Feel the Beat Off the Seat


The following article was first published in the Colorado Music Teachers Association newsletter. It caught my eye as it deals with the fundamentals of ALL rhythmic understanding: finding and feeling a pulse.

Although Barbara Grout, the author, and I have not met personally, we are virtual colleagues and I asked if she would be willing to share her article at the blog. Sprinkled through the article, are pics and videos of my students trying out some of Barbara's suggestions. 

From Barbara…

Rhythm is kinesthetic…it cannot be learned through counting…it can only be learned through movement. –Edwin Gordon, PhD

For many years after I started teaching piano, I assumed that my students would learn correct rhythms as a natural part of the teaching process. If I could just get them to show up for lessons, learn their pieces, practice at home, learn notation, count the beats, and perform at recitals, then they would automatically grasp everything they needed to know about rhythm. Right?


Rhythm and tone are interdependent. They get ‘braided’ together to form melody. [But] in our brains, rhythm and tone are independent [of each other]. They are not braided [together] at all. The mind has no melody processor, only separate tone and rhythm processors working in parallel.    –Edwin Gordon

In other words, students will never truly understand or feel rhythm by sitting at the piano bench. They need to get up and move, because movement is what activates the rhythm processor in the brain.

Just yesterday my students Halle and Logan played one section of Allegretto II by Czerny with only three beats per measure where the notation calls for four; later in the day my student Stella played a four-beat measure for every dotted half note in the minuet she was learning; and after that Quinn’s last measure of Christmas Day Secrets was rushed. Why were they struggling to play the correct meter? Because they hadn’t internalized it. What was the solution? Not more explanation. Not counting. Not even repetition. The solution was to get them moving, off the piano bench.

A lack of understanding of meter is evident when a student fails to maintain 3/4 time by extending the third beat so that she is inadvertently playing in 4/4. –Joy Morin, Building Awareness of Rhythm in Piano Students

Rhythm: Patterns in Time

There are three elements to rhythm:

1) macrobeats (also called tempo or the “big beat”)

2) microbeats (meter or the “little beat”)

3) melodic rhythm patterns (rhythm of the melody).

All three elements are needed to establish rhythmic context. When one element is missing, rhythm becomes rigid, erratic or inconsistent.

Movement and rhythmic chanting go together. Through movement and chanting students can be exposed to many different rhythm patterns. This allows them to develop a rhythm vocabulary in the same way that babies learn a language vocabulary. And just as babies soon become fluent speakers of languages, music students can become fluent players of rhythms.

For very young or beginning students, I start with the neutral syllable “bah” for chanting, because it’s easy to remember and doesn’t distract the child from focusing on the rhythm.

Once they are familiar with basic rhythm patterns, I have them begin using the rhythm-specific syllables suggested by Edwin Gordon—“du” for the macro beat, “du de” for duple meter micro beats and “du da di” for triple meter micro beats. These syllables are not random. Gordon chose them because they enhance the kinesthetic experience. When students chant and move to these syllables, they really feel the beat.

So enough theory already! Let’s get off the seat and into the beat!

Rhythm Activities

  1. Tennis Ball Bounce. First establish the tempo. Students bounce the ball on the big beat while chanting the rhythm pattern—or singing—a piece they’re learning.

  2. Meter Game: This activity helps students build a sense of meter. Play short sections of a piece the student is learning and ask the student to sway back and forth from foot to foot to the big beat while their fingertips tap out the meter on the sides of their thighs. To promote understanding, ask them whether their fingers are tapping in two or three (two microbeats per macrobeat or three microbeats per macrobeat—that is, duple or triple meter). Ask them how many taps are they tapping for each foot. Exposing your students to this activity needs to be done every week, because it takes months for most students to learn to feel the difference between duple and triple meter. (The CD, You are My Sunshine, published by GIAmusic.com, is excellent for this activity as it has over 100 tunes in different meters.)

  3. Pass the Ball. This is a group activity similar to Tennis Ball Bounce. First establish the tempo and the meter beats. Students stand or sit in a circle and pass the ball on the macrobeat. Start with one ball being passed, then add more as they get proficient. (Suggested by Amy Greer, New Mexico.)

  4. Circle Chanting: Have students stand in a circle. First establish the macrobeat and the microbeat. Students begin to sway to the macrobeat. Divide the group. Ask some to chant the macrobeat (du…du…du…du). Ask other students chant microbeats (du-de or du-da-di). Have one student chant rhythm of the melody. Switch parts. This allows students to physically experience each element of rhythm. (Suggested by Marilyn Lowe, www.musicmovesforpiano.com)

  5. Piano Rhythms: For group lessons. First, establish macrobeat and microbeat. Students line up at the piano and all chant a rhythm in unison. Then, one at a time, they play it on the piano, using any keys. Chant the same rhythm while next student goes to piano and plays it. Variation: one student plays a bass ostinato while others take turns chanting and playing. Use black keys.

