4 Ways for Teaching Rhythm (including 3 you've probably neglected!)

How can we get our ensemble members to better connect rhythm with a consistent beat or subdivision AND to become aware of when they're out of sync?

We've all had the experience of the beat slowing down as we try to decode a new or complex rhythm. Though it might have been a while since we experienced this ourselves, it's a phenomenon we see frequently with our ensembles.

When we're expending so much of our attention on executing the rhythm, the steadiness of the beat can completely slip from our awareness.

However, there are exercises we can use to help our ensembles (and ourselves) improve our ability to maintain a steady pulse while executing a rhythm. The key is to do these two things simultaneously.

Before we decode how, let's step back to consider HOW we engage our musicians bodies and minds when learning and practising rhythms.

Modes of Practicing Rhythm

We can break down practising rhythm into two big categories:

  1. Vocal - using words (a-pple a-pple plum plum), counting systems like Kodaly (te-te-te-te ta ta) or numbers (1+ 2+ 3 4), or non-specific vocalisations (like da da da da da da)
  2. Physical - moving our body or playing an instrument

In our own musical training, chances are we've become habited toward using one mode for pulse/beat (usually physical) and one mode for rhythm (vocal, but sometimes physical too if you're feeling ultra co-ordinated!).

Switching up which mode is doing beat vs. rhythm can highlight surprising deficiencies we might otherwise miss, but that cause problems for our ensembles down the road.

Simultaneously Joining Beat (or Subdivision) and Rhythm

As we've already noted, the challenge for musicians comes when trying to align beat/pulse and rhythm. As someone who has always played single line instruments like violin and horn, this has always been a challenge for me. Becoming a conductor that needs to hold multiple different rhythms in my head simultaneously has been a steep learning curve.

The key for me, as for our students, is to practice simultaneously performing beat/subdivision AND rhythm. This can be done using many different combinations of vocalising and physicalising - however we often get stuck doing just one in our rehearsals. Adding new variations on how we practice each element (beat/subdvision vs. rhythm) can open up a whole new level of complexity.

How we usually practice...

Combination 1: Physical Beat + Vocal Rhythm

This isn't rocket science. Chances are you often do this by asking them to physicalise the beat/pulse and vocalise the rhythm:

"Tap your foot and count the rhythm aloud"

This is great, but there are way more combinations we can use to really solidify (and challenge) our ensemble's rhythmic accuracy. When we explore the different combinations of vocalisation, physicalisation and mental practice we generate a much bigger set of tools. These different combinations are often neglected, and can really help pinpoint where each musician's challenges lie.

What you (and your students) are missing out on

Combination 2: Physical Subdivision + Vocal Rhythm

"Tap the quaver/eighth note subdivision, say the rhythm"

This ups the ante, and is especially great for rhythms that include uneven subdivisions (like dotted eighth-sixteenth / dotted quaver-semiquaver). It can increase our awareness of more subtle inconsistencies and places where the rhythm isn't aligning with the smaller subdivisions.

Combination 3: Vocal Beat + Physical Rhythm

"Count the beats aloud and clap the rhythm"

This reversal is so much harder than it sounds if you're not used to it!

Normally, especially if you sing or play a wind instrument, your mouth is executing the varying rhythm, not a constant pulse. Verbalising a constant pulse while physicialising the varied rhythm is quite the challenge.

I dare you to try it on some really simple measures in a piece you're conducting! When you demonstrate this to the ensemble, ensure you've practiced first!

Combination 4: Vocal Subdivision + Physical Rhythm

"Say the subdivision aloud and tap the rhythm"

I find this the hardest, but this might also be because it's the one I've experienced the least during my own musical learning. (Like me, you've probably done combination #1 about 1000x more than this one!).

Again, I recommend practicing this alone before attempting in front of your ensemble!

How to Incorporate These Into Your Rehearsals

The sky is the limit for how you can use these different combinations in your rehearsals:

  • As part of the warm up
  • As a brain break
  • While working on a challenging section to break down a rhythm

If you become aware that the pulse is wavering, use a metronome over speakers to ensure accuracy and stability. You can challenge the ensemble by gradually lowering the volume of the metronome. If it veers off course, simply dial the volume back up.

Why not get your students involved by letting them:

  • Spin a wheel to see what combination you're going to use this time
  • Tick off each combination as you use it to ensure you're getting a comprehensive experience
  • Choose which combination they think will be most helpful for a particular musical problem

Not just for your ensemble!

If, like me, you find conceptualising multiple rhythms at once a challenge this is a great exercise to incorporate into your score study. Find a tricky passage and follow the 4 combinations above in order. You'll be surprised how much better your inner hearing becomes. Physicalising things in time is, of course, also great conducting practice.

The takeaway

Writing this post has reminded me how easily I slip into just doing combo #1. It's reminded me I need to incorporate varied ways of performing rhythm to ensure thorough learning.

  • How will you incorporate these four combinations into your rehearsals?
  • How will you incorporate them into your score study?

Deep thanks to Dr Jennifer Gillan who taught me these combinations. She has a wide variety of excellent resources, books and publications on her website for increasing your and your ensemble's musical literacy.

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