Feel the Beat off the Seat | Tips for Teaching Rhythm

Feel the Beat off the Seat | Tips for Teaching Rhythm


This week’s article comes from Music Learning Theory (MLT) teacher and presenter, Barbara Grout and is all about Tips for Teaching Rhythm.

Rhythm is one of those fundamental aspects of music that many of us fail to help students understand and feel innately. If you’ve ever had a student not realise that they’ve ‘missed’ a beat in a bar (or added one), then this article is for you [that’s me too, by the way!].

Barb not only explains the reasoning behind teaching rhythm using the MLT approach, she also gives you plenty of actual activities that you can try out in your lessons this week. 

Give it a go and let us know what happens by leaving a comment at the end.

Over to Barb!

Feel the Beat (off the Seat)

“Rhythm is kinesthetic…it cannot be learned through counting…it can only be learned through movement.” – Edwin Gordon, PhD

For many years after I started teaching piano, I assumed that my students would learn correct rhythms as a natural part of the teaching process.

If I could just get them to show up for lessons, learn their pieces, practice at home, learn notation, count the beats, and perform at recitals, then they would automatically grasp everything they needed to know about rhythm. Right?


“Rhythm and tone are interdependent. They get ‘braided’ together to form melody. [But] in our brains, rhythm and tone are independent [of each other]. They are not braided [together] at all. The mind has no melody processor, only separate tone and rhythm processors working in parallel.” –Edwin Gordon

In other words, students will never truly understand or feel rhythm by sitting at the piano bench. They need to get up and move, because movement is what activates the rhythm processor in the brain.

Is it 3/4 or 4/4?

Just yesterday my students Halle and Logan played one section of Allegretto II by Czerny with only three beats per measure where the notation calls for four; later in the day my student Stella played a four-beat measure for every dotted half note in the minuet she was learning; and after that Quinn’s last measure of Christmas Day Secrets was rushed.


Why were they struggling to play the correct meter? Because they hadn’t internalized it. What was the solution? Not more explanation. Not counting. Not even repetition.

The solution was to get them moving, off the piano bench.

“A lack of understanding of meter is evident when a student fails to maintain 3/4 time by extending the third beat so that she is inadvertently playing in 4/4.” –Joy Morin, Building Awareness of Rhythm in Piano Students

Related: Music Learning Theory – What’s it all about?

Rhythm: Patterns in Time

There are three elements to rhythm:

  1. macrobeats (also called tempo or the “big beat”);
  2. microbeats (meter or the “little beat”); and
  3. melodic rhythm patterns (rhythm of the melody).

All three elements are needed to establish rhythmic context. When one element is missing, rhythm becomes rigid, erratic or inconsistent.

teaching rhythm

Movement and rhythmic chanting go together. Through movement and chanting students can be exposed to many different rhythm patterns. This allows them to develop a rhythm vocabulary in the same way that babies learn a language vocabulary. And just as babies soon become fluent speakers of languages, music students can become fluent players of rhythms.

How to chant in music lessons

For very young or beginning students, I start with the neutral syllable “bah” for chanting, because it’s easy to remember and doesn’t distract the child from focusing on the rhythm.

Once they are familiar with basic rhythm patterns, I have them begin using the rhythm-specific syllables suggested by Edwin Gordon—“du” for the macro beat, “du de” for duple meter micro beats and “du da di” for triple meter micro beats.


These syllables are not random. Gordon chose them because they enhance the kinesthetic experience. When students chant and move to these syllables, they really feel the beat.

So enough theory already! Let’s get off the seat and into the beat!

Rhythm Activities

1. Tennis Ball Bounce

First establish the tempo. Students bounce the ball on the big beat while chanting the rhythm pattern—or singing—a piece they’re learning.

2. Meter Game

This activity helps students build a sense of meter. Play short sections of a piece the student is learning and ask the student to sway back and forth from foot to foot to the big beat while their fingertips tap out the meter on the sides of their thighs.

To promote understanding, ask them whether their fingers are tapping in two or three (two microbeats per macrobeat or three microbeats per macrobeat—that is, duple or triple meter). Ask them how many taps are they tapping for each foot.

Exposing your students to this activity needs to be done every week, because it takes months for most students to learn to feel the difference between duple and triple meter. (The CD, You are My Sunshine, published by GIAmusic.com, is excellent for this activity as it has over 100 tunes in different meters.)

3. Pass the Ball

This is a group activity similar to Tennis Ball Bounce. First establish the tempo and the meter beats. Students stand or sit in a circle and pass the ball on the macrobeat. Start with one ball being passed, then add more as they get proficient. (Suggested by Amy Greer, New Mexico.)


4. Circle Chanting

Have students stand in a circle. First establish the macrobeat and the microbeat. Students begin to sway to the macrobeat. Divide the group. Ask some to chant the macrobeat (du…du…du…du). Ask other students chant microbeats (du-de or du-da-di). Have one student chant rhythm of the melody. Switch parts. This allows students to physically experience each element of rhythm. (Suggested by Marilyn Lowe, www.musicmovesforpiano.com)

5. Piano Rhythms

For group lessons. First, establish macrobeat and microbeat. Students line up at the piano and all chant a rhythm in unison. Then, one at a time, they play it on the piano, using any keys. Chant the same rhythm while next student goes to piano and plays it. Variation: one student plays a bass ostinato while others take turns chanting and playing. Use black keys.

