Building Awareness of Rhythm in Piano Students

Joy Morin, of the Color in My Piano blog, has a fabulous article on Building Awareness of Rhythm in Piano Students in the latest issue of Soundpoint. She suggests that there are three essential components of rhythm (pules, meter, and rhythmic values), then goes on to discuss each one in more detail, along with specific activities that piano teachers can use to help their students develop better rhythm skills. I’ve been thinking a lot about this issue lately and found Joy’s article quite insightful!

Monday Mailbag – How to Develop an Internal Sense of Pulse

I want my students to feel an internal beat; it seems that any kind of external beat (counting, tapping, metronome, etc.) can be  ”warped” or ignored while concentrating on note location, etc.  But, I’m having trouble with some students who never seem to get it (it doesn’t matter what song it is). When approaching a new song,  what do you teach first – note locations or rhythm? And do you have any ideas to move a student from external to internal beat?

This question is very apropos right now because I have a young student struggling with the exact same thing, so I’ve been trying to come up with some ideas to address this issue. In my experience, students who are strong visual learners tend to struggle more in this area because they are very focused on reading the notes on the page and tend to not be as aware of the sound they are making. And I should know because I was one of those students! Thanks to the patience and creativity of my dedicated teacher, though, I think I have developed a pretty good sense of pulse and rhythmic flow. So, some of these ideas that I share will be ones that she used with me. I thought I would use this as an opportunity to do a brainstorm post and just bullet point every idea that comes to mind that could be used to help a student develop a better internal sense of pulse:

  • Incorporate elements of Eurhythmics into the lesson. The basic idea is to use large motor movements to express the pulse and the rhythms, whether walking, dancing, swaying, marching in place, etc. (Don’t be afraid to make the student get off the bench and feel a little ridiculous if necessary. Even if they hate it now, it will be worth it!)
  • Grab a baton and teach the student basic conducting patterns.  I have a whole collection of kids batons and use them often with students to learn conducting patterns. They love it!
  • Listen to recordings of upbeat music and tap, clap, or play a rhythm instrument along with it. The Let’s Have a Musical Rhythm Band book and CD set is great for this!
  • Give the student a djembe and have them beat a steady pulse while you play or improvise a piece of music. I have this Toca Djembe and use it all the time in my studio – it’s a favorite for both the students and me! I especially like to have them emphasize the downbeat by hitting the drum harder or in a different spot to make it distinct.
  • Improvise duets together. Anyone whose been around here long knows I can hardly go a whole week without a reference to improvising! I use the Pattern Play series every day in my teaching, and it’s a great way to free students up from having to read musical notation to just listen and express themselves musically. Very helpful for cultivating more of an awareness of musical pulse and flow.
  • Record (audio or video) the student playing their piece, then listen to the playback and tap along with the beat. Have them keep a tally of how many times they hesitated or got off beat.
  • Find a book of duets at their level and have them learn one part to play with either you or another student. Ensemble playing does wonders for learning to keep the beat going!
  • When learning a piece (to address the other part of your question), have the student improvise whatever notes they want to, but play the rhythm as written. Sometimes to make the point that I really don’t care what notes they play, I’ll have them move onto the black keys and just play everything on random keys, but still keeping the rhythm accurate. The goal is to capture the character and flow of the piece, then later we will work on learning the written notes.

So, there are some of my ideas. I would LOVE to add to this list, though, so if you have other suggestions of how to help a student develop an internal sense of pulse, please let me know!

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!

Bring the Sounds of Africa to Your Music Lessons: Guest Post by Alan Grainger

As a music teacher, you’re always looking for ways to brighten up the music room and bring something new to your lessons.

We think we’ve found the perfect instrument.

African drums much like the djembe are the perfect way to spice up your music lessons, and really engage with your students. Not only are they highly unusual and alternative, but they can teach pupils more than just the basic notes.

Here, we take a look at just how you can bring the sounds of Africa to your music lessons:

The benefits of African drums

African instruments can bring a whole host of benefits to education.

Djembe drums are unique instruments that are sure to brighten up your lessons. The goblet-shaped drum – constructed from Mahogany with a goatskin head – is available in a variety of shapes for players of all ages.

