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Feel the Beat: Building a Strong Rhythmic Foundation for Musical Success

As piano teachers, we strive to instill a love of making music in our students. The inevitable process of making mistakes along that journey, however, creates challenges and intriguing mysteries to be solved. "Why did the mistake happen?" "What in the score did the student not understand?" As I searched for answers, I discovered that a clearer understanding of rhythmic pulse is the most important key to music literacy. Since rhythmic mistakes often cause melodic mistakes, these rhythmic patterns should be learned first, by themselves, to ensure accuracy and musical success. 

Having a teaching career that has taken me from the United States to Brazil, Syria, and the cities of Amman, and Irbid, Jordan, I have discovered the power that the rhythmic pulse has over the melodic line, especially in the vibrant rhythms of Brazil and Syria. Through these experiences, I realized that I could remember a melody infinitely better when associated with a strong rhythmic pattern. Fortunately, we need not travel to such locations to understand rhythm's importance. Students come to music with an already developed sense of pulse from activities such as walking, running, dancing, and playing sports. We are surrounded by rhythm in our everyday lives. 

Learning the rhythm first and separately from the melodic line will prevent mistakes when learning homophonic piano music. Rhythm is the first and the easiest element to learn because we have the built-in rhythmic pulse of our heartbeat that is frequently measured to a second in time or 60 bpm (beats per minute). Everything in our world begins with rhythmic movement. We recognize our heartbeat is essential to our lives, but frequently we do not realize how our movement is controlled by its rhythmic pulse. In order for music to have movement, it must have a rhythmic pattern with a steady pulse. The rhythmic pulse is the unit that also gives continuity to all music, that is, sound through time. In fact, our whole planet Earth turns on its axis to a 24-hour rhythmic pulse, and we track our days to the 24-hour cycle, further subdividing into 60 minutes per hour and 60 seconds per minute.

There are three steps for teaching homophonic piano music. First, teach note values as they relate to the rhythmic meter. The most efficient way to teach the rhythm of a composition is to learn the rhythmic patterns without the melody. Students can connect the pulse to 60 bpm, or a second of time, and step left, right, left, right to the second hand of a clock while clapping the rhythm patterns.

Below you will find a table of note values that are found in most piano repertoire. Students will benefit from stepping to the rhythm of the quarter notes while clapping the various rhythmic patterns of notes longer than one beat as well as notes that divide the beat. The Dalcroze method utilizes various syllables to teach rhythmic values and subdivisions. Using complete words with the accent on the first syllable is a user-friendly way to utilize the Dalcroze approach at the piano and instill a solid rhythmic foundation. 

The most efficient way to learn the various rhythms of a composition is to tap the rhythms on a flat surface, left hand first, then right hand, then hands together. There are several advantages to this:

  • Your ears hear and learn the rhythmic patterns without relying on the melody.
  • Your eyes are always on the score, not the keyboard.
  • Eyes learn to read groups of notes on a grand staff instead of one note at a time, leading to a more successful performance each time.
  • Repetitions of rhythmic patterns are easy to read and encourage reading ahead.
  • Quick analysis of scale and chord patterns equals self-teaching, usually without mistakes.
  • Interpretation is the second step in teaching the rhythmic pulse. Dynamics, articulations, pedaling, and fingering patterns constitute interpretation. 
    • Marked dynamics must be considered first by tapping on a flat surface from your wrist on curved fingertips with hands separate, then hands together. This is the correct hand position for various tone qualities on the keyboard. The descending speed of the tapping fingers determines the volume of sound. For example, a fast descent creates forte sounds and slow descent creates piano sounds. If the key is depressed too slowly, the hammer won't touch the string, resulting in no sound.
  • Next is articulation, which is primarily staccato and legato. When playing staccato, each key is released before playing the next. When playing legato, the first key is not released before playing the second key. Rests must be observed precisely in time.
  • Follow the pedal marks rhythmically with the toes of the right foot on the damper pedal and the heel placed on the floor to balance the body weight.
  • Fingering patterns are the final component. Marked fingering patterns can be tapped with hands separate, then together. This tapping exercise shapes the hand to the melodic line, promoting accuracy on the piano keyboard. 

After learning the rhythmic patterns and applying these four components of interpretation, the third step of teaching is to add the melodic and harmonic elements of the music. Because a solid rhythmic foundation has already been set, students are able to give movement and meaning to the melody. This will not only ensure a more accurate performance, it will also give the student a more enjoyable experience of learning keyboard music.        

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