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!

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