Counting Rhythm

Question: Just a quick question re: counting notes… timing. I’m immediately interested in finding help in proper counting of various notes. I struggle with this more than anything. Reading notes is not an issue… playing correct timing of notes is. Can I expect to find this sort of help in your lessons? Just a quick paragraph on me & my background…

As a child I had approximately 4–5 years of piano training from a very excellent teacher, much of this based in classical music. As an older teenager I continued playing and learning on my own, beginning 5th grade music, and playing contemporary music. When I graduated from high school I got totally away from piano (1965).

At age 53 I took early retirement & bought a baby grand, planning to study piano again. Now, at age 62, I’ve begun to seriously study again, for a time in private lessons, & now on my own again. I’m approximately at 3rd–4th grade level right now. Even as a child I struggled with timing and find myself having the same issue now. Basic timing is not an issue… it’s the eighth & sixteenth notes that confuse me. I’ve been searching for info to help me on this and ran across your web site, which seems to be excellent. Looking forward to seeing your material.

– Marylou (New York, USA)

Albert’s reply: I consider rhythm to be the most difficult musical skill to address through an electronic medium. This may seem ironic, since electronics can give us perfect clocks and their musical counterpart, the metronome.

I can’t caution enough that musical time is not clock time. A musical phrase must live and breathe just like a spoken phrase. Areas of tension and release require the subtle synthesis of time, dynamics and articulation as the piano’s expressive means.

That said, musicians do need to develop a strong rhythmic sense, and technology does provide one important means of doing so. I do have lessons on rhythm in the works, but they won’t force students to play like machines.

I recommend tapping the beat as you count out loud during practice. You can play with one hand at a time and tap with the other.

Use a metronome some but not all of the time to give you the literal placement of the beats in “clock time” (heeding my caution mentioned above).

Since you’re having difficulty with eighth and sixteenth notes, I assume these are rhythmic subdivisions of the beat. Concentrate on the beat, and verbalize the subdivisions.

For example, in 3/4 meter with eighth note subdivisions, count “1 & 2 & 3 &.” For 3/4 meter with sixteenth notes, count “1 e & a 2 e & a 3 e & a.”

You can tap or clap your hands together as you do these exercises. This will help you to embody the rhythm, making it a physiological activity rather than mere points in time.

Another way to embody rhythm is to learn basic conducting patterns for simple meter. In fact, this is one of the most powerful techniques instrumentalists can do to strengthen their rhythmic skills.

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