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Owning the Rhythm

October 23, 2013

“As teachers, what we want is a student who owns the rhythm. He owns it, he doesn’t have to borrow it from the teacher. He can use it whenever needed, in any piece in the whole wide world. He’s got it for life! ”

– Frances Clark


After my year as an intern at the New School for Music Study, I was teaching at a school with thin walls.  Without meaning to eavesdrop, I overheard a snippet from an instrumental lesson.  The student performed a rhythm incorrectly, and the teacher said “No, it goes like this.”   The teacher then demonstrated the correct way to play the passage, and the student copied the correct rhythm.


Problem solved, yes?  The student could now play the rhythm correctly.   Well… not exactly “problem solved.”  The student “borrowed” the rhythm from the teacher  The student didn’t “own” the rhythm.  If that same rhythm appeared in another piece, the teacher could not be assured that the student could perform that rhythm correctly and independently.  Frances’ idea about owning the rhythm speaks to her deep passion for student independence.


What kinds of things can we teachers do to help our students own the rhythm?  Our faculty came up with a list at our last meeting:


1)  Help students to develop a steady pulse right from the first lesson.  Whole body activities are essential.  The links below connect to short videos illustrating whole body activities.




2)  It is essential to prepare any new rhythm in advance of its appearance in repertoire.   For example, if eighth notes are going to appear in a new piece for the first time, short activities preparing this new rhythm will occur in each lesson 6 – 8 weeks before 8th notes will appear in the student’s repertoire.  The student will learn the sound of the rhythm, the feel of the rhythm in the body, the feel of the rhythm in the fingers, and finally, the notation.  The following video illustrates just one activity that can aid in the preparation for pieces with upbeats:





3)  Understand that owning the rhythm takes time.  Plenty of reinforcement is needed.  An example:


4)  Before students perform new pieces, a rhythm step, such as tapping and counting the rhythm, will enable the student to focus exclusively on the rhythm:




5)  Understand that rhythm is sometimes tied to coordination.  When eighth notes are uneven, for example, the technical approach might be the culprit.



6)  Though demonstration is a powerful teaching tool, be aware of the dangers of always playing  new repertoire for students.  The true proof of whether or not a student owns the rhythm is a rhythmically correct performance of a piece that the student has never  heard before.

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This site is created by the faculty of the New School for Music Study, a division of the Frances Clark Center for Keyboard Pedagogy.

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