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!

Checking Your Pulse

One of the areas that I am constantly aware of need for improvement in my studio is playing with a sense of pulse. We’ve spent an entire month highlighting just this aspect of playing, but I realize that it needs to be a part of every lesson. Instrumental students definitely have an advantage in learning this since there is no forgiveness when playing with an orchestra or band. Even playing duets with students, it’s so easy to give a little extra time to help compensate for unevenness in pulse.

I recently came across this helpful post by Alex Thio called, “Pulse or Bust – The Importance of Pulse in the Collaborative Arts.” I especially appreciated this comment that he made: “It is one thing to FEEL a pulse within oneself: it is another to depend on the mechanical, stalwart beat of the metronome.” There’s also a free pdf file referenced at the bottom that has some helpful information and ideas. For example, did you know that “The word metronome is taken from two Greek words: “metron” meaning ‘a measure’ and “nomos” meaning ‘a law'”?

Students must learn to feel the pulse from the inside out. Whether it’s through using the metronome more, clapping and tapping, doing eurhythmic activities, learning to conduct, playing with CDs, or any number of approaches, I am convinced that this is something that really needs to be more of a priority in my teaching. Now if I can just figure out how to make that happen… 🙂

Monday Mailbag – Teaching 3/4 Time

How do you teach beginners ¾ time without having them pause and feel the nonexistent beat four? No matter how often I waltz around the room or count out loud emphasizing the first beat or even play the song for them, they still hold beat three twice as long as it should be. I’m starting to think it would be better to start beginners off with triple time and then switch to common time after that. Do you have a successful approach? Or do you think they’ll “get it” after a while?

Ah, yes, that sneaky beat four that just doesn’t like to be left out! This is definitely a challenge for youngsters, but it can be done. Rhythm is such a critical component of playing an instrument – arguably even more important than note reading – so it’s something worth working on over and over again until they get it. And the younger the better! Here are a few approaches that I use. Obviously, some students get it quickly with little need for reinforcement, whereas others missed out when the rhythm gene was being distributed, so it takes every approach imaginable (and then some!) before they really start to internalize different pulse patterns. 🙂

  • Instead of you doing the waltzing and counting for them, have them do it with you. I almost always introduce 3/4 time by having the student learn the waltz. We emphasize the big step on beat one and then the two smaller steps following it. Movement is key, because you ultimately want the student to internalize the pulse.
  • Be completely up front with the student if they are playing incorrectly. In my early years of teaching I was so afraid of hurting a student’s feelings that I often glossed over issues like this. I have since learned that the best thing I can do for my students is communicate openly with them and do what it takes to help them become skilled musicians. Acknowledge that this is a challenging time signature  and that most students have a difficult time getting it at first, but if they learn it well now, they’ll have it down for life!
  • Break it down. You want students to be successful every step of the way, so perhaps having them just play the first two measures in perfect rhythm would be a great first step. The penny game is perfect for this approach! Once they play the first two measures correctly a specified number of times in a row, add the third measure and do it again. This should help them grasp the concept of moving seamlessly from one measure to the next.
  • Tap and count out loud. This is another approach I used to be hesitant about, but now every one of my students from beginner through advanced knows that if they are not playing the rhythm correctly they are going to have to count out loud. (By the way, if I have a student who protests that he’s already counting in his head, I say, “That’s great! Then it should be a piece of cake for you because now you just have to have your mouth say what your brain is already thinking.”) Again, the goal is accurate rhythm, so if we have to feel slightly ridiculous to reach that goal, so be it. Better to feel slightly ridiculous in the safety of the studio than face the big world outside as an incompetent musician.
  • Use a rhythm instrument. Drums are especially good, and I will often pull out my djembe and have the student beat the pulse while I play and then swap instruments. In order to get the feel of the the 3/4 time, I have them beat the first beat slightly louder than the second and third.
  • Record the student playing the piece. Have them listen to the recording and follow along with the printed music and see if they can identify any places where they pause, play a note too long, cut a note too short, etc. If they can hear the error, that will be a huge first step toward them being able to correct it. It’s surprising how many students don’t hear what they’re doing incorrectly – even by listening to their recording!
  • Be aware of other issues that may be manifested in incorrect rhythm. Typically this case is a rhythm-specific issue, but occasionally a student will be struggling to play on beat because they are unsure about which note to play, or they are using poor fingering, or they are trying to read the words, etc. As a teacher, you have to be careful to identify what the root issue is and then address that, knowing that it will result in the correction of the secondary issues as well.

