Monday Mailbag – Teaching Eighth Notes

How do you teach eighth note rhythm patterns to students?  Any tricks?

I’ve used all sorts of approaches for this over the years. In fact, I distinctly remember a phase I went through where I would use different food names for rhythm patterns. One of my students was struggling with rhythm, so we spent a good deal of the lesson learning and saying things like “ap-ple pie pie ap-ple” and so on. Her mom – an accomplished pianist – was observing that week. As we concluded the lesson, I congratulated myself on this clever approach that I had picked up from some workshop. When the student returned the following week she had the rhythmic counts written in throughout her who song and explained matter-of-factly that her mother said the other approach was silly and she should count it. So much for that cleverness!

I quickly reached that same conclusion for myself and have reverted to being a firm believer in just learning to count with numbers right off the bat. Usually to first introduce eighth notes, we set the metronome and tap along with the beat. Then I have the student imitate me in tapping two times per beat. Lastly, we attempt to tap the beat in one hand and two times per beat in the other. I make a point to explain that eighth notes do NOT mean that you play faster. The tempo is what dictates the speed, not the notes themselves. When you see eighth notes, you just easily play two notes in the space where you would normally play one quarter note. The goal is to avoid two things:

  1. The short-long rhythm that many students play, rather than an even distribution of the beat between the two notes.
  2. Tension in the student when they see eighth notes and think that they have to play faster.

Ultimately, they have to both understand the division of the beat intellectually and be able to feel the beat intrinsically. Much easier said than done, right?! But this is why we start with tapping and often incorporate other body movements as well. The more they can feel the beat, the better!

There is another method I heard about a while back from my friend and colleague, Amy, called Takadimi that sounds and looks interesting, but I haven’t investigated it in enough detail to know if it’s something I would switch over to or not. Do any of you use Takadimi or some other approach to counting? Any tricks you’ve learned to help students learn eighth note rhythms effectively?

Remember, if you have a question you’d like to contribute to next week’s Monday Mailbag, leave it in the comments below or send me an e-mail sometime this week with Monday Mailbag in the subject line!

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One thought on “Monday Mailbag – Teaching Eighth Notes

  1. Hi Natalie!

    Thank you so much for being YOU & for your blog. I am also a piano teacher & I’ve been having difficulty teaching eighth notes and steady beats to one of my students, so I Googled it & the first site I saw was your’s. So far, I have only read your post on eighth notes & your Bio & I am already in awe. Thank you for being so open & honest!

    Most important, thank you also for being so open about your faith in God and how working hard to be the best teacher you can brings glory to God and is in loving service to the families and students you teach. I am humbled, motivated & inspired. I have been struggling for the past few months with putting up a website/blog, but all I have are titles & blank pages. You have helped & have given me some courage to get going with this.

    God bless you & thanks so much for sharing your gifts and your experiences. It’s already helped me & I am sure your blog has helped countless others. I’m very excited to read your other posts.

    Kind regards,
    Christine Medel

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