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13 minutes reading time (2669 words)

What are the most important rhythmic skills for the early-level student?

I remember the first time I heard Elvina Pearce talk about piano teaching. I was a doctoral candidate in piano performance and pedagogy at Northwestern University in the mid-1980s, and a special class of master's and doctoral students was assembled so that "Mrs. Pearce" could teach both at the same time. From the very start I was riveted by the precision and energy of her presentation. It was obvious in every statement she made that what she was talking about was extremely important for us to know, and that she cared a great deal about that content. 

At that time I had already been teaching for fifteen years, but I still had a long mental list of questions and unresolved observations—mysteries about why my teaching led to students succeeding in some areas and not in others. Every few minutes, Elvina would discuss something that absolutely nailed—head-on—one of those unanswered questions. After a few of these in rapid succession, I wanted to stand up and cheer! The pedagogical bull's-eyes just kept coming and coming throughout the rest of the class. It was an exhilarating experience that changed my teaching. 

It wasn't just the specific content and laser-like insights of her lecture that were valuable. In subsequent days, as I looked over and re-organized my written notes from that day, I realized there was an implicit essential message framing the facts and techniques: persistently tend to the basics—everything else can then be more easily addressed. I had previously sensed this intuitively in the years that I had taught with no guidance or supervision, but her lecture confirmed it to such a degree that I then felt liberated to wholeheartedly pursue that approach. 

I felt that excitement again as I read her article below. I suspect that you will as well.

Bruce Berr

Rhythmic stability—the prime ingredient of technical security and expressive musicality

If a stable rhythmic pulse is indeed the foundation upon which a piece's musical structure is built, then, in my opinion, acquiring this and being able to maintain it when performing is surely the most important thing that all students—and especially those at the early level—need to achieve. 

In my studio, I expect every student to be able to select an appropriate tempo for a piece and then play it from beginning to end at this tempo without speeding up or slowing down (except of course when the composer indicates an accelerando, a ritard, or a fermata). Although this should be an easily acquired skill, why is it that so many students seem to have difficulty achieving it? Hopefully this article will provide some answers to this question.

Student posture at the piano

Whenever I encounter a student who has difficulty playing and maintaining a steady rhythmic pulse, the first thing I always check is the sitting posture at the piano. Since in everything we do, balance plays such an essential role in being able to maintain our body's stability, then having good body balance when playing the piano is a must for achieving rhythmic stability. To help my students experience this, the first thing they are expected to do prior to playing is to adjust the bench so that it's the proper height and distance from the keyboard: not too high or too low, and not too close or too far back. (This is something I always illustrate with the parents of beginners and I even give them actual measurements for the above so they can check their home piano bench in terms of these specifications.) 

I also think that to experience good body balance, students need to sit forward on the bench and sit tall—no slumping! Except when using the pedal, both feet should be flat on the floor and the body's weight needs to be equally distributed between the feet and the seat. 

To meet the needs of younger students whose feet don't yet reach the floor, teachers must also address proper body balance. Many teachers deal with this by providing a small footstool or adjustable platform for such students, and this works quite well, assuming that the child's feet can be elevated to exactly the proper height off the floor. If such a footstool is provided at the lesson, then parents will also need to come up with some sort of a workable elevation for the student to use during home practice. Also, if the student is to perform in a recital, the teacher must be sure that a platform for the feet is available for use during the performance. 

Without the addition of a footstool to facilitate the proper on-floor placement of their feet, small children will need to sit a bit further back on the bench and cross their ankles. The crossed ankles function as an anchor and help the student maintain body stability, whereas two dangling legs swinging around while playing can seriously interfere with the student's balance. (I personally prefer this sitting position instead of using a footstool because it works not only in the studio but also at home and in other performance venues as well.)

The length of pieces

Another possible reason for lack of rhythmic stability is that the music being assigned may exceed the student's current ability level. Generally, the longer the piece, the more difficult it will be for a student who is both young and inexperienced to be able to maintain a steady rhythmic pulse for its duration. Even though most beginning methods start out with short pieces (usually four-eight measures), all too often, the pieces advance in length considerably sooner than does the student's ability to sustain focus and concentration. 

