Learning to Teach Rhythm

Learning to Teach Rhythm

I have a student that really wants to get a steady rhythm in his playing, but is having the worst time of it. I’ve tried everything I could think of, but I’m at a loss as to what to do to help him.

His rhythm is fine when he’s playing with other people, but on his own he’s all over the place. He can’t follow a metronome at all, even if I start out playing with him (and it) and drop out. He can record himself and listen back and hear that he’s off, but he has no sense of it while he’s playing. He can’t tap his foot to a recording, but he can tell me which notes are on the beat if he thinks about it. I’ve tried to get him dancing, but then he so worried about messing up the dance that he follows others out of the corner of his eye and his feet have nothing to do with the rhythm in the music. He knows what and where the beat should be conceptually, but just can’t seem to internalize it. He’s really a very good player in all other respects. It’s a shame he can’t play his best on his own.

I went through and did a search on this site for suggestions and tried everything I’ve found so far. I’m feeling like a failure as teacher because I haven’t found a solution.

If any of you out there have had similar difficulties with rhythm I would really like to hear from you. Please let me know what helped you learn to keep a good rhythm.

Any other suggestions would be most welcome as well.

Thanks,
-Kira

Re: Learning to Teach Rhythm

How long has he been playing music? On fiddle?

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Re: Learning to Teach Rhythm

A few years. He’s been playing whistle for maybe five years(?). He’s been taking fiddle lessons from me for about a year and a half. He’s still a teenager so he has plenty of time to learn, but almost no patience to do so.

Re: Learning to Teach Rhythm

What happens if he plays something very simple and slow, like "Mary had a Little Lamb?" Is it a problem no matter the tempo or complexity of the rhythm?

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I’m not a teacher but just a thought:
Would it help to have him clap to a recording?

Mary

Re: Learning to Teach Rhythm

I might add that he’s really a fast learner. He has good intonation, good tone, great bowing, all the tricks (rolls, triplets, etc.) and he picks up tunes like a sponge. The rhythm issue is really all that’s holding him back. Otherwise he’d be flying.

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Sorry Mary, He can’t clap or tap to a recording. We’ve tried that.

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Does he listen to a lot of music, do you know? My rhythm improved dramatically when I started to drown myself in Johnny Doherty and Denis Murphy. Worth a shot, eh?

—DtM

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The problem has nothing to do with tempo. I made a point of having him play slow to moderate tempos right from the start. He will speed up slightly in places and slow down slightly in others, and not in any particular places. It’s not like he just always speeds up or always slows down. His average speed remains fairly constant, just irregular.

Re: Learning to Teach Rhythm

Many people are visual learners and some need it more than others. I don’t know if you use any notated music with him, but if he clapped the rhythms (as Mary suggested), counted the rhythms and then played the tune from notation, he might get a better sense of the structure of music. Like where the down beats are, etc. Using very easy beginner music would probably drive it home best. Once he has a sense of it, then he might finally internalize it.

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Yeah, patience isn’t a virtue for manyh teens. That and his relative newness to fiddle are probably the main problems here, rather than some innate difficulty with rhythm.

I’ve taught music since 1976—hundreds of students. Only one proved incapable of finding the beat. So I’ll toss out some ideas—maybe something will help.

Have him try mandolin. The up and down of a plectrum leaves far fewer opportunities to stray from the rhythm. And learning to handle a pick will slow him down enough to force the issue of staying on the beat. But the fingering’s the same as fiddle, so he’ll "know" the tunes he already has under his belt.

If that’s too big a step (or no mando is available), try this exercise:

Play a recording of a simple, fairly slow jig (preferably one he already knows). Set the volume on "loud." Now both you and the student slap your thigh with the bow hand in time to the downbeats.

At first just slap the two big beats in each bar: SLAP (two three) SLAP (two three). Do this the whole way through the tune. Do it again. And again. Don’t move on to the next step until he can do this one well, on his own.

When that’s comfortable (this may take some practice on his part, maybe even through a week between lessons), then slap all six beats, hitting the down beats harder: SLAP slap slap SLAP slap slap. Again, slap along to the whole tune, over and over, until that’s comfortable.

Then slap downbeats with the left hand and all beats with the right. The idea hear is to coordinate both hands while they do slightly different things. It’s like a rhytmic version of patting your head and rubbing your tummy at the same time. Again, go through the whole tune as many times as needed.

Now add tapping one foot on the downbeats, while the left hand slaps the down beats, and the right hand slaps all six beats. Get the idea? You can also alternate feet, so the down beats are tapped right-left-right-lleft….

Then do the same thing with a reel.

