As a percussionist and a drum set teacher, this is a question that I get asked quite frequently. Someone will come up to me and tell me that they have always wanted to play a musical instrument but they have “the worst rhythm”. Well, I am here to say that yes, a person can be taught to play in time! It just may take some patience and of course, some creativity.
First of all, I believe that a natural rhythm is innate in every human being. We have our master heart beat, which operates in its own natural rhythm. We have our breath, which when unobserved, has a very smooth, calming rhythm. If our bodies operate in a constant, cyclical rhythm, then we should be able to harness that natural timing in the form of clapping our hands, dancing, or playing an instrument.
Walk This Way
Another thing to understand about rhythm is that everyone has their own sense of time. Every person has their own unique rhythm to share with the world and that’s a beautiful thing! Every person also tends to learn and express themselves a little differently. This is the key to teaching someone how to play in time – understanding that what will work for some will not work for others. It’s necessary to get creative and understand what type of learner a person is when teaching them how to play in time.
Using A Metronome
A metronome is a device that keeps a steady beat using a click sound and often times, a flashing light on the beat. I use this with all of my students and I start them with this on the first lesson. The more a person plays with a metronome, the more accurate a sense of rhythm they will develop over time. Even if we simply try to clap every time the metronome clicks, this is programming the brain to feel the beat in the same place every time. For my visual learners, sometimes I will turn the sound off and simply have them clap every time the light flashes.
Often times, if the student is having difficulty clapping or playing with a metronome, I will try a singing approach. This takes the pressure off of physically moving and internalizes the rhythm. I still may use the metronome and this time, ask them to sing with it, instead of clap. Often times, this approach clicks with the student, and afterwards, they are able to clap with the metronome. I often use this approach with a specific rhythm that may be difficult for the student to play. I will ask them to sing it first. Being able to hear the rhythm before actually playing it makes it easier to connect with the piece, and then later, play it on their instrument.
This is a technique that usually works great with my visual learners. I carry around a small white board with me to my lessons in case I have to explain something visually. Timing can be an abstract concept, so when I draw a physical representation of it on the board, it will click with some students. For example, let’s say I have a complicated rhythm involving quarter notes, eighth notes, and sixteenth notes. I will draw a sort of grid on the board and show visually where each of these notes will land in the timeline. Sometimes, I will allow them to draw on the board and show me where the notes are supposed to fall in the timeline I created. By writing the information out in this form, my more visual learners will have a better understanding of how to play this rhythm.
Rhythm And Movement
Sometimes, it may take the movement of the entire body to really feel the rhythm. One of our teachers, Vera Nji, took a very creative approach to teaching one of her students, Logan, how to feel the rhythm of the piece they were working on. She associated the different notes with the movement of Logan’s legs, getting him up out of the seat and moving with the rhythm. She also had him sing the rhythm as he was moving, so he could hear the rhythm as well as feel it. After dancing and singing the rhythm of the piece, Logan had a much easier time playing the piece on the piano using the correct rhythm. He also felt more energized after getting up and dancing around!
Yes You Can!
Yes, anyone can be taught to play in time. Patience and creativity can go along way in helping a student with this sometimes difficult task. A great teacher understands that every student is different and will do whatever it takes to help a student learn. Clap, sing, draw, dance, and eventually, your natural rhythm will shine!