Teaching Rhythm, the Most Important Thing in Music

Seth Gamba Teaching Rhythm

“What are the three most important things in music? Rhythm, rhythm, and rhythm.” 
– Jere Flint, Atlanta Symphony cellist & conductor

Rhythm is the most important thing in music. Consider this: If you miss a note, you will sound bad for a moment, but if you miss a rhythm, you will be in the wrong place and are now missing every note. Establishing a solid sense of rhythm for our students is one of the most important jobs we have as music teachers. Teaching rhythm effectively is teaching for transfer. Early in my career, it was all too common for me to spend a lot of time teaching a piece of music or an exercise from a method book and then go on to find that when it was time to apply the concepts from those pieces and exercises to new contexts, my students would fall apart, and we would have to start over. It turned out that most of the troubles my students were having were related to their ability to read rhythm. The following article goes over some of the things that I developed and discovered in my efforts to improve in this area.

Stay on the Same Concept for a Long Time

Effective learning requires repetition, but it has to be the right kind of repetition. If you take a rhythm exercise and just repeat it over and over with your students, they will eventually be able to perform it, but they will probably not be able to extract the broad rhythmic concepts from it that will allow them to quickly interpret unfamiliar passages, even if they contain the same basic rhythmic material. To build a base of knowledge that can be transferred to new settings, you have to give your students opportunities to use their knowledge in many different settings before adding new pieces to the puzzle.

One of the biggest problems I’ve found with teaching rhythmic fluency is that most method books – even those devoted exclusively to rhythm – move too fast. By the time you have gone over a couple of lines on a rhythmic concept, the book is on to the next concept without giving students the time to consolidate their understanding and really own it. Many times, they haven’t even really learned how to read the line they’re on. They’ve just memorized it. This is why I wrote Rhythmic Projections: Rhythm Exercises for Building Mastery. With over 400 exercises, it lets me keep students in the same place for a long time. By the time we’re ready to move to a new concept, they understand what we’ve been doing. Not only that, but they haven’t been able to memorize anything. They have to read it because there’s just too much of it!

It is also important to use all of your materials in a variety of ways. For instance, with my students I’ll take the first 6 pages of Rhythmic Projections, which focus only on 1/4 notes and 1/4 rests, and go through them all with students just clapping and counting. Then we’ll come back and do them again plucking open strings. Next we’ll do them again plucking a D scale. After that comes bowing open strings, bowing a D scale, and finally writing the rhythms out using the notes of a scale and putting in the counting. This lets us stay in the same place for a long time, but the students deepen their knowledge of this concept since every time they approach it, it’s in conjunction with a new skill on their instruments or with a deeper musical understanding.

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Count Out Loud – a Lot – All the Time

“If you’re not counting, you’re guessing, and if you’re guessing, you’re wrong.” – Andy Reiner

Vocalizing counting is one of the most critical skills for developing a solid sense of rhythm. Without it, students will not develop a sense of how a rhythm is broken down, and they will have trouble recreating musical rhythms that they see printed on the page.

I find that it is very important as a teacher to use vocal rhythm counting frequently. I use it as my default modeling voice. That is, when I sing a part for my students, I use rhythm syllables to do it unless I have a reason that other syllables would be better for getting across the point at hand. Similarly, when students sing something back to me, they use rhythm syllables to do it, and I make them sing a lot. They sing when trying to get better tuning. They sing while silent fingering. They sing while air bowing. They sing along with themselves while they play (since I teach strings, we can actually do that!).

Use a Variety of Methods to Teach Each Concept

Teaching rhythm effectively requires a very deep bag of tricks. There is no one thing that you will do that will solve all of the rhythm challenges for your students. Also, having a lot of materials to pull from helps you move horizontally with your students. That is, you can stay on the same concept while keeping it fresh for your students. I usually start a new rhythmic concept with rhythm-only exercises from Rhythmic Projections, but then I move on to other things that use those rhythms in melodic and harmonic contexts.

To develop strong reading skills, you have to keep something new in front of them all of the time. To help with this, I have class sets of several method books and collections of supplemental short pieces. I call these “one week pieces.” I pick pieces and exercises that fit in with the rhythmic and harmonic concepts we need at the moment. When I’ve finished what one of the books has to offer, I move to the same section in a different book trying to never spend more than a few days on a particular exercise.

Where Am I?

One of the most important things that students need to have to accurately perform rhythms is the ability to quickly and accurately identify the placement of every note in a measure. This is usually the biggest problem that students have with dotted rhythms. It’s not that they don’t know how long to hold a dotted half note. It’s that they don’t accurately identify the quarter note as being on beat 4 and then wait for it. Similarly, problems with dotted quarter notes can usually be solved by focusing on where exactly in time and in the measure the &of2 and the &of4 live. This is also really important in addressing problems that come along with accurately counting rests.

There are a couple of games I like to play with my students to help with building a strong sense of “where am I.” The first is one with Rhythmic Projections that I call “What Beat Is This?” I will put up a page of rhythms on the projector screen and use a pointer to identify a single note or rest. The class then answers with what beat of the measure I’m pointing at. I jump all around the page pointing at different notes and rests until everyone can quickly and accurately name the beats.

The next one I like to do is called “Melody Pass-arounds.” For this, we use a unison melody (taken from a “one week piece”) and split the ensemble into several groups. We play through the piece, but each group takes turns playing while the others wait for their turn to come around. We start with each group getting one measure, then down to half a measure, then to one beat, and then to one note per group. To be able to do this, everyone has to pay close attention to where they are in the piece at all times.

Another one I use a lot is “Clap Once on…” This is especially helpful for problems coming off of sustained notes or after rests. For instance, if the problem is the 1/8th note following a dotted quarter, we “clap once on the &of2.” Students count out loud while clapping only on the specified beat. We will keep that going until the whole class can accurately hit the problem beat.

Work Rhythm Exercises into Your Rehearsals

Finally, it is important to recognize that rhythm exercises are not just for warm ups. It is alright to interrupt your main rehearsal time for a mini lesson on a rhythmic problem. If there is a rhythmic problem in one section of your piece, have the whole group play a scale on the problem rhythm. Stop for a moment and have your entire ensemble do a few measures of “Clap Once on…” Have part of your ensemble count out loud for another part of the group who is having trouble with a rhythm spot. After that, then come back to the rehearsal. In this way, you can solve problems for a section that needs it without leaving the rest of your students to do nothing while you focus on a small group of students.

If you want students to be good at reading, then you have to do a lot of reading. Don’t be fooled into thinking that only working on your main concert repertoire counts, though. Like I mentioned before, if you read the same thing over and over, many of your students are probably memorizing rather than actually reading. By using some of the above strategies, you can keep your students interested and feeling like they’re moving forward even though you know that you’re really just staying in one place and giving them the depth of knowledge they need to transfer their skills into any setting.

Seth Gamba 2Seth Gamba is the orchestra director at Elkins Pointe Middle School in Fulton County, GA. A well-known composer, clinician, and adjudicator, Mr. Gamba has presented many sessions at state and national conferences including GMEA, ASTA, NAfME, and the Midwest Clinic. Mr. Gamba’s orchestra has had featured performances at state conferences and his compositions have frequently been played by groups performing at the annual GMEA conference. He currently has two compositions on the GMEA approved list for level 3 Orchestra. His book Rhythmic Projections: Rhythm Exercises for Building Mastery and his composition Rock On! for level 1 string orchestra are available from Ludwig Masters Publishing. Other compositions are available from www.gambamusic.com. This post was adapted from his 2015 Midwest Clinic presentation.

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