Teaching precise rhythm is a necessary evil in teaching music. We do not really want to teach rhythm! We want them just to be able to do it!
Let’s instead get to the fun stuff: dynamics and music making!!!
Okay, but hold on.
They must understand where to place all of these glorious musical thoughts. It is one of the most important fundamentals of learning music.
Unlike so much of music that can be left up to interpretation (dynamics, articulation, and tempo), the rhythm of the music cannot.
It is either right or wrong.
Part of our avoidance with teaching rhythm is that we were also not taught thoroughly.
I was lucky enough to take a class called Developing Rhythmic Sensitivity and taught by a former principal Atlanta Symphony percussionist and was devoted wholly to learning rhythm precisely.
That class was life-changing, especially for a string player whose rhythm was questionable at best.
Coupled with what I learned in that class, here are my top seven ways to ensure correct rhythm in students.
1. Have a method.
Spend time thinking about your method. Does it make sense in a majority of the rhythms your students will encounter?
You should know what your students should say, write and think for each type of rhythm they may see later down the line.
“Pep-per-on-i Piz-za”, and “Ap-ple Pie” are cute and memorable ut should be paired with the grown-up versions of “1 E & A 2 – & -“ and “1 & 2 -“ right away, so they are used to hearing it.
2. Subdivide from the beginning.
Most of us learn to start with quarter notes. We are taught, “one-two-ready-play.”
Instead, count, “1 & 2 & 3 & 4 &.” It becomes what they hear when they start to play.
3. Emphasize Understanding of Relationships.
As you begin adding different types of notes to a student’s repertoire and understanding, make sure you explain how the notes relate to one another.
You can do this very simply.
A quarter note can be divided into two eighth notes, a half note has two quarter notes which means that it also has four eighth notes.
This becomes important as you tackle the dreaded dotted notes.
I simplify it for my kids by taking a non-musical symbol and adding a dot to it.
For example, if a STAR is equal to 100 beats, then a DOTTED STAR is equal to 150 beats (a STAR and a half).
When a dotted half note appears for the very first time, teach the entire concept from dotted half to dotted eighth to dotted star.
Avoid merely telling the students that the dot adds one beat to a half note.
4. Turn long notes into their subdivision.
For example, if they have a dotted half note F followed by a quarter note G, they would play six eighth note Fs followed by two eighth note Gs.
This coupled with using a metronome creates some pretty intense precision.
As a bonus effect, they automatically subdivide in their head after having to repeat this exercise many times.
5. Slow down.
I mean painfully slow.
It is far more difficult to play very slowly with precision than to play quickly. There is so much more space between the notes to want to rush.
However, if they cannot play it slowly, they do not really understand it, and they are certainly not subdividing.
Again, this exercise should be done with a metronome.
6. Unorthodox metronome placement.
Typically, we place the metronome beat on the strong beat or the eighth note subdivision.
Try shifting it.
Leave the metronome on quarter notes, but put it on the “&” or even the fourth sixteenth note or second triplet of the beat.
Talk about really making your students think subdivision!
7. Internalize the rhythm. I love this game.
The idea is to have your student subdivide as precisely as possible in their head.
Start with a metronome that you can mute but still see the beat.
Count off for your student and then have them clap on a certain number of beats later.
Start with an easy number such as two or four, then gradually increase it.
They have to start back at the lower numbers if they are even a little early or late.
In our musical performances, we will pull and push the tempo and stretch out the rhythm for effect, but precise rhythm should be at the foundation.
We have the liberty to make these adjustments only after knowing exactly what we are modifying!
Speaking of teaching precise rhythm, here’s a sheet music gift for you to help you along in your teaching journey: