Tips for Teaching Rhythmic Fundamentals to Music Students

By Carolyn Walter

I can scarcely think of anything more fundamental to musicianship than rhythm. With few exceptions, I find that a solid rhythmic foundation is truly the root of a good performance.  A piece played with otherwise flawless accuracy sounds sloppy or even falls completely apart without proper rhythmic control; never mind if the notes were pitch perfect, the dynamics were  masterful and the ornamentation was authentic. I feel this is true regardless of ensemble size, style or instrumentation.  A choir/orchestra with 100+ members needs to hold together with precision, as does a small ensemble with just a handful.  Even an unaccompanied soloist playing in a very free, rubato style must have a strong sense of pulse to deliver her musical message most effectively.

Like so many things in music, the basics of solid time and rhythmic notation and accurate interpretation can be explained in a few hours . . and perfected over the course of one’s entire life.   While the elementary process of counting correctly can be summarized in just a couple of pages in a basic theory or method book like the following:

Alfred's Essentials of Music Theory Standard of Excellence Edly's Music Theory for Practical People

I find that students of all levels often struggle with the finer points.  Even if they understand the system intellectually, it can take years to internalize.  The list below contains some exercises and ideas I have learned over time and utilized in my own playing, and used to help students who have consistent trouble reading rhythms and/or playing in time.

Feeling the pulse:

A lot of people might believe they have “no sense of rhythm,” but this is seldom true. Supposedly, only about 4% of the population is “beat-deaf,” a form of congenital amusia similar to tone-deafness. If a student has unusual trouble keeping time, it is far more likely that they need more time practicing the basics.  Demonstrate the concept of pulse to beginning students by having a student clap along with the beat when you play a very simple song in a basic meter.  If they have problems you can clap with them along to a recording, or tap their arm lightly to emphasize the kinesthetic element of the pulse.  Encourage your student to practice clapping or tapping along to match a metronome set at a medium tempo.

Rhythmic ear training:

Set the metronome to an easy, medium tempo.  Clap or play a simple rhythmic figure on one note for one or two measures, then repeat.  Have your student rest for a measure and then clap/play exactly what they hear.  This exercise can be turned into a basic call-and-response-style improvisation game.  If you keep your rhythmic figures extremely simple you can also ask your students to transcribe what they have heard – this should be a rhythm-only dictation exercise at first, and can start as soon as they have a grasp on the basics of reading quarter notes/half notes and rests in common time.  A few publishers offer rhythm flash cards with pre-written examples such as the following:

Alfred's Essentials of Music Theory Flash Cards

Alfred’s Essentials of Music Theory Flash Cards

Hal Leonard's Rhythm Flashcard Kit

Hal Leonard’s Rhythm Flashcard Kit

Interestingly, there are even a few multi-level, competing versions of “Rhythm Bingo” expounding on this concept, available for classroom  use:

Rhythm Bingo Level 1

Rhythm Bingo Level 1

Alfred's Essentials Double Bingo

Alfred’s Essentials Double Bingo

Breaking down trouble-spots in music:

When I encounter a difficult rhythmic passage in a new piece of music,  I ask my students to put their instruments down and attempt to tap, clap, or sing the rhythm – this way they can focus solely on dissecting the rhythm and not worry about things like tone production or technical limitations of their instrument.  This technique works well with large ensembles as well; for example, I usually ask wind ensemble sections to set their instruments aside and “sizzle” the rhythmic figure by whispering an “s” sound.  This has an advantage over clapping as the group can hold notes as written, and approximate articulation as it would happen on their instrument.  Plus, the overall effect is equally humorous as – while still a bit less cacophonous than – the sound of a dozen fifth grade trumpet players attempting to clap in unison or sing their parts acapella.

Counting with underlying subdivision:

Breaking down a rhythmic phrase to its smallest common-denominator is an excellent way to teach students how to keep their place within the measure. Additionally, it gives them the ability to figure out more complicated rhythms and syncopations on their own.  For example, a 4/4 passage containing quarter and eighth note values but no sixteenths can be clapped, tapped or spoken against the background pulse of eighth notes (“one-and-two-and-three-and-four-and,” etc.).  While you may want to start the process by counting out the subdivision while the student attempts to clap on the appropriate part of the beat, eventually the exercise will be most helpful when the student counts the subdivision aloud while clapping their part.  Alternatively, you can ask a student to conduct while speaking the appropriate rhythm aloud (e.g. two eigth notes followed by a dotted quarter followed by two more eighth notes in ¾ time becomes “one-and, two, three-and”).

Supplemental rhythm-reading assignments:

Of course, reading music requires practice for one to achieve fluency. As a musician gains experience, they will develop a vocabulary of common rhythmic phrases which become instantly recognizable, akin to common phrases and idioms in any spoken language.  In addition to standard repertoire and technical exercises, supplemental rhythm-only drills can be assigned to students of all levels – this will augment their reading abilities and sense of timing, and add variety to their practice routine.  Some method books contain special sections with counting/rhythm-reading exercises. Beyond that, a few useful standalone texts and collections of exercises I have found are as follows:

Basic Rhythmic Training

Basic Rhythmic Training

Winning Rhythms

Winning Rhythms

Basic Rhythmic Training is a good book for adult students who are just learning to read music. It starts at an extremely basic level, and contains more verbal explanation of the theory behind counting than usual.

Winning Rhythms is a book of progressive rhythmic etudes, starting out with simple quarter notes. Very little text is included, but as the exercises build on one-another they are fairly straightforward.  Etudes are attractively presented in clear, larger-than-usual print

Progressive Steps to Syncopation for the Modern Drummer

Progressive Steps to Syncopation for the Modern Drummer

While it is known as a classic text for budding percussionists, I’ve found that the exercises in this book work well for all musicians; everybody secretly thinks they are a drummer, anyhow. All of the many progressive exercises in the book can be played sans drum set with hand claps and foot stomps.

Rhythm Workbook Level 1

Rhythm Workbook Level 1

Schaum’s grade-specific Rhythm Workbooks are great for any students familiar with the keyboard.  They contain written, counting, and performance-oriented exercises. Visual presentation is very clear, which helps a student learn the important skill of dividing a measure up by beat.

I’ve found that when a student is struggling with rhythm, simply telling them to “count carefully next time” or spoon-feeding them rhythms by rote only goes so far, and does not foster much growth of independent musicianship.  What teaching techniques have worked for you when dealing with this common obstacle encountered by students?

Carolyn Walter holds a degree in clarinet performance from San Francisco State University, and is an active music educator and multi-genre performer around the Bay Area.

3 Responses to “Tips for Teaching Rhythmic Fundamentals to Music Students”

  1. 1 Luis Irizarry March 20, 2013 at 10:43 am

    Excelent books !!!!

  2. 2 Anonymous March 20, 2013 at 1:36 pm

    very well said!

  1. 1 Reachout Wireless Trackback on October 20, 2014 at 2:02 am

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