Font size: +
12 minutes reading time (2354 words)

The Heart of the Matter: Rhythm

Marvin Blickenstaff is Professor of Music at Goshen College (Indiana) where he teaches applied piano and courses in piano pedagogy and music literature. With Louise Bianchi and Lynn Freeman Olson, he co-authored the series Music Pathways (Carl Fischer Publishing Co.).

What Kind of Counting Do You Use With Beginners… and Why?

by Marvin Blickenstaff

Aren't you terribly curious about what really transpires in other teachers' studios? How do our colleagues across the country teach a particular aspect of theory, or technique? What "facilitations" do they use for teaching certain hurdles in familiar pieces in the repertoire? And how do they convey concepts of rhythm to their beginning (and intermediate and advanced) students?

KEYBOARD COMPANION is devoted to the sharing of information, ideas, and studio techniques. In this issue we are asking about the most effective ways to start our students counting. Most of us were taught "1 2 3 4" from the first lesson, but few of the more recent piano courses follow that method. Why have some writers chosen another way to start counting rhythm? Is there a more effective way to have our students verbalize their understanding and feeling of pulse and rhythm?

The successful, "effective way" may vary from student to student. As one talks with colleagues and observes piano courses, approaches certainly vary from studio to studio, from piano course to piano course. Some teachers, when asked about beginning counting methods, respond that they use what works best with each individual student. (Could we paraphrase and say that "flexibility is the spice of creative teaching"?) Others have a standard approach with all beginning students, often because of the counting espoused in the course book being used. Our respondents to the question in this issue all use the chanting of time values with their beginners. In future issues we will hear from teachers using other approaches and from those who use an eclectic combination of counting methods.

It all makes for interesting, stimulating reading. Despite our variety of words, the colors and titles of our various beginning books, one is struck in these and other responses with what seems to become Rhythm Axiom Number One: Rhythmic instruction starts with a feeling of a steady pulse.

Your response is solicited, because what works for you — and why — could easily be the answer another teacher has been looking for. 

by Rebecca Shockley

"In order for counting to serve a musical purpose, it should be done with expression and energy."

I would like to begin by reiterating what was expressed so well in the first issue of KEYBOARD COMPANION (Spring, 1990) — the importance of establishing a steady beat or pulse in the body as the basis for all rhythmic activity, including counting. Activities such as walking, swaying, or clapping in rhythm provide solid foundation for counting. Whatever system the teacher chooses should reinforce the beginning student's awareness of pulse and help in maintaining a steady beat. If the counting interferes with the beat, it may be too complicated for that student's present level of coordination.

For beginners, counting should be clear and simple, focusing on pulse and duration. Although metric counting is essential for later study, it is a more complex task and should be introduced only after the student has established a secure sense of pulse and can recognize and respond correctly to primary note values in common meters.

I like to introduce counting by asking students to clap and say the names of the notes values in rhythm, e.g. "quar- ter," "two-eighths," "quar-ter-dot- eighth," "half-note," "whole-note-four- counts," etc. Rests can be counted by whispering "quar-ter" or "half-rest" while separating the hands, and ties by whispering the note value or saying "tie" while holding the hands together and pulsing the beat. This system offers several advantages:

1) The student is learning the names of note values.
2) The length of the name corresponds to the duration of the note.
3) The system can be used in any meter or in nonmetric examples.
4) It is easy to learn.

Obviously, the system is limited since the student can count only fairly simple rhythms, one at a time, at a slow to moderate tempo, and cannot express meter. Therefore, as soon as basic fluency and steadiness are achieved, metric counting should be introduced, beginning with a quarter note pulse in duple and triple meters, then adding eighth-note subdivisions, compound meters such as 6/8 (counted both in six and in two), and 16th notes.

The importance of counting aloud should be stressed from the beginning. By practicing until the speech patterns are smoothly coordinated with the fingers, hands, arms, and feet, the student internalizes the process and develops an imaginary "inner conductor" that can be used whenever needed.

With more complicated rhythms, some students find it confusing to count 16th-notes and do better counting just quarters and eighths, while others find it helpful to count all the subdivisions. Flexibility is a key factor in counting, and students should be encouraged to experiment with different kinds of counting in different situations in order to find out what works best for them, and when and how to use it.