You can also get his whole body involved—jumping on the down beats, bobbing his head in time, etc.

The point is a simple one—isolate rhythm from all the technique issues of playing an instrument or dancing, and ingrain it into his nervous system. To play this music well, you have to *feel* the beat, not be able to count it or describe it’s meter or bpm rate. Some people really have to overemphasize the beat to physically feel it—that’s okay. Once they get it, they’ll naturally tone it down to a more or less appropriate level.

He may have to try this again on slip jigs, polkas, etc. Just go slow at first, break it into small parts and one step at a time.

It also helps to ask people to listen for jig and reel rhythms in all the sounds around them. Or to do chores with a 6/8 or 4/4 rhythm. Anything to embed the beat into their heart and soul.

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He listens to music a lot, but he does have a tendency to listen to one recording multiple times a day for weeks before moving on to the next one. He’s been stuck on Martin Hayes for a while now. (Great but not the most rhythmic) Thanks Dan. I’ll see if I can get him into some really rhythmic players for his next phase. ;)

Re: Learning to Teach Rhythm

Thanks puddy tat! Great suggestions.

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Took me too long to post—you’ve already tried clapping. Still, try the right hand on the thigh slapping. It’s the least amount of coordination needed (clapping takes two hands). If he truly can’t do that, then he really is going to struggle.

Might be worth asking if he has any auditory processing issues, or even suggesting he get tested.

On the other hand, lots of newbie musicians struggle to keep a steady beat. If he’s okay when playing with other people, just give him every chance to play with other people. Eventually it will sink in. That might take a few years, even.

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What does he do when he’s sitting in front of live musicians but not playing, like in a concert or a session? Does he tap his foot or tap his hand on his leg to the music? I’ve seen many people do that and do it myself—-it’s kind of hard *not* to. Maybe you could encourage him to do that?

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Sorry kennedy. He does tap his feet or bob his head, but it has very little to do with the beat. I’ve had other people in a session tell me it was very disconcerting to sit next to him because of this, especially after they just heard him play so well with the group.

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His situation reminds me of the movie "Mr Holland’s Opus." Mr. Holland went through great pains to try to help Louis (a sports player forced to be a drummer in the band) to find the beat. Louis also had no sense of rhythm. The whole body thing that CPT suggests is a great one,and in the fictional story of Louis, it worked. Doing the whole body thing with other styles of music that have very obvious and heavy beats might also be useful.

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Maybe he’s overloaded on tunes, rolls, and everything else. Sounds like he’s covered a lot of ground in a very short time. Maybe the rhythm just needs some time to catch up. Irish trad beats are different than most of the music we hear from mainstream media. Jigs and slip jigs aren’t common in most other genres, and even the pulse of a reel is different than most rock, blues, etc.

I once had a friend make a tape on bodhran of long stretches of simple 6/8 beats, 4/4 beats, etc., at slow and moderate paces, so a student could practice playing along to the drum. The student was frustrated at first, and had to have the volume turned up to maximum for any hope of staying on track. But eventually it sunk in. Of course you’ll want a rock steady drummer.

Another option is weird metronome: http://www.pinkandaint.com/weirdmet.shtml

You can set both aural and visual beats, accent the down beat, and change tempo. Try it with headphones on—this muffles the fiddle a bit and magnifies the drum beat.

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…and be sure to tell us, in a few years, when he wins the All-Ireland. 🙂

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Here’s a link to someone who went to a workshop with Alaisdair Fraser where he focused on rhythm (maybe the electric keyboard idea might help):

http://www.violinist.com/blog/paulinefiddle/20053/2489/

"His next major point was the importance of rhythm. He encouraged us to think of the fiddle as a rhythm instrument. He suggested getting a cheap electric keyboard instrument, setting it to play some funky rhythm, and playing along. One result, he remarked, is that your family will believe that you have gone mad. Then he played some rhythm games with us. He would play a rhythm pattern, using the open A and D strings in double stops, and we would play it back to him. The first rhythms he played were easy and included 1-2-3-4 and 1-2-3-4-5-6. Next we played 1-2-3-4 but with 1 and 3 up bow. Then he tried something harder, and the first one to catch on was the boy who played jazz piano. It was 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8. Next he gave us 1-2-3-4-5-6-1-2-3-4-5-6. We did this easily, so he divided the circle of players in half and had one half start with 1-2-3-4-5-6 and the other half with 1-2-3-4-5-6. This was fun. It reminded me of an exercise my orchestra conductor had us play to help us with one of the variations in Brahms’s Variations on a Theme by Haydn. He divided the string players into two groups and had one group play 1-2-3-4-5-6 and the other group play 1-2-3-4-5-6, using any notes from an F chord. He really impressed me by tapping one rhythm with his right hand and the other with his left hand simultaneously."

