However, as much as I understood that a whole note is comprised of two half notes, or that a quarter note is comprised of two eighth notes, I had trouble transferring the knowledge in my head to the notes on the page. After a while, just the thought of figuring out a seemingly complicated rhythm scared me. I convinced myself that rhythm was my weakness, an obstacle I would never overcome.
Doesn’t sound very promising, does it?
Since then, I’ve worked with many beginning students who also struggle with rhythm. Here are my suggestions for learning rhythmic concepts.
An analogy for rhythm:
Imagine that you are getting onto the Florida turnpike. After going through the tollbooth, traffic suddenly becomes a funnel, where several lanes of cars have to merge into one. Depending on the amount of traffic there is, driving through this funnel might be a bit scary (“I hope the car next to me isn’t getting too close!”) or a breeze. Then, you’re on the turnpike, driving securely in your own lane, and so is the car next to you.
You can imagine rhythmic structure in the same way. They are like lane markers, designed to help you “stay in your own lane.” If you are playing with a group, and there is a conductor keeping the time, then you are assured that everyone will stay together throughout the piece. The conductor’s beat acts like a “lane marker” on the turnpike. Follow the beat, “stay in your own lane,” and you won’t have to worry about colliding with the car next to you. Ignore the conductor and change note lengths at your own discretion, and it’s like you’re driving in the traffic funnel.
What happens if you don’t have a conductor? As long as you're performing with someone else (for example, a pianist), you have to establish a common understanding of rhythm and keep a strict count. You don’t want to end up in a traffic funnel with your pianist in the middle of a performance, do you?
So, how do you develop a strong sense of rhythm, or an “internal pulse”?
1. Tell yourself that rhythm is an absolutely essential element of music. In many situations (especially in sight reading), playing the right rhythm is even more important than playing the right notes. Playing the right rhythm ensures that you always know where you are in the music, which guarantees that you will stay with the rest of the group.
2. When you get a new piece of music, write in the correct rhythm. Is the piece in 4/4? Then for every measure, make sure you can count four complete beats! Write in 1, 2, 3, and 4 so that you know where the main beats are. If there are subdivisions (such as eighth notes, sixteenth notes, triplets, etc.) write those in!
A measure with quarter notes:
1 2 3 4
A measure with eighth notes:
1 + 2 + 3 + 4 +
A measure with sixteenth notes:
1 e + a 2 e + a 3 e + a 4 e + a
A measure with triplets:
1 + a 2 + a 3 + a 4 + a
3. Clap and say the rhythm.
4. Tap your foot to the main beats in the measure (1, 2, 3, 4) while clapping and saying the subdivisions of the beat.
Purchase a metronome (or use metromeonline.com) and use it whenever you practice. The more you practice with a metronome, the more you will strengthen these rhythmic concepts. Then, when you take the metronome away, you will have a more solid rhythmic foundation.
Do these suggestions help you? Let me know what you think!