Building Rhythm Skills in the Beginning Musician

Rhythm is right at the heart of music. It’s music’s most primal element, the part that makes us want to tap our foot, or get up and dance. For listeners, rhythm is a big part of what makes music enjoyable to hear. For a musician, a good sense of rhythm is essential.

Sadly, when I hear students play, too often I feel a disconnection between notes and rhythm. Notes and rhythm need to work together to create a sense of movement, a pulse, a drive. Beginning piano students often play without rhythm. They type out notes like you type on a keyboard. When you type, the timing is not important, only the sequence. When you play music, the timing is critical. We need to help students make the connection between notes and rhythm.

What Is the Key to a Good Sense of Rhythm?

Let’s start with something universal, at what I call the Primal Level of rhythm. You’ve got to feel the beat. This is something that should come naturally. Our own hearts give us a constant beat. When you walk, you walk with a steady beat. Finding a connection to this natural sense of beat is essential as a foundation for good rhythm.

Before we go on, I should clarify beat and rhythm. Beat is the recurring, steady pulse in music. Rhythms are patterns of shorter and longer notes that occur over a beat. Even when you can’t hear the beat, you should feel it there beneath the rhythm.

Finding the Inner Beat

If I am teaching a student who has lost connection to the beat, then I will often trade places with them and say “let me play the song and you can drum the beat.” I keep a drum in my piano studio, but if you haven’t got a drum handy then go ahead and grab a pot and wooden spoon (clapping or tapping works, too, it’s just not as fun!). As I play and they drum, they experience the music in a new way–they hear it expressed rhythmically in relationship to a steady beat which they can feel because they are moving their own body to create the beat. If you’re using my video lessons, have your student clap or drum the beat along with me as I play the song.

Once the student can successfully keep the beat while I play, we trade back. They play and I drum the beat. I stand where they can see and hear me. Seeing the motion of my hand on the drum helps them anticipate the beat. Like magic, this simple activity will usually transform a rhythmically challenged performance into one with accurate rhythms played over a steady beat.

More Rhythm Developing Activities

Here are some more activities that can help kids develop a sense of rhythm:

Clap Along: Play recorded music and have your child clap or march to the beat. Then have them try clapping along with different rhythms. Can you hear different rhythms played by different instruments? Try clapping along with those rhythms, or with a rhythm you make up on your own.

Echoes: You can play this game even with a very young child. Clap, tap or speak a simple rhythm, then your child echoes that rhythm. Give your child a chance to come up with a rhythm and see if you can echo it!

Freeze Dance: Play recorded music. Encourage your child to dance to the beat, but let them know they have to freeze when the music pauses. Pause the music at random times.

It’s All in the Beat

All of these activities develop rhythm at the Primal Level, the very foundation. A good sense of rhythm doesn’t require counting or reading notes. While counting and reading are important as you advance in music studies, your sense of rhythm always goes back to the primal power of beat.

In future posts, I’ll be talking about how to help kids develop visual (reading) and mathematical (counting) rhythm skills. Until then!

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