When we asked piano teachers to submit their tips and tricks for improving piano student rhythmic understanding and accuracy we just LOVED the creative ideas we received! Thank you to all of the creative teachers who contributed to this list!
We sat down and compiled our favorite submissions into the list you’ll find below. What do YOU do to teach rhythm? You can contribute to this list by adding a comment at the bottom of this post!
Jump it Out!
To help enforce different rhythms, I have my students help me build a hopscotch pattern for the song in question. Each row of the hopscotch is a note, so a quarter note would be 1 square wide, and half note 2 squares wide, etc. We hop across the floor on the pattern to help feel the rhythm & notes, or if space is limited, try mini “finger” hopscotches on a regular sheet of paper. Then, have your student hop along while you play the song, then vice versa!
For my preschool beginning students, after we talk through the rhythm of a phrase, I have them jump the rhythm as they are looking as the music and we’re counting it out loud together. This engages a different part of the brain, & gives those wiggly boys a chance to move! 🙂
Who Has It?
Give 4 to 5 students each a card with a rhythm on it. Each student has a different rhythm. The teacher has the “key” to the rhythm cards, and when the teacher claps a particular rhythm, the student claps back the rhythm that matches the teacher’s rhythm card.
Rhythm Train is fun for a group lesson after we have spent time clapping and reviewing rhythm cards (cards with notes and rests of one measure of a given time signature). We then build a very long train of cards on the floor and students take turns trying to clap and count them all from beginning to end. When you make a mistake, that’s were your “train stop” is and we let the next person go. We keep going until everyone arrives at the destination and celebrate with a snack!.
Be the Conductor
One way that helps kids “see” the note values is to teach them how to lead music, especially if you’re teaching siblings or a group piano lesson. One member of the group (or the sibling) can lead the rest in playing or guiding the rhythm of the piece, kind of like follow the leader. Or, have the student lead while you play a piece to their tempo.
I have used my mini-trampoline to teach rhythm. I will hold up the student’s book and they will bounce the rhythm on the trampoline. For notes they bounce. For rests and to hold out notes they stop bouncing.
Seek Out Clapping Songs
Do traditional clapping songs/rhymes to teach basic steady beat to kids–like “Miss Mary Mack, Mack, Mack” or “Have You Ever, Ever, Ever in Your Long-legged Life.” If you’ve forgotten how they go, check out youtube! Once they’re in your head, it’s hard to get them out!
Circles and Rectangle Magic
I have taken to drawing stop signs (red circles), holds (red rectangles) and rest signs (R in a circle) to younger children’s music. It really seems to work! When they read through the music, it’s not unusual for me to hear them audibly say (in the same way I’ve modeled) as the visually cue, “Play-hold-hold, play-rest-rest, play-stop-play, rest-rest-rest.” It takes a while for them to be spot on with the actual beat, but because they are actually saying where the beat is supposed to be instead of barreling through like monkeys in a tub, I’ve noticed that it comes together eventually.
Use The Cups Song
Use “The Cup Song” to reinforce rhythmic understanding:
Most tweens and teens know and love the cup song, and whether they are music students or not, can accurately breeze through the motions of The Cup Song with their own cups as props. During last year’s summer camp, my students had a blast teaching one another how to “do the cup song” and play along to the song. We then sat down and analyzed the rhythm(s) they were playing, and before they knew it, they were writing out the rhythm of the song with rests and all!
This is most fun with more than one student (or a student plus a sibling, or friend) but it is also fun with just the teacher and student. The game is named after the student’s favorite candy. I begin clapping a steady beat alone while they listen. When the password-let’s say….”Skittles” is heard by them, they join in with me. I then change into a contrasting rhythm and repeat it while they continue the old pattern. That is, until they hear me say, “Skittles!” They join me in unison until I change into another contrasting rhythm. This teaches rhythmic independence, instills steady beat, develops listening skills, teaches and reinforces rhythmic values, and is fun!
Garage Band Fun
I use drum loops in Garageband instead of a metronome for most students – I’ve even burned the drum loops onto CDs and sent them home w/ students to practice along to. So much more practical (teaches them how to actually play live w/ other instruments) and way cooler than a boring old metronome!
Someone’s In the Kitchen
The acCOUNTant: My students and I make a rhythm instrument(s) out of something available in the kitchen. I’ve used those tiny plastic containers from the dollar store. (Good for small hands.) Fill them with beans or rice, snap on the lid. They take home the instruments and practice the rhythm that we worked on in the lesson on their new instruments. Helps isolate and learn the rhythm and it’s FUN!
The acCOUNTant: I took a picture of each student and printed it full page for their note book.Each week they clapped through a page of rhythms and success earned them clothes etc to become an accountant . Just like cut out dolls they could win and glue on their picture a business suit , a brief case , a calculator and other necessities to become a full fledged accountant with his own store front. The children loved it and were always asking to do rhythms
Stop and Clap!
I play one of my student’s pieces; when I stop, student has to clap the rhythm of the next phrase!
I like to hold drum circles during group lessons or camps. There are a ton of fun drum circle games for students to do. So addicting and fun!!!
When teaching how the quarter note can be divided into different note values, use Jolly Ranchers. The grape flavor stands for quarter notes, cherry-for two 8th notes, (blue) raspberry–for 8th note triplets, and watermelon for four 16ths. Then make a train of jolly ranchers, get a rhythm track or metronome going and students must clap and say the candy flavors in time to the beat. Assign students to draw the true notation of rancher rhythms within a time signature. Of course, have enough for each student to enjoy a Jolly Rancher as well.
I created several large flashcards with 4 beats on each card. These are set up in a row and each has a number assigned to it. I clap the rhythm of one of the cards and the student identifies it by number. If correct, the student holds the card. At the end of the game the student’s cards are set up and he claps (and speaks) all of them without pause.
