“Those are yucky. Let’s just skip this one.” My piano student’s first venture into playing 3 against 2 was not one she initially enjoyed… and I can’t say I blamed her. Polyrhythms can be hard! Not only are we asking our piano students to play different notes with each hand, but now we’re asking them to do so with two different simultaneous rhythms! It’s enough to make your most peppy piano kid droop… and enough to make you just want to avoid teaching pieces with these rhythms all together.
But don’t avoid them! Read on… polyrhythms are about to become easy-peasy!
You can write out examples and clap and count all you want, but teaching polyrhythms in a way that will be applicable to any piece your student encounters requires some brain re-wiring. Here’s how to start.
Visual Virtuosos, Auditory Aces and Kinaesthetic Kids
When introducing a new concept, I try to appeal to three different ways of learning; visual (using sight cues), auditory (using auditory cues) and kinaesthetic (using physical movement). However, your teaching also needs to be engaging. Piano kids remember concepts best when they are presented in a way that is out of the norm and a little bit quirky. If you’re not sure how to do this you’re in luck… we specialize in quirky… so follow along!
1. Auditory Aces
To help your students to process polyrhythms, it helps to add words to the rhythm. Here’s where you can add some quirkiness that is sure to stick with them for the long-term. Any of the following sayings work for 2 against 3:
“Warm tur-tle soup”
“Don’t squish an ant”
“Red la-dy bug”
The most effective way is to let your student create their own silly saying. Use their family pet, their favorite sport, their best friend etc. etc. Each syllable represents a beat played either with both hands or with the RH or LH. For example:
Write out your sentence as above with RH and LH clearly shown and practice saying and tapping the rhythm until they can do so comfortably. Try it in a loop so they can do this without stopping four times over.
2. Visual Virtuosos
Creating a visual representation of how two notes fit against 3 really helps your piano student to understand what it is you are doing. Seeing how the rhythms line up is important, and it’s easier to take the staff out of the equation when doing so. Scaffold your teaching by including the funny saying you just created as it fits above each of the notes (see example below).
3. Kinaesthetic Kids
You can get your groove on and dance the polyrhythms from your visual representation you created above using your left and right feet to represent your left and right hands. Tap your feet on the floor while saying the funny rhyme you’ve made up with your piano student. Stand up and jump or stomp your left or right foot while pointing to the visual representation you’ve drawn out with your student. Tap the rhythm using pencils on your piano lid like a drum set; anything that can help your student to internalize the back and forth motion.
Back to the Piano
Back in the context of your student’s piece, you need to bring your 3 teaching techniques into one. Write your funny sentence above the notes to show which note fits with which word. Use colored pens to re-create your visual representation. Tap the rhythm while pointing to each of the notes on their page.
But don’t play the notes as written… yet!
One last step helps to take the “yikes” out of playing 2 against 3… play without worrying about reading notes. Choose one key on the piano per hand and let your student get used to how it feels. I let my students choose any two keys they like anywhere on the piano… they love choosing something that sounds awful, and that’s just fine with me as long as they’re completing the exercise! Once they can do so using just one note per hand, have them play the rhythm using contrary motion with thumbs starting on middle C. It’s a simple way to get started playing the polyrhythm using multiple notes without worrying about where their fingers need to be.
Ta-daa! You now have 3 strategies for approaching the concept of polyrhythms with your piano students. My silly sentence I used as a child was “Warm turtle soup” and I still hear this in my mind as I play 3 against 2 even as an adult! By making your polyrhythm approach quirky and enjoyable, you will help your students to avoid any awkward halting and loss of fluidity when they encounter a polyrhythmic passage in any piano piece.
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