One of my most often used phrases when teaching musical works to students is that a right pitch played at the wrong time is still a wrong note. While pitches, rhythm and beat are all important, it is often advantageous to teach the rhythm first, separated out from the pitches. This gives the student less to think about all at once, and gives the student the opportunity to learn music the way they learn music patterns, with pitch and rhythm separated. This is true of individuals receiving a private voice or instrument lesson, and it is also true of large ensembles. Sections in a band can play, clap, patsch or chant the rhythm they see in their part. Once each rhythm in a four-part texture has been practiced, putting just the rhythms together without instruments can be a lot fun. Assigning separate timbres to different sections can create transparency and interest. The woodwinds with one rhythm might clap, while the upper brass might patsch, as the lower brass chants. Non-pitched drum parts are already rhythm only, so the percussionists can creatively find different timbres without playing their instrument. Choirs can have one timbre assigned to each voice part.
Very quickly, rhythm only practice will result in everyone agreeing on a tempo, and becoming more independent in maintaining the tempo. Just the physical movements and transfer of weight that occurs from rhythm only practice instantly improves rhythm and beat accuracy. Students are more free and more likely to want to move their bodies while clapping and patching than when they are playing an instrument. Singers are more likely to be aware of the rhythm and beat while clapping and patching, because they cannot rely on the rhythm of the text to help them with the rhythm. Rhythm only practice causes students to make a more substantial investment in the beat and rhythm, and the fun musical experience it creates motivates them to be even more rhythmically accurate.
After rhythm and beat are secure, the next aspect of the musical work that can be brought in is harmony. Before rehearsing a musical work, conductors analyze the score and from that analysis know what the chords are throughout the piece. Here is where keyboard skills are useful. While your students once again perform the rhythms, play the underlying chords on a keyboard. These can just be sustained if an electronic keyboard is used, or you may need to play a rhythm on the chords if an acoustic piano is used, because the chords won’t otherwise be audibly sustained. Next, have the students sing or play their parts at a constant soft dynamic level while you play the underlying chords. If singing, students should use a neutral syllable, not the text. Hearing the chords while they play their parts with accurate rhythm and beat will aid them in tuning, and will train them to audiate chords while they play or sing their individual parts.
When a musician can hear the chords and fit his or her single note into the chord, not only does intonation improve, but music making goes up to a whole new level of enjoyment. It’s like discovering a whole level of the music you never noticed before. By now, the rhythm, beat and chords are established, and any issues with pitches can be resolved. Because the pitches are “lining up” correctly and because the students are hearing and listening for chords, errors will be more apparent to them, and they will be more capable of correcting wrong notes. You will also have an easier time detecting pitch errors, because rhythm and beat errors have been largely eliminated. The music doesn’t sound like a confusing mish-mash of sounds; even when errors are made, they occur within a much more organized and accurate performance. Finding and correcting mistakes is not as stressful or unpleasant, and progress and improvement occurs at a faster rate.