What Is The Most Effective Way To Teach Rhythm?

2011Symposium_1_2Yesterday, I discussed rhythm, defining a rhythm as a group of durations that establishes beat and meter. Once beat and meter are established, then any single duration can be considered a rhythm, because its beat and metric functions are known. Because rhythm needs a beat and metric contextual basis, music teachers should avoid teaching rhythm in ways that overlook this basis. As I alluded to yesterday, merely counting the number of beats a note is to be held, and then moving on to the next note and counting out its duration makes overlooking metrical context convenient. When students deal with rhythm merely by counting, they are apt to get lost in the music, and the teacher is apt to think that the student does not understand rhythm, or worse, is incapable of playing or singing with correct rhythm. Such students, if not given effective strategies for learning rhythm, become discouraged and disheartened, loose interest in continuing lessons, and often just drop out. This “turn-off” to music can often be avoided if the teacher will take a proper approach to teaching rhythm.

Here is an effective method for teaching rhythm. It is an approach that follows Music Learning Theory.

Teach rhythm separately from other elements. This is especially important for instrumental students, because they have so much to attend to. Trying to learn rhythms, pitches, fingerings, articulation, holding position for playing, hand placement, etc. is easily overwhelming. Because rhythm is such a pivotal aspect of music, it makes sense to learn it separately, and then combine it in melodies.

Rhythms should be taught in patterns of durations, not in isolated durations. Learning rhythms in patterns allows both beat and meter to be clearly note_hierarchypresent in what the student hears and does. Students should be free to make small movements while chanting or playing rhythm patterns, so that the body experiences the beat and meter of each pattern. Music is a highly movement based art. Inhibiting bodily movement, or replacing it with counting seriously impedes a person’s ability to not only learn rhythm, but to experience and enjoy it too.

Before each set of patterns is taught, establish the beat and meter with a pattern that includes macro and micro beats. Gordon suggests du du-de du du-de to establish common time meter. Students should move their heels to the maco beats (on each du) and lightly patsch the micro beats (on each du and de). This helps them connect the durations with the meter and the beat.

Once the beat and meter are established, begin teaching a rhythm pattern by performing it for a student, and then having the student repeat the pattern with you. By chanting with you, the student will hear it done correctly as he or she tries to do it, and will learn it correctly. Once the student has learned the pattern, again perform it for him or her, and then have the student repeat the pattern on his or her own. By doing this, the teacher can evaluate the student’s performance. Be sure the student performs the pattern exactly as you did, with an even tempo, accurate durations, and correct rhythm syllables, if used. Periodically perform a rhythm pattern and then have the entire class repeat it, in order to reinforce the meter. Teach patterns in this way for 5-10 minutes of each class period. Then,  go on to teaching repertoire. You can point out patterns that have been learned or students can recognize them. In this way, students  will connect their rhythm learning to performing actual music.

As new rhythms or durations are introduced, they are always done so in the context of beat and meter. For example, when sixteenth notes in common time are added, they are understood as a micro beat of the micro beat; that is, a further division of the beat. They are an aural representation of the ratio of 2:1, micro-beat to sixteenth note, or 4:1, macro beat to sixteenth note. Likewise, half notes and whole notes are understood as elongations of the beat in a 2:1 relationship to the macro beats, and as a duration that lasts two beats. It is critical that the properties of division and elongation of a known beat be prominent in everyone’s mind all the time when learning and preforming rhythm.

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