For students with rhythmic problems, counting and clapping or tapping the rhythm before sight playing helps to insure that rhythms are played correctly the first time, and that rhythmic steadiness is not sacrificed to hunt for pitches. Whenever the pulse wavers, getting off the bench, walking the beat, and clapping the rhythm can help stabilize the rhythm. When fast passages are uneven, I show students how to use "the metronome in your mouth" by "tonguing" the 16ths ("ta-ta-ta-ta") as they play, beginning slowly and gradually increasing the tempo. Any simple repetitive movement can provide a rhythmic model to help steady the fingers.

Common rhythmic patterns should be practiced until they are automatic, so that groups of notes are perceived as single units. I often point randomly to different measures on a page, having the student clap and count until the response to each pattern is instantaneous and correct.

Once students have internalized the basic principles of metric counting, they can begin to adapt them to a variety of purposes:

  1. Discover the "larger meter" (or grouping of measures into phrases) by counting phrases as if each measure were a beat. This is particularly helpful in scanning a piece before sight playing and with phrases of irregular length.
  2. Feel small pulses in a very slow tempo by counting four sixteenths to each quarter.
  3. Count several measures of rest in an ensemble (e.g. three bars of rest in 4/4 as "1234 2234 3234").

Finally, in order for counting to serve a musical purpose, it should be done with expression and energy, so that the rhythmic character of the music is communicated with voice and gesture. Strong and weak beats, syncopations, legato and staccato, dynamics, and the building and releasing of tension within a phrase can all be expressed in counting, making it a lively musical experience instead of a dull exercise. Teachers must provide a model for expressive counting from the first lesson, and help their students to feel the same intensity in their own practice.

Rebecca Shockley is Associate Professor of Music at the University of Minnesota, where she teaches pedagogy and keyboard harmony and coordinates the class piano program. She chairs the Committee on Learning Theory/Piano Pedagogy Liaison for The National Conference on Piano Pedagogy, and has published a number of articles on music learning and memorization. 

by Sylvia Coats

A counting method needs to help students "hear" what they "see."

A counting method needs to help students "hear" what they "see" in the music, and this ability to auralize starts with the beginning lesson. The separate concepts of rhythm and pulse must be differentiated for students if they are to understand any counting method. To help students develop the concept of rhythm, start with what they know — chant a familiar verse. The natural rhythm of a nursery rhyme gives the student a sense of longer and shorter durations. For instance, Twinkle, twinkle little star, how I wonder what you are is, essentially, two balanced phrases with longer sounds ending each phrase.

After the concept of rhythm is understood as a grouping of longer and shorter durations, then the rhythm can be performed with the pulse. Students have to feel pulse through their bodies in order to mentally hear rhythm. Continuous body pulse, such as walking the beats while chanting and clapping the rhythm, helps the student understand the combination of the two concepts of beat and rhythm. Walking the beats can be done away from the piano or sitting on the piano bench transferring the weight from one foot to the other. Students discover in walking the beats to Twin-kle, twin-kle lit-tIe star that they step once for each syllable. "Star" and "are" are exceptions; they receive two steps each.

The syllables used in counting need to contribute to the natural flow of the rhythm and beat. My students name the note values after chanting the verse. 

Chanting quarter note values not only identifies the technical name for the rhythm, but also subdivides the beat for eighth-note preparation. Notice on the chart below how the syllables help define the rhythmic grouping; "quar-ter-dot-eighth" forces the student to count the dot.

Musical stress is realized in the beginning lessons by swinging the arms across the body to the accented words in the verse. This corresponds to the strong and weak beats within a measure — one swing in 2/4 and 3/4 and two swings in 4/4 and 6/8. 

 After the note values have been learned with their names, numeral counting is introduced. Counting "1 234" in every measure makes sense to the student because an understanding of beat and rhythm have already been well established. Metrical stress that was naturally felt with the verse is now defined as a strong pulse on one and weak pulse on two. With the measure unit defined, phrases can be understood as increasingly complex relationships of strong and weak stresses.

