My music teacher colleague Diego Cardini was kind enough to write this post for Key-Notes readers. Rhythm is something most piano learners struggle with, and percussionists are experts at rhythm, so who better to ask for exercises to help piano students develop their rhythmic skills?
Understanding and feeling rhythms is something that many pianists struggle with when learning. It’s completely understandable as the piano is a very popular solo instrument. When playing the piano alone, you don’t need to worry about fitting in with other band members and their instrument parts.
However, you need to develop and improve your sense of rhythm to become a more complete musician. We’re going to look at 5 rhythm exercises from a drummer’s perspective that will help you with your rhythmic ability when playing the piano.
Why is it important to develop rhythm?
Rhythm is what holds all music together. Every musician needs to have a good grasp of it in order to play with other musicians. It’s very common for beginner pianists to learn to play, and then fall short when joining a band at a later stage because of rhythmic issues.
So, it’s vital to develop rhythm as early as you can. Having a good sense of rhythm is more than just keeping in time with a song, though. It’s also about internally feeling a pulse so that you feel more comfortable when playing and understanding how subdivisions work together.
Now, let’s move on to the exercises.
5 drummers' exercises for piano learners
This first exercise will have you playing quarter notes and eighth note triplets. The goal is to feel the difference between the two subdivisions. The first bar establishes a base of a quarter note pulse while the second bar brings in the triplets over that pulse.
You can either tap these rhythms with your hands on a surface or play them as notes on the piano.
When doing this exercise, start with playing the top note as your right hand and the bottom note as your left. Once you’ve done that for a while and are comfortable, switch your hands around so that your left hand is playing the triplets in the second bar.
After both hands are comfortable with the exercise, try alternating your hands after every second bar. So, play triplets with your right in the first round and then switch to your left in the second round without stopping.
The next exercise is another one that will get you playing and feeling different subdivisions. We’re going from eighth notes to sixteenth notes in this one. Start the exercise out with only using one hand.
The sixteenth notes may be a bit tricky to bash out with a single hand, but it’s good to develop dexterity and comfort when it comes to fast notes.
Once you’ve done it a few times with your right hand, switch over to your left.
When both hands are comfortable, it’s time to mix them together. Alternating your hands comfortably is one of the most important factors in keeping steady rhythms. So, you’re going to be playing right and left in eighths and then the same in sixteenths.
In drumming, this is called a single stroke roll. It’s arguably the most important rudiment that every drummer learns to play.
Try see how fast you can play this exercise. Remember to always have control. If you’re playing fast without control, it’s not going to help you improve your rhythmic ability!
This exercise is mixing two rhythms together to form a polyrhythm. The concept of polyrhythms may sound a bit scary at first, but exercises like this show that they can be fairly simple, to begin with. This is especially true when only using two hands.
Like we did before, play the top note with your right hand and the bottom with your left. Once you get used to it, switch your hands around for variety.
In this exercise, your one hand will be playing straight eighth notes while the other is playing syncopated sixteenths. If you isolate that hand, it will sound like it’s playing a fun driving rhythm. Once you get the pattern down, it will be easy to play.
Don’t get discouraged if your hands get a bit confused at first. This exercise requires a bit more coordination than the previous ones!
Exercise 4 is deceptively difficult. On the surface, it looks like you’re simply tapping eighth note triplets. However, the goal is to play these triplets as a double stroke roll. A double stroke roll is when you play two right-hand strokes followed by two left-hand strokes.
It’s a fairly simple rudiment to play if you’re playing straight eighth notes. A completely different story when modulating them to eighth note triplets.
The benefit of this exercise is that it will stretch your brain to think about a simple pattern in a different way. Once you have control over playing this exercise in triplets, you’ll find that other triplet patterns won’t be so difficult to feel internally and play.
The best way to nail this exercise is to accent beat 1 every time. Doing that will ensure that you’re on track and you know when the pattern is starting again.
The final exercise is a common rhythmic pattern that you’ll find in many songs. The goal of this exercise is to play the pattern and internalize the rhythm. You can count the pattern out loud at first, but you need to eventually feel and play it without thinking.
The pattern has sixteenth note rests between a few of the notes. Work on making those as clear and precise as possible before playing the landing notes afterward. Remember that rests are just as important as notes in music. Having that thought in your mind will help you when it comes to playing rhythms.
Once you play tap this pattern a few times on a surface, take it to the piano and apply it to a chord progression. Going up and down the piano with this rhythm will add a bit of a challenge to it!
Tips for developing better rhythmic ability
Write things down
If you’re able to write notes out yourself, try writing rhythms down that you’ve heard in songs. Knowing how to notate a rhythm will give you a reinforced understanding of how that rhythm is meant to sound.
If you can write something out comfortably, you’ll undoubtedly be able to play it comfortably. The more you do this, the better you’ll get at it. It’s an underrated skill to have!
Practice every day
This may be obvious. But there’s a good reason that everyone will tell you this. The more you do something, the better you get at it. If you want to improve your rhythm on the piano, you should set aside some time every day to work on your rhythmic ability.
Going through all the exercises above will only take about 10 minutes. If you do rhythmic work for 10 minutes daily, the improvement you’ll have after a few months will be massive.
The power of practicing can never be overstated.
Clap rhythms you can hear
Listening skills are just as important as rhythmic ones. You can combine these things together to improve your rhythm by clapping out rhythms that you hear from different songs.
If you can hear a song and comfortably clap the rhythms you hear, you’ll easily be able to apply them when you’re playing yourself.
Many rhythms are quite easy to clap back, especially in songs that are straightforward. However, you should find songs that have challenging rhythms. Memorize those and you’ll be surprised at how much it will improve your internal sense of rhythm.
Learn songs that have rhythmic emphasis
If you want to work on your rhythmic ability while playing piano at the same time, you should learn to play songs that have more focus on rhythms than they do on melodies.
Remember to continue working on your standard repertoire, though. You don’t want to neglect playing melodies either.
A final tip to improve your rhythmic ability is just to play chords on the piano. Take a few chord progressions and see how many rhythms you can play them in to spice the song up.
Switch between straight subdivisions and then give some syncopated patterns a go. This is one of the most fun ways of developing better rhythm on the piano.
Another way to increase your rhythmic ability on the piano is to learn to play a bit of drums. The great thing about drumming is that you don’t need to worry about melodies or key signatures.
Instead, you just need to focus on rhythms and coordination between your limbs. Playing around on a kit is a lot more fun than clapping your hands. So, consider getting one.
You could get an electronic drum kit as it’s easier to set up, doesn’t bother any neighbors, and generally sounds quite good. We’d only suggest getting an acoustic kit if you’re passionate about learning to play the drums properly.
Until then, working on all these exercises will undoubtedly help you improve your rhythmic ability on the piano.
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