I have noticed that there is a great deal of interest in how best to teach rhythm. Perhaps this reveals challenges that music teachers find in teaching rhythm, made manifest in students’ difficulty in performing rhythms accurately. While I cannot know what transpires in every music classroom, I can at least address problems I have observed in my own students, and how I have addressed them.
The first notion that must be developed is a definition of rhythm. This is not an academic exercise, but a necessary step in arriving at an effective way to teach rhythm. We must agree on what rhythm is, how it works, and how our students perceive it before we can effectively teach them how to perform it. This is because every musical utterance must be preceded by a mental representation of what is to be uttered, just as every utterance made with words must be preceded by a thought couched in language. My students frequently confuse rhythm with beat. They are clearly not the same thing, and the relationship that exists between the two is critical. A rhythm is a pattern of durations; a beat is a steady pulse to which the listener organizes the rhythm. Meter is also important to rhythmic understanding, and is a pattern of strong and weak beats. Because none of this involves pitch, rhythm is best taught separate from pitch, before it is combined with pitch in a complete musical performance. Gordon and Feierabend have both written that rhythm should be taught with chanted rhythm patterns. In Conversational Solfege, Feierabend describes using a learning sequence of rote on neutral syllables, rote with rhythm syllables, decoding familiar patterns from neutral syllables to rhythm syllables, decode unfamiliar patterns, and create aurally with familiar patterns using syllables. All of this is done before notation is introduced. When it is, rote learning begins again, this time while the students read what is being rote taught, then decoding familiar then unfamiliar patterns from notation. All of this is done apart from pitch and apart from singing or playing repertoire or exercises, and the result is that students are able to audiate rhythms, meters and beats; that is, they are able to hear rhythms, meters and beats in their minds for which there is no physically present sound (Gordon). Pitches are taught separately but in the same manner, using tonal patterns that are characteristic from the repertoire of music the students will be performing. When students can also audiate pitches and tonalities, then they are ready to combine pitch and rhythm elements in performance.
I believe that it is common practice among music teachers to try to teach rhythm “on the fly” while teaching exercises and repertoire. This requires the student to attempt to succeed at the most advanced stage of music learning without having had the opportunity to develop readiness skills. Music teachers are wont to establish a beat and then have students perform to that beat. Besides being very difficult to do, this is the opposite of what people do when they listen to music. When people listen to music, they hear the music first, and then determine the beat. In other words, the beat is made evident in the music, and specifically in the rhythm. We deduce a beat from the patterns of durations we hear. Instead of sounding a beat for our students before and while they perform, we should establish the meter, which includes the beat, and then have the student continue the beat through audiation before beginning to sing or play. If the student looses the beat, it will be because s/he has stopped audiating the meter. In this case, more training is needed with rhythm patterns and tapping the beat while the teacher performs, until the student gains proficiency at audiating the beat from music s/he hears. This proficiency is then transferred to music s/he hears while performing.
When performing, if the performer has audiated what s/he is about to perform, then the beat can be perceived from the music more quickly than from hearing another performer, because the performer knows what the meter and tactus level is and knows what is going to happen next. For example, if I play the beginning of the slow movement of Beethoven’s “Moonlight” sonata, I know before I start to play that there are three durations per tactus beat, and from audiating a pattern of six micro beats, I can establish for myself the beat the music will have when I begin to play. On the other hand, if a teacher were to tell me to play the beginning of the “Moonlight” sonata to this beat, and clapped a beat for me, that beat has no musical meaning until I start to play, and I must now make calculations in order to fit the music to the beat.
The two situations are quite different. In the first instance, the beat is perceived from the music, whereas in the second instance, the music is fitted to an artificially generated beat. The latter is much more difficult to do, but this is exactly what we ask music students to attempt, and all the more if they are having trouble. We think that by providing them with an audible beat through hand clapping or a metronome, we will guide them to play the rhythm accurately. But this simply is not so. The student will not play the rhythm accurately until s/he is audiating the music and perceiving the beat from the music, not our noise making. As a result, our well-intentioned time keeping, instead of being helpful, can be a distraction and a hindrance.
Interventions such as clapping for the student and using a metronome are unnecessary if the learning sequence described above is followed. If enough time is spent on pre-notation learning, students will reliably be able to accurately read and perform rhythms in music. Where remediation is still needed, the music teacher should revisit an earlier step the sequence, and once again work down; but if enough time has been spent at each step, this should not be necessary.
In addition, students can be helped in combining rhythm and pitch with a similar sequence I have developed off of Conversational Solfege. First, perform the music for the student while tapping the beat and have him or her repeat the performance, also while tapping the beat. Because we are performing both rhythm and pitch, use neutral syllables. Second, perform the music for the student without tapping the beat, and to have the student repeat the performance while tapping the beat. Third, perform the music for the student without tapping the beat and have the student perform the music without tapping, maintaining the same beat. This learning sequence of three steps keeps the process in the right order, gradually teaching the student to audiate the beat while performing. One final caution is that rhythm cannot be audiated without a metric context; therefore, never rely on rhythm syllables to generate the rhythm without an established beat and meter. I have written elsewhere in this blog on rhythm syllables and rhythm counting systems. If you are not familiar with either of these, it would be helpful for you to read those posts.