As always, if anyone has other suggestions on this issue, please feel free to share what works for you and your students!

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!

Rhythm, Rhythm, Who’s Got Rhythm?

Not very many students, unfortunately! 🙂 I received this question from another teacher and thought it would be a great one to get some feedback and suggestions from others. I’ll share a few of my thoughts below, but I would love to glean some ideas from other teachers as well. How would you answer this question?

When do you let students stop counting out loud for a prepared piece during lesson time?  I understand that counting out loud is a good tool, but sometimes students start associating it with the notation, not the actual rhythm.  The student also has to learn how to count in his head and be able to see a rhythm pattern and just play it.  I understand this, but am having trouble getting this across to the student, or knowing the right time to transition.

Don’t you love it when you observe that a student is playing the rhythm of a piece incorrectly, so you ask them to count it out loud and they respond, “But I’m counting in my head.” Uh-huh. I’ll bet. I usually say, “Oh good, this should be easy then. Just have your mouth say what your brain is already thinking.” Of course, every experienced teacher knows that no such counting was taking place in the recesses of the brain. It was probably diverted down other neurological pathways…like pondering the fare to be offered at the next mealtime, so some such musically-related topic. 🙂

Okay…satire aside, this is a huge issue for many students and it is one that I have become much more strict about over the years. If a student plays the rhythm incorrectly, they count out loud. Period. If they ask when I will let them stop counting out loud, I tell them “As soon as you can play the rhythm correctly.” Some students naturally have a great sense of rhythm and mentally associate rhythmic values with sound. They intuitively play the rhythm correctly, even if they’re not counting it in their head or out loud. Super! No point in making them count out loud if the rhythm is already correct. (They have separate rhythm drills where they have to learn the process of counting rhythms, but if they play rhythmically without counting, I’m fine with that.)

One of the things I try to emphasize with students right off the bat is the difference between rhythm and pulse. I relate pulse to our bodily pulse and call it “the heartbeat of the music.” Doing a variety of Eurhythmic activities, clapping, snapping, playing rhythm instruments, tapping, walking/dancing, etc. is an excellent way to help students develop a sense of pulse. Also, listening to music and trying to tap along with the pulse is helpful. With some students, this is a long process. They won’t get it in one week, or one month, or even one year, but we keep hammering away at it. I try to make little steps of progress each week, constantly reinforcing the importance of excellent rhythm skills. Yes, it’s hard work for them, but I assure them over and over again that it will be well worth it in the end. I know, because I was in their shoes once myself. 🙂

Related Posts: Feeling the Pulse Teaching Ideas Category

Fresh and Fun! Idea #4

My students did much better with the “Rhythm Runs” than I expected. A few of them struggled, but most of them caught on pretty quickly. It proved to be a very effective way of getting them to really feel the pulse, too, which is great! This week will be our final week focusing on Feeling the Pulse. For this week’s Fresh and Fun! idea, I’ve decided to do a little combination of the Call and Response improv activity and last week’s idea. Using the same rhythm worksheets that the students used last week, I’ll have them set a beat and start by playing and keys or combination of keys on the piano for the first measure. Then, I’ll pick up with the second measure. And we’ll go back and forth through the entire sheet, with the goal being (of course!) to keep a perfect pulse from start to end.