The handheld drum is played in a seated position, so is perfect for all children. You don’t need any additional sticks as the drum is played by hand. This all adds to the ease of playing, and increases their appeal to distraction-prone children.

As well as learning a brand new instrument, you can help educate kids in areas other than music.

The djembe is steeped in cultural history; it has been played in religious ceremonies for years. As you teach the instrument, you can also spark pupils’ interest in history, geography, and culture by discussing the origin of the drum, the culturally representative carvings on the body, and the times it would be played.

How to teach them

Before you can teach this drum, you need to be able to play it yourself.

The djembe has five basic notes:

  • Bass
  • Tone
  • Slap
  • Ping
  • Muffled tone

Each of these notes is played by striking the head of the drum in a different way, but each is easy to grasp. To see exactly how to play these notes, check out this great YouTube tutorial.

To teach your students the djembe, start by teaching them these basic tones. As they grasp the notes, encourage them to play more notes in quicker succession. You should then continue to encourage pupils to start playing their own rhythms as well as teaching well known ones.

The beauty of the djembe is that it is playing in a drumming circle. The leader starts off playing one beat, with everyone else joining in and playing their own tunes. If you have a number of students, this is a great way to teach the drum the way it should be played.

Top ways to include the djembe in your lessons

With such an exciting instrument to play with, there are a whole host of ways you can include djembe’s in your music lessons.

As previously mentioned, getting a group of students together to play in a drum circle is a great idea for getting a real feel of the drum. Using djembes, as well as additional hand-held percussion instruments, get pupils to sit in a circle.

Nominate one person to start by tapping out their own rhythm on the djembe. Then, when students feel ready, they can join in. The idea is not to play the same rhythm. Pupils play a complimentary polyrhythm that really enhances the drum circle.

You can also include African drums as part of a generic drum or percussion lesson.

If you’re teaching about different kinds of percussion or drums, including the djembe drum is a great way to spice things up. Include them by teaching children about the different kinds of drums and percussion instrument available. Bring in this new and exciting drum, and encourage students to try out as many as possible.

Bringing the sounds of Africa to your music lessons is one of the best ways to really engage with students. Not only do they learn to love music, they can get a real insight into exactly what makes the djembe so magical.

Djembe Drum Shop is an online retailer that sells a great range of musical instruments for children, including djembe drums, percussion instruments, and school percussion packs. Visit their website to find out more.

4 Tips for Instilling Rhythmic Precision

The longer I teach, the more I recognize the essential importance of teaching and working toward rhythmic understanding and precision in my teaching. Some students, of course, have an intrinsic sense of pulse; others, well, not so much. The Musicians Way has an excellent article about how to instill a better sense of rhythmic precision in your playing. I love this quote from Gerald Klickstein,

“Rhythmic exactness involves, among other things, how we place, articulate, color, and emphasize pitches and phrases.”

He then goes on to elaborate on four tips for establishing rhythmic precision without sacrificing musical expression:

  1. Vocalize and Move
  2. Toy With Your Timing
  3. Vary Your Emphasis
  4. Bull’s Eye the Downbeat

Read the whole article for some great, practical suggestions!

Rhythm Ensemble Activity – Free Download

One of the other activities at our Travel Tour last Thursday night was a Rhythm Ensemble. This was our first activity of the evening, so as students arrived I let them look through the stack of seven parts and select the one that they felt most confident being able to accurately play. Each of the parts progresses in difficulty, and the rhythmic elements of each part correlate with the requirements of our state Music Progressions curriculum.

Once all the students had arrived, I distributed a selection of rhythm instruments and we all had fun playing the various parts together. Those who didn’t get an instrument snapped the pulse with me while the others played. We traded around instruments so that everyone got a chance to be a part of the rhythm ensemble. It was a simple, fun, musical way to start the class! Feel free to download and print the Rhythm Ensemble parts for use in your studio!

Monday Mailbag – How to Cure Students of the Incessant Compulsion to Repeat Measures Until All the Mistakes Are Fixed

What do you do with a student who replays measures again and again? I can see that he is thinking through each measure and wants to correct a rhythm or note mistake, but it’s as if he’s in his own world making it right. Help!

