Teaching Strange “Tuplet” Rhythms

Rhythm. It is one of my favorite parts of music because unlike technique, phrasing, style, and programming, there is a right and wrong answer, a black and white.

Rhythm is not a matter of opinion: it is either correct or incorrect. I like having a definite something in my music making. Don’t get me wrong- I like the freedom of expression as well- I just really enjoy the freedom that comes within a defined space as much as I like rubato.

Rhythm is an organized pattern of sound and silence in a piece of music.

The important thing is that it is organized and should be precise.

Before you mess with the placement of these sounds and silences by adding phrasing and rubato, you need to know where they actually go. If your understanding of rhythm is lacking and you add rubato on top of that, it’s like adding syrup to the side of your stack of pancakes instead of directly on them. You have the idea of the rubato without the fulfillment of it really being thought out.

Teaching strange “tuplets” is one of the biggest challenges of rhythm: fitting three where there use to be two or five where there are usually three of four. It can be intimidating. It is, however, just as important as posture. There are several ways to help accomplish this feat.

1.) Make sure you have a consistent method.

This means throughout all of your teaching of rhythm. Duplets should fit as easily in your compound meter counting as triplets and quintuplets fit into your simple meter counting. Even if you alternate between strict counting and words as rhythm, use the same syllables and words for each time. I am not a fan of the cheese-bur-ger/ ap-ple-pie plan, but sometimes the student needs it instead of one-and-a two- e-and, particularly a younger student.

Likewise, I prefer One-O-Let to pine-ap-ple all day long. If you choose to use words instead of counting, make sure the word actually sounds like the rhythm. No one actually says Choc-O-Late as triplets, so avoid that one as well as any others that do not fit easily into counting without adjusting the natural flow of the word.

2.) Use visuals to demonstrate space.

One of the biggest obstacles to overcome in teaching awkward rhythms is dividing the space into equal parts. For example, I frequently have students who turn three triplets into two sixteenths and eighth the first time they attempt the rhythm. Turning this imaginary space into something tangible can be very useful.

First, get some string and divide it with colored tape or markers into various subdivisions. Next, hold the string with one hand above your knee or the table while the other moves up and down with a metronome. Now, the student will be able to actually see the amount of time between the various subdivisions.

Start slowly so that they can process and say the new syllable as your hand moves over it. It also helps for the student to know how which note of the subdivision happens right before the half-way point of the beat.

Drawing it out in the music is a big helper. Have them put a large line through notes that fall directly on the beat and then draw where the half beat goes. This way, they can set their metronome to quarters or eighths and really tighten up that subdivision.

3.) Use a metronome.

We are imperfect and are incapable of maintaining a steady beat on our own. Enter the metronome. Using a metronome is a skill that must be practiced. It’s a very important skill when trying to divide the beat into various odd-tuplets.

Start slowly and gradually increase the tempo. Your student should be able to easily count up to septuplets before increasing the speed. Start by counting or articulating quarter notes, then go with eighth notes, followed by triplets, sixteenths, quintuplets, sextuplets and the ending with septuplets.

Have your student count each subdivision for a set number of measures before switching. Then, have them decrease the number of subdivisions until they arrive back at quarter notes. Always keeping the metronome going, have them count rhythm flashcards two measures at a time, but not necessarily in order this time. Just remember to give them time to process the upcoming rhythm change.

Remember, when we walk in the dark, we shine the flashlight a little ahead of where we’re walking instead of directly at our feet. We need to know where we’re going next. If you look directly where you are, it’s too late to adjust to a change.

4.) Use your feet.

We are walking around the room. Again, I would do this with a metronome. This time, we’re walking with a steady beat. It’s difficult to not walk along with the beat of the music when you are a trained musician, so we’re going to use this to our advantage.

With the metronome going and music in their hands, have them walk around the room singing a trying passage. Counting of all the subdivisions is helped with this exercise. This time, instead of taking the weird division of imaginary space and turning it visual, we now turn it into a physical movement of defined space.

This helps the student make adjustments in their counting so that all the notes fit.

Knowing where to place your notes allows for more freedom in your music making. Counting is a critical part of that. As I say in my classes quoting from two teachers whom I respect greatly, Seth Gamba and Susan Brown, “If you’re not counting, you’re guessing, and if you’re guessing, you’re wrong!”

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