  6. Jump: For group classes. While chanting rhythm patterns, students jump up and land on the “du” or macrobeat. Variation: Students throw a yarn ball on the “du” and catch it on the “du.” (Suggested by Joan Johnson, New Jersey.)

  7. Rhythm Train: Form a rumba line. The leader chants patterns in different meters (3/4, 2/4, 5/4, 5/8, 7/8, etc.) while everyone else steps together to the macrobeat (which stays the same throughout).

  8. Duet Chanting and Movement: Two or more students chant two different patterns simultaneously while moving to the same big beat.

  9. Rope Activity: Cut a piece of rope into two pieces of equal length. Two students face each other holding opposite ends of the ropes, singing a song they are learning while moving their arms back and forth in a swaying motion to the macrobeat. Students can also use a scarf instead of rope—or hold hands.

Flow: Continuous, Fluid Movement

Rhythm comes from the Latin rhythmus, Greek rhuthmos: to flow.

There is more to rhythm than just keeping the beat. Students also need to play musically and expressively, using proper phrasing. The key is continuous, flowing movement, which helps students feel the space between beats. When they feel that space, they are less likely to rush or drag the tempo.

Continuous fluid movement using weight and flow is especially important for developing musicianship. –Marilyn Lowe, www.musicmovesforpiano.com

Beat means nothing to a person who cannot move with a relaxed, artistic sense of flow.” –Eric Bluestine, The Ways Children Learn Music

Try this: Put on a recording of your favorite music and move your arm in a sideways Figure 8 or infinity sign. Keep the Figure 8 going, moving your arm smoothly and continuously. Then try it with your students. I’ve seen dramatic results from this activity. Students who struggled to find the rhythm or who played mechanically returned to the piano with a feel for phrasing. They started making music.

To know what a free-flowing movement feels like, students must also experience the opposite: Bound. As you move your arm, imagine being tied up, pushing arms stiffly through thick air or swimming through thick mud. Then “release” the binding and experience free-flowing movements again.

Flow Activities

  1. Scarf/Balloon Activity: Holding a scarf or balloon in each hand, the student takes these props on “a ride” through space—in front, above, to the side and behind them, while singing, chanting a rhythm pattern or moving to recorded music. Remember that the movement needs to be continuous and flowing. To feel what the opposite of flow feels like, have them also try it imagining they are pushing the props through thick air or under water.

  2. Microbeat Flicks: Begin moving the arms in continuous, serpentine motions, using all the space around the body while singing or chanting a rhythm pattern. Keeping this continuous arm movement going, begin flicking the fingers in time to the microbeats. With practice this activity can have a profound effect on the student’s ability to feel the space between the beats.

  3. Body Parts: Sing a song or chant a rhythm pattern while the students move one part of the body at a time—for example, thumbs, then elbows, shoulders, hands, knees and hips—in curvy pathways and continuous motion.

By now some of you might be thinking, “This is brilliant!” while others are thinking, “This is bizarre!” I’ve had both thoughts as well. But after experimenting with these activities for several years, it’s become increasingly clear that they really work.

Students who are challenged by rhythm begin to feel it on a deeper level—and their playing becomes more accurate. Students who do not have the same challenges with rhythm play more expressively. And all my students enjoy the games, especially in groups. That’s why I usually do them between lessons, when one family is about to leave and another is arriving.

Find the groove before you start playing. –Victor Wooten, renowned jazz bass player and author of The Music Lesson

Barbara Grout has taught Suzuki Piano since 1984. She has a Bachelor of Music Degree, cum laude, from the University of Miami (Florida) School of Music where she studied saxophone, piano, flute and clarinet, played in the University of Miami jazz bands and double-majored in Music Education and Music Therapy.

She is currently the Independent Music Teachers Forum Chair for the state of Colorado Music Teachers Association.  She has written articles on motivating oneself and one's students and leading students to independence.  Her next "Feel the Beat Off the Seat" workshop will be at the Pikes Peak Music Teachers Association meeting on February 11, 2014.  Website: www.barbgroutpiano.com


Bluestine, Eric:  The Ways Children Learn Music

Eskelin, Gerald:  Lies My Music Teacher Told Me; Second Edition

Gordon, Edwin E.:  Clarity by Comparison and Relationship;  Improvisation in the Music Classroom;  Learning Sequences in Music.

Lange, Diane: Together in Harmony

Lowe, Marilyn: Music Moves for Piano, Teachers Lesson Plans Book One; Rhythm and Tonal Patterns

soundpoint@3-DPiano.com: Joy Morin's article: Building Awareness of Rhythm in Piano Students.  (Her blog about piano teaching is: ColorInMyPiano.com)

Clavier Companion; Independence Day: Music Reading, Craig Sale, Ed. May/June 2013. www.claviercompanion.com p. 36 for videos

Wooten, Victor:  The Music Lesson

How do YOU use movement to secure rhythmic understanding--rather--help your students get their groove on?