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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 a group recital with lots of beginner piano students, I bet that’s not the case. On behalf of all piano teachers, I’ll take the blame, since we as a profession spend so much more time teaching note reading than the underlying rhythms that are attached to those notes. Yet, a listener will more easily forgive a few note errors than when the sense of rhythm is lost several times.
Before proceeding, I readily confess to conflating beat and rhythm, for good reason. When a quarter note is held too long (rhythm), the beat is lost. When a student doesn’t hold to a steady beat, the rhythms become skewed. So what’s the solution? Read on…
Use Your Own Percussion
There are lots of way to establish a beat. Clap. Walk around the room. Patsch – it’s a German/British English word that indicates smacking of the legs by the hands. Tap – on a closed keyboard cover or a table. Count using either metric (numbered) beats or use Kodaly syllables (tah, tee-tee, ti-ka-ti-ka).
It’s difficult to get students to break down the music in such a way. However, once a student breaks the rhythm down, it’s naturally easier for him to play it correctly when combined back with the notes. In order to keep reinforcing the primacy of rhythm, I use either method book activity pages or Piano Safari sight reading cards. It’s important to keep adding more complex rhythms as the student encounters 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
I used to be against metronome apps on principle. It just seems strange to turn a $400 device into a $25 one. Then, I found myself routinely grabbing for my iPad with its two tempo apps during piano lessons. When on the road, sometimes it is easier having one less physical object to carry! If you always have a phone or tablet with you, and prefer it to a separate device, look no further than Tempo – Metronome with Setlist. It was $2.99 when I last checked, and has iOS and Android versions. Everyone likes free stuff, but with music apps, don’t hesitate to purchase, especially at a negligible price like this. I included metronomes in a comprehensive app review for beginner students in mid-2019.
Although I love old-fashioned pendulum metronomes, they are a poor choice for most music students because they are fragile. Drop it, overwind it, or simply leave it properly wound without using it, and your device will soon cease functioning. If, after that warning, you still want a pendulum metronome, the German-made Wittner brand is the gold standard.
The Seiko SQ50-V Quartz Metronome is one that has been in production in a similar form for decades, and is still the best-selling metronome according to Amazon.com. Its analog dial allows you to choose any tempo within a second. For people who hate analog, or want to save a few bucks, I’ve included the Seiko DM51B Metronome. I don’t understand why anyone would want to use the long-press up and down buttons instead of an analog dial, but at least you have a choice!
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 drugery, 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!