I used to teach a student who I will call “Rhythm-less Robbie”. For Robbie, the performance of a piano piece was a race through an obstacle course… the notes were his obstacles and the double bar line was the finish.
With this “racer mindset”, Rhythm-less Robbie believed that the goal of a piano performance was to reach the end of a piano piece as quickly as possible while hitting all of the correct notes… which, of course, also meant ignoring any and all half notes and whole notes.
When I thought of it, I couldn’t really blame him… Rhythm-less Robbie was a skilled little athlete, and any extracurricular activity he had ever done, other than music, always involved getting to some “goal” faster than an opponent.
For my competitive little Robbie, I had to find a way of reinforcing the idea that playing a piano piece is about more than just hitting the correct keys… it’s about hitting the correct keys, at the correct time, for the correct amount of time… it’s about style, not speed.
Turning Piano “Style” Into A Competitive Sport
Rhythm-less Robbie’s speedy piano performances were the result of a natural competitive streak… so I worked with this, rather than against it.
I explained to him that a piano performance is more like a snowboarding competition than a downhill ski race.
Yes, you want to get down the hill, and yes, you want to conquer all of the obstacles… but snowboarding, unlike downhill skiing, is also about how well you perform on each of those obstacles. It’s not about speed, it’s about style.
The idea that holding the correct note for the correct number of beats was akin to a well executed snowboard spin seemed to “click” with Robbie.
He understood that the way he played the notes in a piano piece was as important as which notes he was supposed to play.
Cranking Up The Competitive Streak
Once I had hammered home that Robbie could be “competitive” on the piano without blasting through a piece at hyper-speed, I turned his piano pieces into a student-teacher competition (I wouldn’t do this with every student… but Robbie thrived on competition).
The Over-Under Half Note Game
Robbie loved playing off-the-bench piano games at the end of his piano lessons. So, I explained to him that he could increase the amount of time we spent playing these games if he earned points during a “piano piece challenge”.
The premise was simple: before Robbie would begin his piano piece, I would fold a piece of paper in half and write my name on one half and his name on the other. Then, he would play his piece while paying close to attention to the note values within the piece.
If Robbie held a half note for two beats he earned two points, if he ignored a half note, I earned two points. At the end of the piece, I would tally up our points. If Robbie won, the difference between the point totals represented time added for off-the-bench game play… with each point counting for a select number of seconds (say… 15 seconds).
So, for example, if Robbie beat me by 8 points, he earned two extra minutes of game play. If, instead, I beat Robbie we would simply keep our regular game time.
Obviously, I believe very strongly in off-the-bench game play, and while I wanted to play on his competitive streak, I did not want the activity to have negative associations, nor did I want it to steal time away from our piano games.
It worked like a charm – and it continues to work even during the times that we take the “point-keeping” out of the equation. My Rhythm-less Robbie has become Rhythm-Master Marcus 😉
Do You Teach A Rhythm-less Robbie?
If Rhythm-less Robbie sounds strikingly similar to one of your students, we’d love to hear from you in the comments! How do you help your piano students pay attention to those “pesky note values”?