I was tempted to call this post Hear the Beat, not Feel That Beat. See the pullout quote below if you’re unfamiliar with the lyrics of the title song of the musical 42nd Street. However, there’s a big difference between hearing and feeling. When you hear good musicians, you can feel that beat because they do, too.
However, if you’ve ever heard some beginning piano students, I bet you’ve noticed some who don’t feel the beat. One of the things I do more and more is to introduce rote playing. In rote playing, the student imitates what the teacher does, learning the piece by pattern and repetition instead of reading notes on the score. They are thus freed up to really listen and feel what they are doing.
Feeling the beat is so important in music because it’s the first thing a casual listener will notice is wrong when it’s absent. They will forgive or maybe even not notice a few notes incorrectly here or there. Plus it’s essential in ensemble work, whether playing duets with another pianist or playing in a band with other instruments.
Use Your Own Percussion
There are lots of ways to establish a beat. Clap. Walk around the room. Patsch – it’s a German/British English word indicating smacking the legs with the hands. Tap on a closed keyboard cover or a table. Count using either metric (numbered) beats or use Kodaly syllables like tah and ti-ti.
It’s difficult to get students to break down music in this way. However, once a student breaks the rhythm apart from the notes, it’s naturally easier for him to play it correctly when the notes are added back. Besides rote playing, sight reading is a great way to keep reinforcing the primacy of rhythm. I use the Piano Safari sight reading cards, but there plenty of other options. It’s important to keep adding more complex rhythms in advance of when the student will encounter them in his music.
The Dreaded Metronome
There is not much that is dreaded by the music student as much as having to use a metronome. To the student who doesn’t understand the device, it’s just an obnoxious ticking device that makes playing more difficult. Yet every mid- to late-beginner has to at some point be introduced to one. For the beginner student, it’s typically used to make sure that notes with the same rhythmic value are played evenly. Sometimes the last beat of a measure or phrase gets extended as the student sees a bar line and thinks that’s a good pausing place. Or, it’s a way to regulate the rhythm of contrasting note values, like the quarter and eighth notes.
After a student gets a good sense of rhythmic values, she tends to use the metronome for tempo regulation. Every piece has a final tempo and good practice tempos. As a rough rule of thumb, once a student works out the notes and rhythms well enough to play more or less in time, we are aiming to get the piece to 80% of the final tempo, or 80 beats per minute (BPM). Once the piece is clean at that tempo, we can move the tempo progressively to and beyond the final tempo. Practicing a little faster than the final tempo is good in order to see what difficulties remain. Plus, it helps the performer know he is okay even if it starts too quickly or accelerates midway.
What Kind of Metronome
My favorite Seiko analog metronome is available once again. It has a dial, which you’ll love when you want to go from slow to fast in a quick turn. I also list two other digital models, of which I prefer the Korg. All three of these are listed toward the bottom of my Piano Lessons – Books page. If you want a phone app instead, I would recommend the paid version of the Tempo – Metronome with Setlist (iOS and Android).
While I love the traditional Wittner mahogany pendulum metronome that sits on top of my Yamaha U1, it’s not suitable for most kids. However, if you want an old-fashioned mechanical metronome, this is the brand. It’s available in several sizes, and built in plastic or wood.
To feel that beat is important in music. It’s not something that’s achieved just by older, more advanced, musicians. It can be done from the very beginning, as long as the instructor is willing to insist on playing correct rhythmic values. Playing rote pieces, and figuring out songs by ear also help in establishing the beat. It doesn’t have to be drudgery, requiring the metronome to be frequently used as a crutch. In the best case, it should be seen as a friend who checks up on you during your time of need!