Rhythm is one of the most foundational elements of music. If you think about it, rhythm is how music moves consistently through time.
There’s a lot going on at the piano and it can be really tricky to coordinate getting all of the right notes at just the right time.
For me, playing correct rhythms has always been more difficult that playing correct notes. I notice this is true for a lot of my students as well.
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Fortunately, this is a really easy problem to manage! There are many things that you can be doing in your daily practice sessions that will help clean up your sense of rhythm in no time.
Here are some tips for improving your rhythm.
Feel The Beat
This is probably the most important thing that you can do to improve your rhythm. Its not enough to think about the rhythm as an abstract concept in your mind. You need to feel the pulse of the music within your body to help you get the rhythm to come out correctly in your music.
In order to internalize the beat of the music, it helps to move some part of your body to the music. You could sway, tap your foot, clap your hands, nod your head, or find any other movement that you’re comfortable with.
This may come easy, or it may take a bit of practice. Start by trying it outside of the music you are working on. When you listen to music in your car or around your house, practice finding and moving to the beat. Tap your steering wheel as you drive or tap your foot as you casually listen to music.
As you listen and move, observe how the rhythm of the music falls between the beats you are feeling. Don’t over analyze what you are hearing, just see if you can make some observations.
In the context of the music you are practicing, feel the pulse of the music in your body before you begin playing. This will help you to start and maintain a consistent tempo as you play.
Tap your foot
If you work on internalizing or feeling the beat of your music, you will probably find yourself naturally tapping your foot or moving your body as you play.
If tapping or moving to the beat doesn’t come easily, try to make it a habit. This habit will help you be consistent as you learn the rhythm; over time, it will become more and more natural.
Clap or tap the rhythm
Another good way to keep track of the rhythm is by clapping along to small sections of music before you play. If you’re just focusing on one hand, clap the individual line. If you’re working on both hands together, tap each hand to the rhythm that it will play simultaneously.
Isolating the rhythm before adding in the notes and other details of the music is really helpful.
Level up and practice tapping or rhythms while you are tapping a steady beat with your foot. This takes a lot of coordination and concentration, but you’ll want to be able to tap your foot while you play the piano too.
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Listen To The Music You Are Learning
Another helpful way to lock in the rhythm is by listening to a good recording of the music you are trying to learn. Reading the score is important, but sometimes we can miss the forest for the trees until we hear it played by someone else.
Listening to your music will help you absorb the effect of how the music is expected to sound and you will likely match it naturally.
Once again, tap along and feel the beat of the music as you are listening.
Get Out Your Metronome
Many musicians have a love/hate relationship with their metronome. Metronomes can be frustrating, especially at the beginning, but it definitely gets easier to use over time.
You don’t need to use the metronome all the time. Think of it as one tool that you can bring out to drill those tricky spots in the music or to tighten up small sections or transitions in the music.
There is a learning curve to using the metronome. If you find the metronome challenging to use with your current music, go back and practice using it on a piece that you are familiar with.
Play with backing tracks or drum loops
Backing tracks or drum loops are great alternatives to using the metronome and are easy enough to find.
Many piano books come with a CD or downloadable audio files that you can play along with.
Sometimes you can find accompaniment tracks to play along with on YouTube, depending on the type of music and specific song you’re working on.
Digital pianos often have built-in accompaniments that you can play along to.
If you don’t have access to any of these options, turning on a drum loop from a digital piano, an app, or even YouTube will do the job. (On YouTube, search for “drum loop” along with the tempo in BPM you’re aiming for and you’ll find a bunch of options. For example, “drum loop 80 BPM”)
Play with other musicians
When working on rhythm, nothing beats playing with other real musicians. Playing with others can be invigorating and will force you to think and respond quickly as you play. This is a really effective way to hone in your rhythm skills and perfect your timing.
Before you play with other musicians, make you have put the work in and know your music well. Also, try to find musicians that are at an equal or more advanced level than you are.
Note: During these times, you can Skype or video chat instead of meeting up in person!
Count or vocalize the rhythm
Counting aloud is a tried and true technique that piano teachers return to over and over again.
If you feel clumsy counting out loud as you play, keep practicing it and over time it will feel more natural. Or, if you prefer, you could also say words or syllables (such as ti or ta) to correspond with the rhythms.
Use apps to practice rhythm
There are a lot of great apps available for practicing rhythm. In some of them, you have to tap the screen to the rhythms you see. This is a great way to practice counting, feeling the beat and reading rhythms.
Some examples of apps are Rhythm Cat or Rhythm Sight Reading Trainer.
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