and check often that it is completely understood.

Don't Hurry Eighth-Notes

I know many method books introduce eighth-notes in Book I. Please! I beg you! Skip over these songs for now!!!

All students, even adults, profit from a beginning study that does not require eighth-notes. Withhold eighth-notes from all children below grade 4 and from those not reading all notes falling two octaves on each side of middle C. Teens and adults should not have eighths during their first 9-12 months of study.

Similarly, after eighth-notes have been taught, withhold sixteenths for a while. There is plenty of music that uses nothing smaller than eighth-notes. Even if a song with sixteenths "comes next" in the book, skip over it and come back. Opt for a rock-solid understanding of one concept before presenting another. Even though it seems that you are not advancing as quickly through different material as you think perhaps you should, your care and time will amply repay you both.

copyright 1996, Martha Beth Lewis, Ph.D.
Contact me for reprint permission.

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