Certainly moving ahead to "Book 2" in which the pieces will be even longer and more complicated will not solve rhythmic problems. Instead, many students need to be assigned a quantity of supplementary music which is similar in length and rhythmic difficulty to the pieces in book one until playing and maintaining a steady tempo become second nature. (Duets also provide excellent supplements to solo repertoire. Because they usually sound more impressive than most early level solos, they are fun to play, and, in addition, if the secondo player is the teacher, this can really help to reinforce pulse stability.)

What about technical challenges?

Almost always when students are assigned pieces which contain technical challenges with which they are not yet ready to deal (such as Alberti basses, syncopated pedaling, arpeggios, repeated octaves, four-note chords, embellishments, coordinating hands-together playing in contrapuntal passages, etc.), they will stumble, slow down, or even stop when trying to execute these in performance. Of course this distorts the basic rhythmic flow of a piece and results in rhythmic instability. Assigning music that is beyond a student's present level of technical expertise is inviting rhythmic disaster!

Checking the student's listening

Although "active" listening is not a rhythmic skill per se, without it, students have no effective way to evaluate their rhythmic control of tempo. Sometimes when asked a question such as "Are you aware that you slowed down in this section?" the student's answer is "No." This response may indicate that the student was not actively listening throughout the performance. If this is the case, the student might be asked to play the piece again and this time check to be sure that the tempo remains stable throughout. To assist, the teacher might sing along, conduct, or beat time as the student plays. Although such teacher activity might produce rhythmic stability in this "repeat" performance, if lack of active listening is the reason for a student's unawareness of tempo fluctuations, then this kind of teacher involvement will probably not guarantee rhythmic stability in subsequent performances. 

Instead of the above procedure, I have found that a more effective option is to ask the student to play the piece again and this time to record it. (Since all of my students bring some sort of a recording device to every lesson this does not pose a problem.) After recording the piece, the student and I follow the score as we listen to the playback. Because students are not involved with the intricacies of performance during this activity, they are able to focus entirely on listening and therefore are more apt to hear tempo fluctuations should they occur. A good follow-up to this lesson activity is to assign continued recordings of the piece at home, followed by an evaluation of each recorded performance in terms of its rhythmic stability.

What about using the metronome?

Whenever I think of the metronome, I remember Mike, a ten-year-old early level student who transferred to me after having had about a year and a half of study. Mike seemed to have multitudinous rhythm problems, and, early on in his study with me, no matter what the rhythmic problem was, whenever I asked him what he might do to solve it, he would always say, "I'd practice with the metronome." He obviously thought that metronomes were the universal panacea for dealing with all negative rhythmic issues. 

One of Mike's most serious rhythmic problems was his seeming inability to maintain a steady tempo as he played. It's surely no surprise that all of his previous metronome practice had not helped him overcome this. Unfortunately, the metronome could never produce the two things that Mike needed the most—a reliable inner metronome and the kind of active listening that is necessary for controlling rhythmic stability. 

(As you have probably already surmised, Mike also had numerous other problems besides rhythm, and, as we began to solve these, his rhythmic performance improved immeasurably—and without the use of his metronome!)

What about counting?

Most of us who teach beginners would agree that their learning how to play and count is an important concern. Of equal concern should be what it is that they are counting. It's surely not notes. It's a pulse. But not just "a pulse." Rather, it should be a pulse that is steady and regularly recurring

Early in their study, students learn that a quarter note is the symbol for a basic pulse and that half notes, dotted halves, and whole notes multiply a pulse by twos, threes, and fours, and eighth notes, triplets, and sixteenth notes similarly divide it. But how can students accurately multiply or divide a pulse that doesn't exist, or—at best—is irregular and spasmodic? 

