Why Do Instrumental Music Students Have So Much Trouble With Rhythm?

2011 Symposium2

When I was a band director, I often wondered why it was that drum students so often had so much trouble with rhythm. For the most part, they didn’t have to learn how to read pitches, they had no fingerings to learn, no embouchure to form. All they had to do was hold a stick or two hand tap out rhythms. Why was it so difficult for them? The answer eventually came. Drummers are, at least with traditional pedagogy, trained to play standing still with the drum in front of them, and to play from the wrists, using a minimum of arm motion. Drum kit players use more arm and move around more, but most beginning drummers are started on a single snare drum, not a kit. Dr. Edwin Gordon pointed out that rhythm is understood through shifts of weight in the body. If the body doesn’t move, then no weight is shifted, and the body cannot understand the rhythm. The answer to my question was that drummers had trouble playing rhythm because they were always standing still while playing. I was intrigued by this, and immediately began teaching my drummers to move slightly from side to side just enough for there to be a weight shift. Immediately, their rhythm accuracy improved.

Encouraged, I decided to try the same approach with students playing otherEnsemble instruments who were struggling with rhythm. I told all my students, whether standing or sitting, to move slightly left and right while they played. This created the need to teach wind players how to keep the instrument constant in their embouchure, but that was a minor adjustment. Once again, their rhythm accuracy immediately improved. Gordon was right. The key is in shifting the weight.

Even though shifting weight helped both the snare drummer and the wind player improve rhythmic accuracy, there is an important difference between how those two instruments are played. A snare drummer is required to maintain a fixed relationship to the drum, because the drum is not being held, it is on a stationary stand on the floor. If the player moves, the drum will not move the player, and the relationship the instrument and the musician will change. This is compensated for by adjusting the arms and hands to move counter to the body so that the sticks stay on the drum in the correct way. By contrast, a wind player is holding the instrument, and can move the instrument with the body and in so doing maintain the same relationship with the instrument. In other words, the instrument connects with the embouchure at exactly the same angle and manner, even as the player moves, because the player moves the instrument with him or herself.

piano practicePianists must handle shifting weight similarly to the drummer. The pianist cannot move the instrument with their body, and so must adjust the arms and fingers so that they stay correctly placed on the keyboard, even as the torso shifts from side to side or from front to back. While it may be beneficial to teaching hand position to both the drummer and the pianist to have students remain still while playing, doing so will be to the detriment of learning and accurately performing rhythm. Of course, all of this must be constrained to small and manageable movements. Playing any instrument while performing a dance is difficult at best, and impossible for most of the students we teach. The movement I am referring to only needs to be sufficient for weight to be shifted, and generally only involves moving about six inches to one side or the other.

One other point to remember is that just as movement that causes weight shift is beneficial to rhythmic understanding and performance accuracy, movement that does not involve weight shift does nothing to help. Most notably among this category of movement is tapping one’s foot. Foot tapping is of no value in understanding rhythm, it is only of aid in counting beats. While there are times when beats must be counted, as when the player must perform an elongation of the beat, in most cases, counting is unnecessary and more of a hinderance than a help. It is made necessary in the absence of weight shifting and audiation. In fact, it is exactly because foot tapping is so often used as a replacement for auditing that rhythm problems are so common.

Regardless of the system you use to teach rhythm, be it numbers, rhythm syllables, or neutral syllables, weight shift and the slight movement that brings it about is necessary for learning and understanding rhythm. Rhythm syllables and neutral syllables are effective tools, and are part of sound training in audiation, but they alone are not sufficient to get the job done. There must also be weight shifting if students are to gain proficiency at rhythm.

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