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Methods for Practicing Rhythm

Hi there, 
I'm a fairly new private voice teacher (just finished my music credential last year) and I have a student who is strggling with feeling the rhythm in his songs. I've tried various methods to get him more involved with the music (clapping, focused listening, walking in time to a beat, etc.) and I'm not sure if maybe there would be better ways to achieve this. I've also taught him to read music, so he understands the various rhythm patterns, I just don't know what else to try to get him to feel it.
Any advice is much appreciated! Thanks!
on June 21, 2014 12:55am
In my experience what you are trying is effective generally, but persistence for an extended period of time might be required.    I had a student who just couldn't "count" , and eventually I discovered that she didn't actually have much of an internal sense of the beat at all; reading the rhythm didn't help, because she didn't feel the beat strongly enough to play the rhythm in time with it. 
Other strategies I have tried with success include:
  • tap, walk  or dance in time with music being listened to at home, if necessaray when no one is watching
  • for a few seconds walk in time with the background music in the supermarket
  • once the student can walk in time with the beat, clap twice/three times/ four times/half as fast while walking
  • you tap gently on the student's shoulder while he says or sings the words of the song in time.
Good luck to you and your student.
Helen Duggan
Applauded by an audience of 2
on June 21, 2014 3:31am
on June 21, 2014 11:22am
Please take a look a book and method, You've Got Rhythm: Read Music Better by Feeling the Beat, that I cowrote with pianist/educator Joan Harkness. We and others have seen amazing results in a short amount of time, and it's fun, too (if I do say so myself!).
good luck and best wishes,
Anna Dembska
on June 21, 2014 6:32pm
Helen's ideas are good;  the title of Anna's method sounds promising.  
Kodaly was a lousy composer (imo) but the rhythm methods work pretty well.    Any kind of walk-to-the-beat and clap-the-portions-of-the-beat can be very helpful.  Just be sure to change the tempo often, otherwise your student will expect all music to be quarter =72 (or whatever your personal pulse might be). Use your brain and education to avoid stultification: kind of like avoiding universal tonic as that USA  sharp Bb (60 cycles per second)  hum from the fluorescent lights, the refrigerator, the computer, and the composter as God's tonic -- when all it really is is Edison's curse to musicians.
on June 21, 2014 7:33pm
Never underestimate the effects of trying to do too much at once on an already stressed student.  If they can tell you're frustrated, (and if you are trying multiple methods with them, they know why!) and they are also trying to read music as a fairly new music-reader that's going to add to the problem.  They may not actually be doing as badly as you think, as long as you are out of the room.  (:
There's a fun experiment where a scientist just asks you to do simple math out loud at a steady pace and tells you when you miss one.  Most people do fine until they miss a single answer and then they progressively fall apart as the stress of knowing they are making mistakes snowballs.  
And as a terribly uncoordinated person I have a really hard time walking and reading even familiar music at the same time.  And I sight read well.  Much less walking in rhythm while singing.  You should see our church choir's scraggly attempts at processing and recessing gracefully.  We bump into each other, some people give up on singing in parts entirely and just sing the melody, some people sing parts, but throw out any attempt at the words and sing "la."  Be sure that any clapping, walking, etc excercises are helping, rather than adding a layer of distraction to an already busy brain.  Seriously, some of us really are that uncoordinated.  
To the excellent suggestions already made I'd add:
You play the accompaniment, and assign your student a single piano key to hit in time with their vocal part.  They don't get to try to actually play their tune, that's too distracting.  They just plunk their one note in rhythm.  They don't get to try to sing their part, then they would have to think about notes and words, as well as rhythm.  They just hit middle C to their rhythm while you play the accompaniment so all they need to be paying attention to is the realationship between printed quarter notes and eighths and triplets.  And go slowly and in small sections, just a few measures at a time, so it's not overwhelming and they feel some success.  
The advantage to the piano key over clapping:  it's a very small movement so it's easier to keep it crisp for the uncoordinated, but it also sounds crisp so you can hear whether or not they are getting it.  The advantage over counting or la-la-la-ing is that if your student is feeling a little embarrassed, they may not want to commit to participating enthusiastically with a loud "la"  and it will come out timid and late.  We don't like to sing when we are embarrassed, or talk.  The piano key, however, is just a key, no danger of it coming out squeaky or weird, so it's a little less threatening.  It just goes tap, tap, tap.  