I assume you’re looking for an answer something other than “scream and pull my hair out”?! :-)

This type of an approach is detrimental on so many counts. I can’t think of any reason why one should play a piece this way. In fact, here are the various approaches I can come up with for playing a piece of music:

  • First read-through. You are primarily sight-reading. The most important thing is to grasp the overall tenor and flow of the piece. Try to maintain a steady pulse and capture the mood.
  • Practice. Identify the most challenging spots, determine what elements contribute to the difficulty, and use specific strategies to make those areas musically and technically strong.
  • Performance. You have to make it sound like you know what you’re doing and convince the listener that you are doing it well. Whatever you do, don’t stop. Keep going and play convincingly.
  • Improvisation. Anything goes. Just play and have fun. Incorporate any mistakes into your piece and pretend like you meant to do that. :-)

Perhaps try establishing a list like this for your student and have him decide how he wants to approach playing the piece. It sounds like he’s almost always in practice mode, but he’s doing it ineffectively because it’s not improving. Consider using resources like Philip Johnston’s books or The Piano Student’s Guide to Effective Practicing by Nancy O’Neill Breth to to help him acquire better practice tools.

It’s also probable that he doesn’t realize how bad it sounds when he plays with so much stopping, correcting, and repeating. Try either imitating him and having him listen to you, or audio/video record him and let him listen to it for himself. Using the Personal Performance Evaluation Free Worksheet might be a good way to facilitate this.

Any other suggestions? How do you work with students who are insistent on stopping and fixing mistakes while they are playing?

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!

Monday Mailbag – Keeping a Steady Pulse

I am a piano teacher to eight students, and also a student myself. Keeping a steady pulse is one thing that I struggle with when I play, so I don’t often put enough emphasis on it when I teach. Could you share some ways that you work on it with your students so I could get some ideas?

This is a challenging issue! Some students naturally have a great sense of pulse, and some…not so much. Assuming that the issue really is a lack of pulse awareness and not a symptom of another problem (poor fingering, note-reading difficulties, etc.), there are a variety of things that you can do to help your students (and yourself!) improve in this area.

1. Learn conducting patterns and try conducting along with music as you listen to it.

2. Learn about Eurhythmics and incorporate elements of it in your teaching. Things like dancing a waltz or minuet, marching to a beat, swaying in rhythm, etc. are effective approaches for internalizing the pulse.

3. Play lots of duets and ensembles! A lot of method books also have accompaniment recordings available so that you can play pieces along with them. I have had a student using the Scales, Patterns, and Improvs book this year and we have seen huge progress in her sense of pulse!

4. Here are a few other specific activities I’ve used that have been helpful:

Honestly, this is something I should emphasize much more in my teaching, I think. Thanks for the inspiration! I’d love to hear any other ideas to help students out in this area.

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!

A Student Success with Scales Patterns and Improv Book!

How do you know if a particular book or approach is helping a student? Well, when the student tells you that they think the book has really helped them, that’s a pretty good indication. :-) If only all students would just come right out and say so!

One of my older beginners has been using Scales, Patterns and Improvs Book 1 by Barbara Kreader this year and commented several weeks ago that she could see that it had really helped her in a number of different areas. It’s not her favorite thing in the world, but seeing the benefits for herself has motivated her to keep working through it. I used the book with a piano camp group one summer, but this was my first time to use it for an individual lesson. Here are some of the specific areas she mentioned:

  • Listening – since she tends naturally to be more visual than aural, playing along with the CD helped her hear the different parts and how they fit together.
  • Theory – each unit focuses on one key and has an improv exercise, a scale, chord progression, arpeggio, and a short piece in that key. She said this helped her understand the different keys much better.
  • Rhythm – this is an area that has been more challenging since Day One, so using this book helped her come a long way in being able to keep the beat going and in working toward accurate rhythms.

This was so helpful for me to know! I can use her input when I start using this book with other students – which of course I’m going to now! :-) And perhaps this will be one way that I can start addressing my technique troubles that I mentioned yesterday. We’ll see!