Article by Richard Chronister
wonder how many students know that there is a difference between counting rhythm and musical rhythm? I think students believe they are supposed to count aloud all the time - every time they work out a new piece, every time they sightplay a piece or play a duet - it's one of the basic rules of piano lessons. When students have learned that counting aloud is expected, the teacher feels successful. When students do it without prompting, we are ecstatic.
If we ask students to tell us when they should not count aloud, we will probably get a blank stare. Seldom does the teacher say, "I don't think you need to count this piece aloud any more." At some point in learning a piece, most students simply stop counting aloud, and, if things are going well, the teacher allows this unless or until a rhythm problem slips in. Then the teacher suddenly says, "What happened to your counting?" The student has been caught not counting aloud, and this is just a reminder that counting is always the thing to do.
With a few students, this idea of the efficacy of counting aloud really takes hold and it becomes necessary to work hard at making sure the student doesn't count aloud during a recital performance. Another few simply will not ever count aloud unless forced, and we despair over this "unrhythmical" child. But most students just keep on deciding for themselves when to stop counting and keep on hoping that the teacher will go on forgetting to remind them that they are supposed to be counting. I think it's fairly safe to say that most students believe that counting aloud is one of the piano teacher's cardinal rules and that when they are allowed to play without counting, it's just because the teacher forgot to remind them.
My answer to the question of how to teach the difference between counting rhythm and musical rhythm begins with my belief that students should experience this difference every single time they deal with a rhythm. Beginning with the first piece they ever play as a beginner and ending with every problematic rhythm passage they bump into in all the levels that come later, the routine for working out rhythm should always include both counting aloud and not counting at all, with the student understanding when and why counting is necessary as well as when and why counting is not allowed.
I want my students to understand that the purpose of counting (aloud or to themselves) is to prepare them to play that passage musically with no counting at all, either aloud or to themselves. At the top of the next page is the first line of Faraway Chimes from The Music Tree, Part B (Warner Bros.) that appears not long after eighth notes are introduced:
A piece like this is often misplayed at the next lesson (regardless of what we did with it during the introductory lesson). It is not unusual for it to come back after a week's practice with this rhythm:
Beginning with their very first piece with eighth notes, my students have been taught a particular routine for checking the rhythm of an eighth-note passage. If this piece comes back with all quarter notes, I simply say, "Show me the steps that help you check this rhythm." With no help from me, I expect to see and hear is this:
I call these three steps teaching yourself the rhythm pattern, and I am not concerned about how musical the first three steps are, because the student goes right on to step 4 this very minute, not next week after this rhythmic feeling of this pattern has become solidified and has become totally mechanical.
The students have been taught that this means to make their own music with this rhythm pattern, using both hands (hands separate and/or hands together). They may use whatever keys on the keyboard they want and whatever sounds they want to use, including whatever dynamics and articulations that occur to them. They are not allowed to play the notes in Faraway Chimes (this would automatically send them back to the rhythmic feeling they practiced wrong all week). All attention is placed on how this rhythm pattern feels in a piece of music they make up on the spot. The student may, for example, choose to play loud and staccato and use only the groups of two black keys. What I know from years of experience is that they will choose only what is easy for them, and this is what makes them able to give all their attention to how the rhythm feels. By repeating the rhythm pattern a number of times, moving to different octaves on the keyboard, often varying the keys they use and the sounds they make, the rhythm easily becomes "musical" and loses the mechanical feeling that comes with counting.
The final step in the process of "teaching yourself the rhythm is":
The home assignment is this:
The teach yourself the rhythm routine is kept in a prominent place in the student's notebook, always there as a reminder of these short and to-the-point steps for learning a rhythm pattern. It is not long before the student does not need to look up these steps; they are logical and short.
At the next lesson, it is important that I do not hear Faraway Chimes until after the student has demonstrated steps 1, 2, 3, 4. The purpose here is not to test whether or not students have corrected their previous incorrect practice. Instead, the purpose is to see a demonstration that proves that students know how to teach themselves a rhythm pattern and that they can experience it musically before using it in the piece that has been assigned.
It is not unusual for a student to do steps 1-4 perfectly correctly and then go back to the wrong rhythm when playing the piece. The wrong rhythm may have become so deeply embedded in that first week of wrong practice that dynamite would not jar it loose. But, if steps 1-4 have been done correctly at home all week, you have assured yourself that this student does know this rhythm and does know how to work out a rhythm passage correctly. The next time this rhythm pattern shows up, there is a better chance that it will be worked out correctly in the first place.
If a student does come back to this lesson still playing the wrong rhythm after demonstrating correctly how to work out this rhythm, I simply say that I think we've done enough on Faraway Chimes, and assign a new piece with the same or similar rhythm pattern. And, most important, since we know that this kind of rhythm is a little tricky for this student, the assignment for the first week will be the same steps we used last week for Faraway Chimes. Before this lesson is over, I ask for a demonstration of what will go on at home this week before playing the new piece, 007.
Teach yourself the two-measure rhythm pattern of 007.
Starting a new piece is far better use of lesson time than struggling over trying to fix the rhythm that has now been practiced wrong for two weeks. There is probably no piece that is worth the trauma of that kind of correction. Knowing when to drop a piece is as important as knowing when to assign it.
At the next lesson, my student knows that I will not hear 007 until after I hear the practice steps written on the assignment. It is the process of learning the correct rhythm that matters to me, not the piece itself.
These are simple steps. They work for any piece, and very soon it will not be necessary to write them down at all. A simple note in the score that says, Explore the rhythm pattern before you play the piece will be enough to remind the student that it is necessary to teach yourself the rhythm before playing the piece.
That's how I teach the difference between counting rhythm and musical rhythm - from the beginning and throughout all the years of study. All the rhythmic subtleties that we want students to experience can come about in Step 4, after they have sorted out the counting on their own and are ready to make their own music using the rhythmic feel they have just taught themselves. After this, it becomes much easier to use this musical rhythm in a piece of music that requires specific notes and specific technique.
What is important, I think, is not exactly how we teach this difference, but that we believe it is important to find some way to do it that will become the student's way at home in daily practice. If it happens only at the lesson and only under our direction, we have not accomplished anything of lasting importance.
RICHARD CHRONISTER is editor of Keyboard Companion.
Click to read Jennifer Merry's article answering the same question