Re: Learning to Teach Rhythm

Amen to treating the fiddle as a rhythm instrument—any instrunment you play *has* to be a rhythm instrument to play this music.

I just remembered a great way to get the beat into the core of your being: breathe it.

Here’s the drill. Close your mouth. Hold your palm up near your nose. Now push a short pulse of air out of your nose on every downbeat.

The pulse has to come from your diaphragm, so the beat feels like it’s coming from the pit of your stomach. And feeling the air burst on your palm reinforces the rhythm, completing a neural circuit.

Be careful to do small pulses, and not too long—no need to hyperventilate.

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Alaisdair Fraser is a great rhythm instructor. Very fun also!
BTW Martin Hayes is great but he does tend toward a free form. Dennis Cahill is kept around for good reason.

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Re: Learning to Teach Rhythm

I think he is probably very rythmicc internally, but his upstroke gets the better of him..i had this kind of a problem for years, (and my son has it.. mmm maybe its inherited) well anyway, i think it comes from being sooo exited about the music generally wow wow …

for me, i gradually learned its the DOWNSTROKE that counted. Thats what helped to steady me. I learned to impart my rythem to others thru the rigour of this downbeat, the one beat that made me realize other people needed to hear where i was in the rythem

i am sure it is different for different players. Some people have tons of HEAVYdownbeat, and sothey might be looking for up stroke, lift and lilt.

yas, about denis and martin!! martin has so much fun, the guy transcends regular rythem.. he gallops forward!! and, as you say Themuse, dennis is kept around for good reason..

Re: Learning to Teach Rhythm

the first Leopold Auer book is nothing but rhythm on open strings…in any case, I would try some open string exercises with a metronome.

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I saw Martin and Dennis in Ballyvaughan past July. Dennis played his guitar as usual but he also shocked me doubling Martin on a very fast tune on the mandolin.
About the rhythm thing (a problem for me, too) Martin had a little piece of hard plastic glued to the carpet under his foot, so his tapping sounded like a metronome click. It seems his foot has its own brain, doing always a steady rhythm no matter what he plays.
I wish I had such a second brain.

Re: Learning to Teach Rhythm

I suggest he get an electronic metronome that produces an audible beat, put it under his pillow at night, sleep on the beat, and subliminally program himself to hear a beat. Repeat (several batteries may be needed).

Confession time — I’ve done this.

—Eliot

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Re: Learning to Teach Rhythm

Ummm…any of you ever hear of the Tulla Ceili Band? Martin’s been on several of their recordings over the years..and grew up playing in the band with his father. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with his timing!

Re: Learning to Teach Rhythm

Kira, in my teens when I was learning the cello I had the same problem - I’d gallop away with the music, getting well ahead of my teacher who would be playing along with me on his cello and trying to hold me back. I’m not sure exactly how the problem was resolved, but after playing in the school orchestra for a year or so it more or less went away. Perhaps a case of "time" being the great healer - or, alternatively, the orchestra conductor shouting at players who didn’t stay with the beat 🙂
Kira, I wonder if it would help if the pupil learns to really listen to himself. This is the most difficult of musical skills to master - listening objectively to one’s playing in real time - but is the key to real progress. In the initial stages, if he listens to recordings of his playing that might help.

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Does he actually play note for note with you when you are teaching him tunes? Does he play along with recordings accurately? IMHO, folks do not do enough of LISTENING to each other? Could you play right along with him and match what he does as well?

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Hanley; does your endorsement for Mr. Hayes rhythm come with an example from one of his recordings? One which might help the young fiddle player? If he likes Martin, by all means, he should listen. But do let us mortals have our fun.

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Re: Learning to Teach Rhythm

Is this youngster a budding sean nos singer? There are musical pursuits that do not require a strong fixed sense of rhythm. Just a thought……….

Re: Learning to Teach Rhythm

"He will speed up slightly in places and slow down slightly in others, and not in any particular places."

Larger motions could help - not hand clapping or tapping, but walking to the beat. Walking around the room in time to music. Children are taught that way. First just walking, then walking with some kind of rhythm instrument (usually like a wood block or tambourine) Say a few minutes of that at the start of every lesson.

Another thing to check is whether the tempo changes occur only within a bar (while the overall tempo/main beat remains constant). If so then its timing subdivisions to work on. I would do that by walking too - play a march slowly so he can take more than one step for every main beat.

Hope that helps. - Lesl

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