I'd also advise helping them write out the subdivision for their rhythms in their music over the top of their line.  All of them.  In as un-music-speaky a way as you can muster so their tired brain doesn't need to do any translating in the moment:  123-123-12-22-32-123-123-12...  would be dotted quarter, dotted quarter, quarter, quarter, quarter...  and then have them speak that rhythm.  I still write things like that over the top of new music when I have a tricky rhythm.  Be sure that they know that's okay to do.  It's not cheating, it's just taking notes on the important parts.
Good luck!
on June 22, 2014 6:01am
I've had a couple experiences where piano students who were quite intelligent and were really trying couldn't count out loud (and therefore, couldn't count certain bars in their heads, either). I tried some simple Brain Gym execises (anything where the arms crossed the centre line into the other hemisphere) with them and it worked. The counting and fingers flowed easily. It was quite surprising. Their assignment was then to do 10-15 seconds of Brain Gym before starting the piece. They had much more successful. I'm not sure how it would transfer to the voice (not all keyboard techniques do). I do know a little Brain Gym quiets down and focuses my children's choirs quite nicely. 
Helen's suggestions sound quite on point, especially if you stick with them for quite a while and build those neurons. Broadly speaking, counting is left-brained and singing is right-brained. The two don't operate all that simultaneously from what I've read. 
Karen Schuessler
on June 22, 2014 8:54am
I too recommend writing out the subdivisions of difficult parts as Maggie Furtak has suggested (once they've "got it" it can be erased).  But, for me at least, I think the key thing is that "beat" is the a more basic (primitive?) aspect of music is "felt" more than heard or thought.  Less intellectual more physical.  It's more of the body than the brain.  Initially, for me at least, walking, clapping or speaking a beat is less helpful than "playing" it on something...table or piano top, chair, folder closed in my lap, like playing bongos.  The idea is to "feel" it at a more primitive/physical level.  Then, it will open up more easily to "reading and thinking" it at the intellectual level.  It will help, as they say in England, "the penny drop." 
on June 23, 2014 8:36am
The Kodaly rhythmic names for notes are a simple but effective way to
count the rhythm.   It works for children and adults too.
Over simplification can help to feel the beat.
Ruth Bergstrom Jones,  Lancaster, California.
on June 23, 2014 10:01am
Please check out my beginning videos on the Breath Impulse Counting Method, although it was designed with band students in mind, it ultimately requires students to count on pitch.  I will be happy to custom-make videos for your/your student for no charge.
  1. January 30, 2014 2:42 PM
  2.  3:49
    January 29, 2014 8:37 PM
on June 24, 2014 12:24pm
A rabbit track, please forgive me.  William Copper's statement about Kodaly, "Kodaly was a lousy composer (imo) but the rhythm methods work pretty well" is quite innacurate.  Koldaly was, contrarily, a gifted composer and educator.  I own 5 volumes of his choral works, esp. for women, and there is everything a performer / choir / audience could wish.   You will find LOTS of usable material as you explore his
choral compositions and rhythm is a key component.  I am married to a Hungarian and know the folk music of Kodaly, Bartok, Orban, etc. and there is NO better way to educate young singers, with a complete musical experience, than his choral works.
There - no offense intended, clarification needed.
on June 24, 2014 2:57pm
I agree with Mr. Hunt that Kodaly was an important composer of choral music.  Certainly his "Psalmus Hungaricus" and his "Budivari Te Deum" were two of the most significant large choral works of the 20th century. One could also add his "Missa brevis" (in both versions--accompanied by organ only, or by full orchestra). His "Pange lingua", accompanied by organ is a remarkable work.   In addition to these larger works, he wrote many interesting shorter (mostly unaccompanied) works for high voices and for male voices. Many of these are of fine quality.
on June 24, 2014 7:39pm
In "Evoking Sound," James Jordan discusses the power of pendulums in allowing singers to internalize tempo. It sounds like maintaining a sense of steady beat may be your student's problem? A combination of visual (watching a pendulum) with the aural and kinesthetic techniques you've used may help.
There are also websites where he could practice reading rhythms, and progress at his own rate.
on June 25, 2014 9:19am
Please forgive me for expressing an opinion above; it is my opinion, but then I like Mozart and some don't.    More on rhythm, a hypothesis:  in music there is rhythm at many levels:  the whole bar, the half bar (often), the beat, the main subdivision of the beat, and the counter-to-the-beat feclitiies a composer might invent.   Perhaps people with difficulty generally with rhythm do not have these divisions clear, and a few minutes of instruction in the rudiments of music might provide a good mental framework for getting better at recognizing and keeping rhythm. 
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