I have to admit, I’ve never been a fan of counting rhythm. I’ve always had an ear for music, and could usually guess the right rhythms for the music; counting rhythm out loud was the bane of my existence as a child! However, rhythmic awareness is one of the most crucial components of learning and playing music.
What is rhythmic awareness? It is the ability to sense the underlying pulse of a piece of music. If you can clap along with your favourite song, you have rhythmic awareness. If it seems like everyone else is clapping when you aren’t….maybe you need to work on it :).
If your child is very small (preschool and under), clapping along or walking along to a favourite song is a wonderful way to introduce a sense of rhythm in your child. Many early childhood music programs incorporate this into their curriculum, and it is a FABULOUS idea. Children can integrate rhythmic awareness at a very early age, and teaching a child music lessons later on is a dream when the student has an inner sense of rhythm.
If your child has already started music lessons (generally ages 5+), your teacher has probably begun working on rhythmic awareness with them. However, some kids get it right away, and some don’t. Usually, clapping the rhythm of the song while saying the rhythm out loud is assigned for homework. However, that means nothing to a parent who doesn’t speak “music” – how do you say a rhythm out loud?! That generally involves, for younger children, the words ‘tah’ or ‘ti-ti’ or ‘two-o’ – all representative vocalizations of a quarter note, two eighth notes, and one half note, respectively. A student would clap once and say ‘tah’ at the same time, clap twice with the syllables of ‘ti-ti’, and clap once but hold for two seconds (syllables) when saying ‘two-o’. (Perhaps you even remember this from school! ). Essentially, we use our vocal pacing to develop an ear for rhythmic timing.
One fun way I use syllables and vocal pacing in my studio is through food rhythms! For example, if you say “strawberry ice cream” and clap the syllables as you say the words with normal pacing, you will be clapping a quarter note, two eighth notes, and two quarter notes, in their correct timing. This is fun for kids, and also helps make them aware that rhythm is everywhere in life – not just music!
For older students who struggle with rhythm, generally the first thing I get them to do is play with a metronome. Now, playing with a metronome is a skill unto itself – especially if you don’t have a good inner sense of rhythm! Luckily, it is a skill that can be trained, albeit with some hard work. The first step is to get them playing a repeated single note alongside a metronome at a reasonable steady pace – I’d say about 70 beats per minute. Anticipating the next beat, and playing accurately at the same time the metronome clicks, is very difficult! Sometimes getting the student to say ‘tah’ or ‘one and’ while playing the repeated note alongside the metronome is also helpful. Once that has been mastered (which may take more than one lesson!), I move them to playing a simple 5 finger scale, and then to a full scale, alongside the metronome. Again, adding ‘tah’ or ‘one and’ (depending on age and theoretical understanding, mostly) is helpful. If, at any point, the playing and counting is too difficult, clapping and saying alongside a metronome is also an excellent way to work on training rhythmic awareness. Once playing on the beat is mastered, you can start playing ‘ti-ti’s, (or playing on both the first and second half of each beat) using the same skill progression.
The goal is that, after all this work, the student will be able to accurately count the pieces they are working on and play alongside a metronome with *relative* ease (like I said, playing with a metronome is hard!).
Older students generally have advanced to counting rhythm like ‘real’ musicians, using subdivided beats. This takes an understanding of relative note values (another post, another day!), but essentially they are keeping track of the shortest note values in the song, even if they aren’t playing them. For example, if a student is playing a song in 4/4 time, they will have 4 quarter notes worth of time in each bar. To keep track of the timing of the notes, we count ‘one and two and three and four and’. Each numbered count represents a quarter note of time; we say ‘and’ to mark the second half of the note, and to mark that a quarter note can be broken down into two quicker eighth notes. So, ‘one-and’ can represent holding a quarter note its full length, or it can represent two eighth notes, played on ‘one’ and ‘and’.
If students are fully capable of completing the rhythm exercises with the metronome using ‘tah’ and ‘ti-ti’, I encourage them to try counting using the more advanced method. Generally, once students are able to complete the rhythm exercises with the advanced counting, they have developed their rhythmic awareness to a place where they are able to count out and interpret their rhythms correctly.
I hope some of these ideas are helpful for you or your student! All of these ideas can be tried at home during practice if rhythm is a struggle.