Practicing Musical Rhythms In Piano Lessons For Kids

Learning to read music is essentially learning another language with its own set of characters.  As music reading skills progress on any instrument, the pitch and rhythmic density of a student’s repertoire also increases.  For this reason, establishing constructive and efficient ways to practice exercises and pieces is very important from the beginning of any instrument study.
The initial foundations of learning to read music include responding to pitch, dynamic (volume), and rhythmic cues.  From my own past instructors, I learned that practice can be creative, and the more varied the ways you practice a difficult technique, passage, rhythms, etc., the stronger your ultimate result and understanding will be.  For teachers, this is also true, and as a whole, we strive to give our students different perspectives on music reading during weekly lessons.
As a piano teacher in the Washington, D.C. area, I have found many efficient ways to practice the rhythmic aspects of reading music in piano lessons for kids that can be used interchangeably:

Traditional Counting

This is the numbered system that is truly universal and important for every music student to ultimately understand.  Though traditional counting may not be the way you start teaching rhythms in your first piano lessons, it can be worked into lessons soon after using a different method.  As an example though, let’s say a student has been introduced to the concept of time signatures and measures and is fairly familiar with numbered beats.  As a teacher, counting aloud as a student plays (ex. “one”, “two”, “three”, “four”) is very simple, but valuable in helping him or her see the relationship of each note and where it falls in each measure.
I find that when I count aloud for students, even if they do not have the same confidence in counting by number on their own, they show a dramatic improvement in musical flow and note reading, as well as rhythmic evenness.  Because there is the presence of counting from a different source, this allows a student to feel a sense of rhythmic stabilization and concentrate on the other important changes happening on the page.
The next step in learning traditional counting from the student’s perspective is to try counting aloud by number on their own as they play.  This practice technique can be difficult to learn and execute consistently for the student at first, but with the help of an instructor and practice in small sections, the student can experience a great improvement in reading rhythmic notations and feeling a steady beat.

Tapping and Metronomes

Both are great tools for establishing a steady beat that will be internalized for a student even when the tapping or metronome click is removed.  Luckily, the burden of knowing which beat a student is on is absent from this equation and all that is established is the pulse of the music.  For teachers, tapping is great for both you and students, because you can adjust your beat instantly to contour to any hesitations a student may have without having to completely stop each time, but still add in the steady beat again.  Having students tap the rhythm or even the constant beat along with you also adds more interaction in the lessons and allows the student to learn a rhythmic passage separately from pitches.
Metronomes provide more of a challenge than tapping for students, because the click is completely inflexible, so a student must stay exactly on the beat.  Of course, this means a student practicing with a metronome as a counting tool will be building the continuity of a piece or exercise.  I personally like to do a combination of metronome and tapping with students, but never stick with one of these tools the entire time.  Usually, I encourage students to use a metronome about a quarter of the time they practice and tap a steady beat during lessons as needed.

Counting with Words

Using word substitutions for note values is my favorite way to teach rhythms in lessons for kids.  This works especially well with younger beginners, because the words are not only replacing numbers for counting when they are already concentrating on finger numbers (which can get confusing for them), but the words used are also descriptive.  It is traditional for some words to be used in counting subdivisions, or fractions, of a beat already (i.e. “one and” for eighth notes), but the counting techniques I have found and use completely replace any numbers and is effective.
For students that have not yet seen beats with subdivisions (eighth note or greater) I use the following words:

  • Quarter note: “fast”
  • Half Note:  “long – note”
  • Dotted Half Note:  “long – note – dot”
  • Whole Note:  “hold – the – long – note” or simply “hold – two – three – four”
  • For students learning sub-divisions, I love to use the words Faber and Faber suggestion in their Piano Adventures series.  Here are some of the highlights of important counting words:
  • Quarter Note:  “walk”
  • Eighth Note:  “run-ning”
  • Triplets:  “blue-berr-y” or just “tri-puh-let”
  • Sixteenths:  (traditional) “one-e-and-a”

In Summary      
The rhythmic understanding a student has when learning to read music is important for any teacher to develop in creative ways.  Whether you as a teacher choose to use tapping, metronomes, traditional numeric counting, or word substitution, you can help students in giving them various perspectives on how to decipher and feel note values that are customized to them.
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