How to develop strong rhythm skills in your students


It’s easy to get wrapped up in student achievements at the keys. Milestones may include a successful performance at a recital, an A+ on a theory test, correct fingering on a scale, etc. In a past Google Hangout interview with Thomas Hoops, a Music Learning Theory specialist, he stated that for the first couple of years he focuses on…

“Student aptitude rather than their achievements at the piano.”

-Thomas Hoops

Watch the full interview here.

Just recently, Grace Lee wrote a guest post for 88 Piano Keys and included this sentence:

“Learning the piano doesn’t need to be synonymous with reading music.”

-Grace Lee

Read her full article here about her new app called Note Quest.

Both of their perspectives on the process of teaching piano gave me pause about how piano teachers (including me!) are “accustomed” to teaching.

We tend to rush right into all the signs of symbols of reading sheet music and consider it a success when students can play a quarter note on treble G with ease. In addition, it’s assumed that skills like counting aloud show students’ mastery of rhythm.

For quite some time, I haven’t pushed my students into counting aloud right away. It just didn’t seem natural for them to do so while trying to play the correct keys at the right time. It seemed to bog them down and I could tell they dreaded it and for good reason. Keep reading!

Research by neuroscientists tells us that our brains really don’t like multitasking. Studies show that we actually can’t do two things simultaneously, we just switch between tasks quickly.

“That start/stop/start process is rough on us: rather than saving time, it costs time (even very small micro seconds), it’s less efficient, we make more mistakes, and over time it can be energy sapping.”

- Nancy K Napier, Ph. D.

Read more about the scientific findings here.

You can do two things at once, but you can't focus effectively on two things at once.

- Gary Keller, Author of The One Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results.

It's a good book. Get it here.

These revelations confirmed my suspicions: no wonder why counting aloud is so difficult for those learning to read music and playing the piano. It’s just too much to ask of their brains!


In addition, I believe it’s a mistake to assign students to play with a metronome until they first become aware of their innate ability to feel a steady pulse. When this task is proficient, then students will feel comfortable with listening to and aligning their inner pulse to an external beat like a metronome or any other groove.

There, I said it. I firmly believe that counting aloud and playing with a metronome are NOT acquired by simply learning to play music at the piano. Instead, these aptitudes mature over time alongside and/or away from playing the piano. Pianists will come to see the need for a metronome to gauge their inner pulse and find that counting aloud helps them solve tricky rhythms.

Grooming well-rounded, comprehensive musicians while developing capable pianists is a fine art. It demands teaching that nurtures both aptitude AND achievement.

How do I propose going about solidifying rhythmic sense while teaching the piano? How do I get students to eventually see the need for a metronome and counting aloud?

These questions and many more are answered at our next 88 Creative Keys Webinar called Rhythm That Rocks.

Save the date: January 22, 2018.

If you can't join Bradley Sowash and me, register anyway and you can watch the replay for a FULL YEAR!

Learn how to build student rhythmic aptitude and rhythm reading skills while developing their piano skills, too.

Specifically, gather activities and guidance to help your students

  • Find their inner pulse

  • Align their inner pulse to an external beat

  • Understand the signs and symbols of note values

  • Make sense of time signatures

  • Decode tricky rhythmic notation with non-traditional notation

  • Lock into a groove.

In addition, learn how to accompany students with simple and cool drumming patterns.

This webinar will forever change the way you view rhythm and how to teach it!

Sign up here.