6. Jump

For group classes. While chanting rhythm patterns, students jump up and land on the “du” or macrobeat. Variation: Students throw a yarn ball on the “du” and catch it on the “du.” (Suggested by Joan Johnson, New Jersey.)

7. Rhythm Train

Form a rumba line. The leader chants patterns in different meters (3/4, 2/4, 5/4, 5/8, 7/8, etc.) while everyone else steps together to the macrobeat (which stays the same throughout).

8. Duet Chanting and Movement

Two or more students chant two different patterns simultaneously while moving to the same big beat.

9. Rope Activity

Cut a piece of rope into two pieces of equal length. Two students face each other holding opposite ends of the ropes, singing a song they are learning while moving their arms back and forth in a swaying motion to the macrobeat. Students can also use a scarf instead of rope—or hold hands.

Flow: Continuous, Fluid Movement

Rhythm: from Latin rhythmus, Greek rhuthmos: to flow.

There is more to rhythm than just keeping the beat. Students also need to play musically and expressively, using proper phrasing. The key is continuous, flowing movement, which helps students feel the space between beats. When they feel that space, they are less likely to rush or drag the tempo.


“Continuous fluid movement using weight and flow is especially important for developing musicianship.” –Marilyn Lowe, www.musicmovesforpiano.com

“Beat means nothing to a person who cannot move with a relaxed, artistic sense of flow.” –Eric Bluestine, The Ways Children Learn Music

Try this: Put on a recording of your favorite music and move your arm in a sideways Figure 8 or infinity sign. Keep the Figure 8 going, moving your arm smoothly and continuously. Then try it with your students.

I’ve seen dramatic results from this activity. Students who struggled to find the rhythm or who played mechanically returned to the piano with a feel for phrasing. They started making music.

To know what a free-flowing movement feels like, students must also experience the opposite: Bound. As you move your arm, imagine being tied up, pushing arms stiffly through thick air or swimming through thick mud. Then “release” the binding and experience free-flowing movements again.

Flow Activities

1. Scarf/Balloon Activity

Holding a scarf or balloon in each hand, the student takes these props on “a ride” through space—in front, above, to the side and behind them, while singing, chanting a rhythm pattern or moving to recorded music.

Remember that the movement needs to be continuous and flowing. To feel what the opposite of flow feels like, have them also try it imagining they are pushing the props through thick air or under water.


2. Microbeat Flicks

Begin moving the arms in continuous, serpentine motions, using all the space around the body while singing or chanting a rhythm pattern. Keeping this continuous arm movement going, begin flicking the fingers in time to the microbeats. With practice this activity can have a profound effect on the student’s ability to feel the space between the beats.

3. Body Parts

Sing a song or chant a rhythm pattern while the students move one part of the body at a time—for example, thumbs, then elbows, shoulders, hands, knees and hips—in curvy pathways and continuous motion.


By now some of you might be thinking, “This is brilliant!” while others are thinking, “This is bizarre!” I’ve had both thoughts as well. But after experimenting with these activities for several years, it’s become increasingly clear that they really work.

Students who are challenged by rhythm begin to feel it on a deeper level—and their playing becomes more accurate. Students who do not have the same challenges with rhythm play more expressively. And all my students enjoy the games, especially in groups. That’s why I usually do them between lessons, when one family is about to leave and another is arriving.

“Find the groove before you start playing.” –Victor Wooten, renowned jazz bass player and author of The Music Lesson.

What is your favourite off the bench activity?

Getting kids ‘off the piano bench’ is so important, particularly in the early days. But what do you do with them?

Let us know by leaving a comment below.


Bluestine, Eric: The Ways Children Learn Music

Eskelin, Gerald: Lies My Music Teacher Told Me; Second Edition

Gordon, Edwin E.: Clarity by Comparison and Relationship; Improvisation in the Music Classroom; Learning Sequences in Music.

Lange, Diane: Together in Harmony

Lowe, Marilyn: Music Moves for Piano, Teachers Lesson Plans Book One; Rhythm and Tonal Patterns

soundpoint@3-DPiano.com: Joy Morin’s article: Building Awareness of Rhythm in Piano Students. (Her blog about piano teaching is: ColorInMyPiano.com)

Clavier Companion; Independence Day: Music Reading, Craig Sale, Ed. May/June 2013. www.claviercompanion.com p. 36 for videos

Wooten, Victor: The Music Lesson

Barbara Grout

Barb Grout has been teaching piano for 35 years, primarily in her home studio. From 2012-16 she was Independent Music Teachers Forum Chair for the Colorado Music Teachers Association. She has written numerous articles on subjects like student (and teacher) motivation; simultaneous learning; teaching students to think musically; and incorporating modal music into piano lessons. Always searching for better ways to teach, she began using the Suzuki Piano Method in 1984. In 2008 she discovered Edwin Gordon’s Music Learning Theory and subsequently reinvented herself as a teacher using Gordon’s principles. Her enthusiasm for Music Learning Theory continues to grow year after year for one simple reason: “It works".

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  1. I find that marching and waltzing are great fun w kids. Many kids have no idea how to waltz and I think they love learning it plus the whole of body movt helps enormously in internalizing the difference between duple and triple meter.

  2. I solve the rhythm problems of students through the melodica, or rather by rhythm prosody through melodica. My original thesis: there is an internal rhythm prosody even before its execution; and mistakes in rhythm is an error in its preliminary prosody. If prosody is correct , then rhythm will be also correct; and all this without counting .

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