As indicated in the first paragraph of this article, I believe that the most important thing students must learn about rhythm is the meaning of "pulse." But they won't learn this by looking at illustrations of note symbols or reading definitions of them in their first book; and neither will presentations such as the following teach the meaning of pulse: "Today we're going to learn about quarter notes. This is a quarter note. It gets one beat. Here's how we count quarter notes. Let's count some quarter notes together. Now let's hear you count some quarter notes all by yourself." A true understanding and accurate rhythmic translation of note symbols within a musical context can only occur after a student has internalized and physically experienced playing with a strong and regularly recurring pulse over an extended period of time. Playing lots of straight forward, quarter-note based pieces plus clapping, tapping, and conducting can all provide opportunities for physically experiencing pulse. 

But what about counting? I firmly believe that counting should never be introduced until playing and maintaining a steady pulse has become a part of the student's habit. Unless this is the case, students can count until the cows come home and still end up with tempo instability and inaccurate rhythmic relationships of note values.

When I introduce counting, rather than beginning with metric counting, my students start out with "pulse" counting, i.e., saying "1" for every quarter note, "1-2" for half notes, "1-2-3" for dotted halves, etc. regardless of where the notes occur in a measure. I choose this mode of counting for two reasons: 1. it reinforces the durational value of these notes which students are just in the process of learning, and 2. it's easier for them to understand and learn how to verbalize the counts if they don't have to first figure out on which metric beat the notes occur.

How do we get students to count aloud as they play?

Undoubtedly there are lots of ways to do this, but there's one way for sure that won't accomplish this and that's for the teacher to count aloud with them! I'm sure that in my early years as a teacher, I undoubtedly had a lot of students who didn't do a good job of counting aloud. And then along came BOBBY! He's the one who really won the prize in this department! At every lesson I would shout "COUNT!" before he started each piece. Then he would begin to play—but only I counted. And regardless of how loudly I counted, Bobby never counted along with me. Finally one day I became acutely aware that the only voice I ever heard counting in that studio was mine! (And not just with Bobby—but with other students as well.) From that day on, I vowed to break my habit of counting aloud with my students and I did! Although now I sometimes count with them at the outset of a performance just to get the music in motion, I withdraw almost at once and then the ball is in their court. Why should students count if someone else always does it for them? If we expect them to count by themselves at home when they practice, then they must certainly do so at the lesson.

The importance of pre-planning tempo before beginning to play

Another rhythmic skill which early level students should acquire is the habit of preplanning a piece's tempo before starting to play it. Often beginning pieces have words and if so, reciting a few of them before starting helps to set the desired tempo. As soon as students are secure with counting, then I ask them to do an audible "countoff " or "pre-count" (usually of a measure or two) before starting. Once this procedure has become part of their habit, then of course the count-off is done silently. 

I usually let students select their own tempos because here again, this is what they must do at home. But don't they frequently set one that is too fast? Yes. But if this happens, they usually discover it quite soon if they begin to "mess up," and so they realize the need for setting a slower tempo until they find one that enables them to succeed. In the final analysis, the emphasis is not just on setting a tempo before beginning, but on setting a wise tempo. We call this a "thinking" tempo—one which makes it possible to simultaneously think ahead, securely play and listen, and evaluate the results. (And this generally turns out to be a much slower tempo than was the student's original choice.)

A parting thought...

I believe that every individual has an innate sense of rhythm and can learn to play with rhythmic stability, vitality, and security (unless of course there is some sort of a physical problem that prevents this). I rejoice because the typical early level student who comes to me for lessons already possesses a natural abundance of rhythm! It's my responsibility to tap into this valuable resource and help the student find ways to utilize it in music making at the piano. From my perspective, rhythm is the heart and soul of music, and assisting students with discovering and experiencing the joy of musically expressing it is surely one of my greatest privileges—and rewards!


Bruce Berr has been an independent teacher and university professor of piano and pedagogy for a long time. He is known nationally as a clinician, educational composer and arranger, and author on a wide variety of topics related to teaching, music, and piano. His column on personal observations,"ad lib," appears regularly in American Music Teacher magazine, and he has been editor of the Rhythm department for Keyboard Companion and Clavier Companion since 1997. Explore his website at BruceBerr.com.

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