Feeling Rhythm

Updated: Jul 22, 2020

As I sat down this morning to tweak some of my Early Childhood Music Class lesson plans, I found I would often go back to the first lesson! I know in pedagogy courses there is always an emphasis on the importance of a knock-out first lesson. In reality however, it is the first piano lesson that teaches me more about pedagogy itself than any other experience. Here’s why.

Every student comes to their first piano lesson with a different musical background, from participating in informal or formal Early Childhood Music classes - to jamming to mom’s favourite music in the kitchen with some pots and pans - to simply the occasional sing along in the car. No matter what their past experience was, I discovered that many (yes – many) are coming to their first lesson lacking the most fundamental rhythmic concept in Western Music! A concept that is essential before any other musical concept or skill can even be taught. I’m talking about BEAT my friends.

I often have students match my beat as we sing a familiar song, but as soon as the rhythm changes from quarter notes, they begin to tap the rhythm. You may also see this at a rock concert when the band gets the audience clapping the beat. Some will struggle with maintaining that steady beat and want to go to the rhythm, or will switch between the two as the band plays on.

BEAT is the steady, underlying pulse of music. Think of RHYTHM as a combination of short and long sounds (oh yes – and let’s not forget…RESTS. The pulse does not stop just because there are rests! Rests ARE a part of music.)

Sure, I can teach anyone to read rhythm, but FEELING it is a whole other ball game. In order to feel it, you need to have a clear concept of what “beat” is.

There are many exercises I can do with my students to get the rhythm in their bodies. Some of the piano lessons happen “off the bench,” for this purpose. Gone are the days where we sit at the piano and hammer out reading one note after another, trying to master the rhythm based on relative durations, rather than familiar patterns they feel in their bodies. (Oh, and did I mention all while trying to read notation!) It’s pointless and does nothing but deter students from ever wanting to play again.

So, when you begin formal lessons in learning to play the piano, remember the first step in learning any instrument is to develop the first or primary, fundamental concepts of music – BEAT. (The others being, singing in tune, and participating joyfully with others in making music.)

This brings me back to how essential it is for every parent to nurture their child’s musical development right from birth, just as you would nurture their language or physical development. Participating in Early Childhood Music Classes that are fun, informal, active, and developmentally appropriate are one of the best ways to begin that journey. Those early years between birth and 5 years is when the window for learning these fundamental concepts is WIDE OPEN, like it is for language. Not only will it make the transition to formal instruction on an instrument much smoother, more importantly, you will be giving your child the benefits of music that will last a lifetime. So, start early!

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