10 Tips for Teaching Tough Rhythms - The Greatest Gig

10 Tips for Teaching Tough Rhythms

What's the hardest lesson you've ever had?

Here are some of mine:

* Telling a very funny, witty, bright teenage student that her banter was was making it difficult to teach her.

* Exercising patience while a 6-year-old who was hiding her anxiety about making mistakes by pretending to be so exhausted she couldn't stay awake.

* Making a 5-year-old cry from frustration at his second lesson while his mom listened from the kitchen.

But in terms of pure intellectual challenge, my recent lesson teaching an adult student to tap his foot to a complex rhythm takes the cake. Today I want to reverse-engineer the lesson, showing you everything I know about teaching rhythm that went into me successfully helping this student.

The Challenge

My student, let's call him Kevin, has been working on Mumford and Sons' "I Will Wait For You" for the past three months--it was a bit over his head, but he loved the song and was hungry for a challenge. He'd finally learned the challenging strum pattern, and came to me for his weekly lesson proud of his week's work learning to sing along with his strumming.

It sounds great, except for one fatal problem: His strumming was offset by an 8th note for the Whole. Freaking. Song.

Fixing this error, which he'd practice so much it was practically tattooed on his brain, was tough, but we did it.

10 Tips for Teaching Tough Rhythms

1. Struggling with rhythm is stressful

Rhythmic difficulties will raise a student's blood pressure more than any other aspect of music.

2. Students pick up on our subtle emotional cues

It's critical that we sustain a cheerful, fun, optimistic tone when teaching anything, but especially when helping student with challenging rhythms. This can be hard when we're also being pushed to the limits of our teaching ability.

3. Start with a quick win

The first exercise you give your student should be drop-dead simple, just a warm-up and morale booster.

4. Build on the students' prior knowledge

What aspects of rhythm is the student already good at? If they're good at reading notation, use notation. If they have a good ear, teach by ear. Capitalize on their strengths.

5. Start easy, and very slowly add difficulty

Start with a simplified version of the skill you're teaching, one the student can manage. Then increase the difficulty by just one increment. Teachers commonly increase difficulty too quickly.  In education school, they called it...

i + 1

i = what the student knows
1 = the next thing you can add to that knowledge without overwhelming them

There, I just saved you a $40,000 Stanford tuition bill.  🙂

6. Be patient while the student practices difficult rhythms

I still catch myself rushing through rhythm exercises because I'm bored, wound-up, anxious my student is bored, worried that they're not getting their money's worth, etc. We need to relax and let the lesson unfold at its own pace, an that often means letting the student practice for several minutes while we watch in peaceful silence.

7. When an exercise is too challenging, go back to the previous exercise and practice more, or use a different angle

Sometimes the student just needs more time to practice something before you add difficulty. But it can often help more by practicing the same rhythm a different way: For example, by using their voice (I have students say "down" and "up" instead of strumming) or clapping.

8. Saying is often easier than playing

Most of us are better at producing rhythms with the instrument we've been using the longest: Our voice. So I usually have students speak or sing a rhythm before they try strumming it.

9. Use momentum to feel the beat by moving more of your body

It's easy to mess up a toe-tap because your foot is small. But if you're tapping your heel, you're moving your whole leg up and down, which creates momentum and thus is harder to interrupt. And the easiest way to feel the beat is marching or jumping--you're moving your whole body!

10. Provide audio or video for homework support

For homework, identify a skill that is challenging but doable, and send the student home with a video recording of you performing the skill so that they can practice along.