When our students experience rhythm and pulse through chanting, singing, and moving to music, there are fewer problems with notes values, time signatures, and incorrect rhythms. Instead of dwelling on the facts of musical nota- tion, we will have given our students the foundation to understand, feel, and interpret music creatively.

Sylvia Coats is Assistant Professor of Piano Pedagogy and Class Piano at Wichita State University. She is a member of the Committee on the Futureof Piano Pedagogy for The National Conference on Piano Pedagogy and inationally certified by MTNA. She gives workshops on eurhythmics and individual learning styles and plays with the Sotto Voce Trio.

by Sandra L. Camp 

The ability to feel and maintain the pulse is so essential that I feel it deserves its own special portion of the lesson and practice time. 

​The ability to feel and maintain the pulse in music is so essential that I feel it deserves its own special portion of the lesson and practice time. This emphasis starts with the very earliest lessons, regardless of whether it is a Suzuki student or a traditional student.

My approach to teaching rhythm is through verbalizing the rhythmic values (as do Pace, Bastien, and Palmer) which I call "chanting" to distinguish it from counting later on. Along with the chanting, we clap the patterns.

Central to this activity is use of the Basic Rhythm Patterns sets of cards published by CPP/Belwin. Consisting of approximately fifty 4" x 6" cards, each with an eight-measure rhythm pattern, they begin with the basic combinations of quarter notes and eighth notes, gradually adding other note values and rests. Clapping and chanting these rhythms is done daily both at the lessons and during a portion of home practice. We work in slow, medium, and fast tempos, but always with emphasis on absolute evenness. During the early stages of this work, traditional students find that the rhythm cards reinforce the rhythmic patterns in their pieces, but soon their card work forges ahead, eventually out-pacing actual playing assignments. Results? When new rhythms are confronted, students breeze through them, allowing more concentration on note-reading and other details. Suzuki students, who normally study many months prior to note-reading, benefit from this activity since the card work initiates eye-training and symbol interpretation.

Planning to send three or four cards home with each student weekly, several years ago I purchased eight to ten sets of the cards. All students have an envelope taped inside the cover of their assignment notebook into which I tuck the cards. These are to be practiced along with the rest of the assignment. They are then returned to the lesson the following week where we clap and chant them together and then exchange them for a new group. (Needless to say, I have lost many cards over the years, but the results have been well worth the investment.)

We clap/chant cards for months, even years — depending on age, level, approach, and other factors. Somewhere along the way, counting is gradually introduced and the cards are both chanted and counted. The transition is nearly magical because students have long felt, for instance, the two beats in the clap-bounce of a half note, or a clap-bounce- bounce of a dotted half note. Likewise, there is no problem whatsoever in substituting 

The benefits of the chanting approach are many. Not only is it a welcome change of activity in any lesson, but it also reinforces the name of the note value. I have found that young children find chanting easier than counting and that they develop a regularity of pulse more quickly.

And now a sad postscript. Set 1 of these rhythm cards is out of print. Perhaps the publishers could be persuaded to reprint them. (Their address is Carole Flatau, CPP/Belwin, 15800 NW 48th Avenue, Miami, FL 33014.) Set 2, Intermediate Rhythm Patterns is still available and very useful in remedial situations.

Sandra L. Camp has been Associate Professor of Music at Walla Walla College in Washington and more recently at Andrews University in Michigan. In1 988 she resigned her teaching position to become the owner and manager of a music store. Her private studio continues, and she has students from beginning through college levels. 

The Editor's Page
Partners In Time: You and Your Piano


Already Registered? Login Here
No comments made yet. Be the first to submit a comment

About Piano Magazine

Piano Magazine is the leading resource for pianists, piano teachers, and piano enthusiasts. We bring you informative, interesting, and inspiring ideas on all aspects of piano teaching, learning, and performing. The official name of Clavier Companion magazine was changed to Piano Magazine in 2019.

Follow us on

Terms of use

Have Questions?

We are happy to help.

Editorial questions? This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Advertising questions? This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Subscription questions? This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Technical questions? This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Cron Job Starts