Board Not Bored
I start by writing a rhythm on the board – something specific that I want to work on, e.g. irregular eighth note rhythms. We go through these together, using clapping and marching, and then we add words (the children can choose!). Finally, we add a melody, and sing through the rhythm. If there’s still time, I repeat the process but this time let THEM come up with the rhythm. I tell them to include a certain element that I want to work on (“don’t forget the quarter note rests!”) and then we go through the clapping/marching, lyrics and melody again!
Speed Toss: This is best in a group setting. Using any available, safe tossing toy (bean bag, Nerf ball, I even found a plastic knobby ball at the dollar store that has flashing lights inside)I start the metronome at a slow speed and ask students to throw the ball on the beat; as they get used to that speed I increase the tempo, continuing to increase until the craziness breaks out. Mostly this gives the students a “feel” for different tempos although sometimes I have them count out loud while tossing as well.
Milk The Cow
Simply I ditch the clapping and substitute jumps, hip wiggles, “milk the cow” arms (exaggerated up and down extended arms in front), stomps, or any other physical movement that can define the rhythm. Kids give great ideas too. We often both end up laughing.
Shall We Dance?
I have a student who really struggles with keeping a steady beat. But she loves to get up and move and dance and sing! So we get up from the piano bench and find different ways to keep the steady beat while we sing the song: marching, clapping, jumping up and down, etc. I ask her to come up with new ones and she’s really creative. It’s a way of getting the steady beat established in her head while she’s having a lot of fun.
Kids love to move! When I teach eighth notes, I teach the “one-and-two-and” counting pattern, and I’ve found that most kids can associate that pattern with jumping jacks. So I have them do jumping jacks while I play the song! have a basket full of rhythm instruments that the students love to choose from to mimic my rhythms, instead of just clapping. These instruments also are adored for learning HS and HT rhythms for new pieces, instead of just tapping RH and LH on the piano lid or lap. Choosing from the basket is also a great way to get them off the bench for a minute!
A Basket Full Of…
I have a basket full of rhythm instruments that the students love to choose from to mimic my rhythms, instead of just clapping. These instruments also are adored for learning HS and HT rhythms for new pieces, instead of just tapping RH and LH on the piano lid or lap. Choosing from the basket is also a great way to get them off the bench for a minute!
Chucking the Nerf
I play an audio track in 4/4 or 3/4 time and have the kids count “1-2-3-4” or “1-2-3” out loud. Once counting is established we throw a Nerf ball back and forth for different note values (i.e. we toss the ball every 4 beats to represent a whole note.) Once you get down to quarter notes (fast throwing back and forth) they love seeing how long they can go before the ball is dropped.
A Card Game Resource
I use card games that I purchase at tcwresources.com. My students love “Beat This” the best. These games can be played as a group or teacher/student. Just fun games — my students are not even aware that they are learning
A great way to teach rhythm is to make up fun sayings to match the rhythm. Ti-ta-ti-tata becomes “I like this rhy-thm”, said in time to the aforementioned rhythmic sequence. Two against three rhythms are taught as “not dif-fi-cult” whereas the rhythm of two lands on the word “not” and the syllable “fi”, and the rhythm of three lands on the word “not” and the syllables “dif” and “cult”. The possibilities for teaching rhythms are endless and very memorable!
A Little Math and Music
To explain 16th notes, I use math fraction blocks that I have written notes on. (For example: a quarter note is on a 1inch block and an 8th note is on a half-inch block) The kids love making rhythms to clap with the blocks, and they find it easy to understand that two 16th notes equal one 8th note etc
Circle of Songs
I place many different percussion instruments in a circle on the floor. The students go around the circle playing the same rhythm on each of the instruments. They have fun using the different instruments while practising the same rhythm many times
Bring in the iPod
I always liked having them identify time signatures in recorded music. I’d select five or so fun, recognizable songs and play them with my ipod so they can tell me what time signatures they use, or at least identify the downbeats, and go from there
Rhythm in the Band
In band, the percussion section plays our practice rhythms on any auxiliary instrument they choose while the brass stomp and the woodwinds snap.
Been There, Gonna Do That
With my younger students I have decorated an empty pill bottle and filled it with beans. I show them a rhythm and they can copy it. To make it harder for the older ones they have to copy my rhythm and identify what notes we used in the rhythm. For example, did my rhythm consist of whole, half, quarter or eighth notes. My students always enjoy decorating the bottles with stickers or ribbons
Enough With the Clapping
I use different things along with along with clapping. Sometimes, they use my pencil to tap out the rhythm, or use 2 pencils to tap each other or I pull the piano cover down over the keys and have them tap it out on the wood using both hands. I’ve thought about getting symbols, a triangle, or other small instruments to have them use for variety, too!
The Fruity Rhythm Game
The Fruity Rhythm Game — Use index cards to make three or four flashcards showing one quarter note each. Do the same for two eighth notes, three eighth-note triplets, and four sixteenth notes. Teach the student to say “fruit” for the quarter note, “salad” for the two eighth notes, “strawberry” (or other three-syllable berry of the student’s choice) for the triplets, and “watermelon” for the sixteenth notes. Shuffle the cards, have the student draw a few, line them up, and chant the yummy rhythm to a steady beat
Drums From The Dominican
I’m sure this is nothing new and inventive, but something I’ve had a lot of success with is using the various instruments I’ve collected to help them with the beat. I have drums from the Dominican Republic (the kids love!), tambourines, triangles, rhythm sticks, etc. that I use off the bench to teach song rhythms. They get so excited when I let them go to my cupboard and choose an instrument to use.