Hopefully this will train them to look ahead and prepare for the rhythm that is to come, while keeping track of the pulse. I am just so excited at how much improvement I’ve seen in my students in this area throughout this month! It has been a fun and very worthwhile endeavor. Next month, thanks to a suggestion from Steve, we’ll be focusing on identifying key signatures. I’m really excited about this, and hope you all will contribute some Fresh and Fun! ideas. I would love to see my students really master the concept of key signatures and become experts at quickly identifying them!

Fresh and Fun! Idea #3

Can you tell I’m more than a little behind around here?! I had a group class last week that took some time to prepare for (hopefully pictures will come this week!), and, on a personal note, I made an announcement on one of my other blogs about some exciting news! So hopefully you’ll forgive my negligence!

Now…on to week three. Most of my students did a decent job with the improvsation activity last week. They all did much better keeping the pulse in 3/4 time than in 4/4 time. So that was interesting. It’s definitely an activity worth doing again. But for this week, here’s what I’m planning to do: Rhythm Runs. I got this idea from a friend of mine who is also a music teacher. Using a rhythm drill sheet (I use the leveled worksheets that Wendy has available on her website), set the metronome to an appropriate tempo depending on the difficulty of the rhythms and the level of the student. Then instruct the student to walk in time with the metronome. Big, well-defined steps are probably the best. Once they feel comfortable staying with the beat, have them clap the rhythms in each row on the page while continuing to walk at a steady pulse. I’m guessing this will be a bit more challenging than some of the other activities, but we’ll see!

Also, my students are still loving the Have a Heart challenge! They’re saying things like, “I played this with perfect pulse at home“, “I’m pretty sure I’ll get a heart on this one“, “Can I try it just once more and see if I can get it with perfect pulse?“, etc. So far, the maximum number of hearts racked up in one week is 11, and they’re all intent on setting a new record!

We’ll have one more week of focusing on Feeling the Pulse, so if you have a suggestion for a corresponding Fresh and Fun! idea, please leave it below or e-mail it to me. Thanks!

Fresh and Fun! Feeling the Pulse #2

How did week one of the Feeling the Pulse emphasis go for everyone else? The Have a Heart activity was a big hit with my students! I did it with every single student, and had some unexpected surprises. Some of the students I thought would do really well struggled quite a bit, and some of the ones I expected to have a little trouble caught on quickly and did a great job.

They are all getting into playing their pieces with perfect pulse, too. I decided to let them keep track of the hearts they earn on the studio door (nothing like a little healthy competition!):

I have a confession to make, though. Most of my students are really bad at this. I realized how little I’ve actually worked with them to develop the skill of keeping the pulse going in their playing, even if they make mistakes. We’ve talked about it a lot, but it’s amazing how well your ear can compensate for pulse inconsistencies when you’re not making a concerted effort to play through those mistakes. It’s especially difficult when you’re playing solo. Duet playing helps, but it doesn’t take the place of learning this skill in the context of playing solo repertoire. We’ve definitely got a long ways to go, but I’m super excited to see the progress we make in this area by the end of the month!

Now, on to next week’s Fresh and Fun! idea for Feeling the Pulse. This one doesn’t requires any extra materials. It’s a Call-and-Response Improv. If you have two pianos/keyboard instruments, you sit at one and have the student sit at the other. If not, just position yourself at different registers on the same instrument. Determine the time signature and then count-in two measures of the beat. You play a two-measure pattern completely improvised, using any notes. Then the student picks right up and plays a two-measure pattern also improvised on any notes. Continue back and forth, keeping the pulse flowing continuously between both of you (set a metronome, if necessary, to help the student keep track of the beats). Try different time signatures for variety. For more advanced students, you could even specify specific keys in which to improvise.

Remember, if you have an idea to contribute to the Fresh and Fun! ideas – either for this month’s Feeling the Pulse emphasis, or for a future month, leave it in the comments below or e-mail it to me. I’d love to incorporate some ideas from others!