Back to Basics…Rhythm

“Music and rhythm find their way into the secret places of the soul.” -Plato

Our family moved across country about sixteen months ago, which means I needed to build up my piano studio from scratch.  I was blessed to be able to teach piano in two local private schools this year.  (Yay!  I get to spend evenings with my family!)  But, because of the nature of studio-building, most of my students are beginners.  

Honestly, I do not mind having a lot of beginner students.  Of course, intermediate and advanced students are wonderful for putting my master’s degree to good use.  🙂  I see beginner students as a unique opportunity to build the type of student I would like to teach in three months, two years, five years, etc.

So this year I have concentrated on teaching the basics in new and fun ways.  I have been reminded how intricate and complex piano playing can be.  There are so many things going on at once!  Just think – not only do you have to read notes, you must transfer the knowledge from your eyes to your brain to your fingers and hands in a split second.  Not to mention all the information of how to play those notes – tempo, rhythm, dynamics, articulation.  Throw in one or two pedals and it’s lucky anyone can ever produce something beautiful out of this complex, gorgeous instrument.

But, of course, we do…the piano is capable of producing complex, gorgeous images and sounds at the hands of a master.

So, how to build the beginning piano student into a master?  Or into a great student down the road three months, two years, or five years?

Let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start…

Back to the basics we go.

I wanted a way to practice different rhythmic sequences without notes to distract.  So I came up with the Rhythm Stack.

The Rhythm Stack is a fold-out book with different four-beat rhythmic sequences on each page.

The front side is simple – the values include only quarter note, half note, dotted half note and quarter rest.  The whole note is missing because I couldn’t find it in my particular font selection.

As you can see, the folded-out book covers the entire length of the piano.  In lessons, sometimes we spread it out on the keys, on the bench, or on the floor.

The back side includes eighth note values and has three lines of rhythm sequences on each page.

For early beginners, the front side is all they can handle right now.  We clap through the rhythms in the lesson together with the metronome usually set to 84 or 88 beats per minute.  When those rhythms are mastered, I introduce the back side by rote.  I have found this to be an excellent way to teach eighth notes before the student sees them in music.

For more advanced students, I use the back side in these ways:

  • The student taps/claps the rhythms saying syllables (ta, ti-ti, etc.)
  • The student writes in the counts (1,2,3and,4, etc.)
  • Rhythm duets – the student claps one line while I clap another.  Excellent training!  I tell the student to ignore me (always gets a chuckle), and to make sure they count while clapping.  This helps to keep us together.
Each student takes home their own Rhythm Stack to work on the rhythms at home. To access a metronome at home, I direct them to use the site or to download a free metronome app to their ipod or ipad.
After working through the Rhythm Stack, I tell the student that these rhythms will be commonly found in their music.  They will encounter very few other rhythms that are not in the Rhythm Stack, which means “you already know the rhythms for your pieces!”  I instruct the student to think of the rhythms separately from the notes.  Feel confident in the rhythms, then add in the notes, dynamics, articulation, etc.
Rhythm basics…accomplished.