Rhythm Training

“Everything in the universe has a rhythm, everything dances.." — Maya Angelou


Over many years of teaching, I have noticed how much rhythm impacts the technical control of playing a musical instrument. I also realized that most students with technical problems also have rhythmical problems. Thinking more about, it I found that overall technical control is highly dependent on great rhythmical control.

Technique is movements in time. When watching a great gymnast perform floor exercises, notice that the control of their highly developed movements is dependent on great timing. As a young man I used to ride horses which taught me that it was necessary to be completely in sync with the horse and to have absolute control of the timing of everything when jumping with the horse.

Since all technical passages we play are moments that take place in time, it is necessary to have solid control of the rhythmical pulse. It is common to hear less experienced performers speed up when the get to a hard passage instead of holding the tempo in strict time or even playing on the back side of the beat. In my teaching I always stress the importance of being able to play 10% slower than the desired tempo because in performance and audition situations (with all the excitement that arises during these events) most people tend to play faster than their desired tempo.

When performing it is best to feel:

  1. The longer phrase with the stronger and weaker beats inside each measure.
  2. A steady pulse
  3. The subdivision inside each beat. Subdividing each beat is a great way to control the tempo in music that is rhythmically difficult or music where having a solid rhythmical pulse is difficult.

-Hans Jensen

Below is a small extract from Chapter 16: Rhythm Training in PracticeMind: The Complete Practice Model by Hans Jensen and Oleksander Mycyk

Chapter 16: Rhythm Training

Rhythm is one the most fundamental aspects of life and music. From the rhythms of waves on a shore to life- sustaining heartbeats, rhythm is not only all around us but is an essential part of each person’s life. Humans experience rhythm early in life, listening to their mother’s heartbeat and breathing in the womb. Strong evidence suggests that beat induction is innate in newborn babies.

Since music is present in some form in all human cultures, the ability to feel and move to music in a rhythmic way is one of the essential cultural characteristics that connects all of humanity. This chapter illustrates different ways to harness your innate rhythmic capabilities with and without your instrument. With mindful and persistent practice, we believe every person can develop their sense of rhythm to a high level.

The Three Basic Elements of Rhythm

Beat, tempo, and meter are the three basic rhythmical elements behind all music. This combination is what brings music to life.

  1. The beat or pulse

The beat is the unit division of musical time and is the repeated note value of the time signature. In a time signature of 4/4, the beat is four quarter-note beats every bar. In a time signature of 6/8, there are six eighth note beats per bar. The pulse is the heartbeat of the music;

it’s the rhythmic unit that the listeners tap along with. The pulse is often the same as the beat, but in a 4/4 time signature, for example, the pulse is in either four or two. In a 6/8 time signature, the pulse is usually in two with a pulse unit for every dotted quarter note.

  1. The tempo

Tempo is the speed of the rhythm of a composition. Tempo is measured according to beats per minute, just like your heart rate.

  1. The meter

Meter is a recurring pattern of stresses or accents that provides the pulse or beat of music. The meter is notated at the beginning of a composition with a time signature consisting of two numbers. The top number denotes the number of beats in each measure. The bottom number denotes the note value that receives the beat.

The Inner and Outer Rhythm

The inner rhythm is the pulse you feel inside yourself just before starting to play and during your performance. The inner rhythm is visualized by professional musicians in several different ways. It can be imagined as sounds in the performer’s mind, visualized as coming from different parts of the body depending on each musician’s personal experience and preference.

The outer rhythm is the beat that is heard and felt from the sound of the instruments being played around you. Musicians in an ensemble all feel and entrain their beats together. When performing, it is important that the inner and outer pulse line up and that all the musicians in the ensemble breathe and entrain their pulse together. When playing unaccompanied music or an orchestral excerpt, you need to be highly conscious of the inner pulse. That inner pulse, however, still must align with the outer pulse felt more as small movements of the body. 

The Entrained Pulse

When the inner and outer pulses are fully entrained, they are felt as one unit, and everything moves in sync to the pulse. We call that the entrained pulse.

To feel the entrained pulse in different parts of the body, try these exercises:

The whole body

  • The entrained pulse manifests in the whole body, especially in slower and medium-tempo music as a small swaying motion.
  • The whole body can feel the entrained pulse when the musicians in an ensemble are moving, breathing, and feeling the rhythm together.
  • Keeping the feet grounded gives balance and support to the whole body as it moves to the entrained pulse.

The left and right hand

  • The pulse of the music is often felt as small impulses in the articulation of either hand.
  • Impulse practice is an important aspect of keeping the rhythm under control.
  • In the bow arm, accents, as indicated by the composer, are often placed as part of the bigger pulse units.

Rhythmic training away from the instrument

Select a piece you are working on and choose a way of moving that fits the music best. Then listen to the music while dancing, clapping, or performing whichever physical movement you have chosen.

You can play a recording, sing it out loud yourself, or sing it together with a group of your fellow students. It can also be entertaining and fun to have one or more students play their instruments and the rest of the class move to the music. Doing it first together in a group is much more fun than everyone doing it alone. We have often done this with a whole studio class. Doing this on a regular basis as a small part of your daily practice routine, whether on your own or with a partner, can go a long way toward developing a stronger sense of rhythm.

To get the most out of these exercises, it’s important that you totally let go and put all your effort into it. When singing or playing the music, make sure that you express the music to its fullest degree, and when moving to the music, make sure that your movement patterns fit with the rhythmical

Practical Application of Rhythm Training 

One of the most difficult aspects of rhythm is the ability to keep a steady tempo and a stable internal pulse. Neuroscience studies show that having a steady pulse has a strong influence on technical control as well as the shaping of a musical composition. Here are some practical methods to develop better rhythmical control:

Entrainment of the inner and outer pulses

Participating in ensemble playing, from chamber music to larger ensembles, is one of the best ways to develop a strong sense of pulse. In a jazz group, the rhythm section is the heartbeat that keeps the group synchronized with each other. In a rock group, it is the drummer who drives the beat. In a chamber ensemble the bass line is the rhythmic foundation for the whole ensemble. Having a great inner pulse is an innate talent each person has the potential to develop. Throw yourself into feeling the rhythmic pulse from the whole ensemble and entrain your own inner pulse with the whole ensemble’s pulse. 

Auditory rhythm’s influence on technical control

People who do not have a strong internal rhythm often have unresolved technical problems. Since technique consists of physical movement patterns in time, it is essential to control the aspect of rhythm and timing. When working on technical passages, use the various techniques for control of rhythm from Chapter 17: Metronome.

Subdivide the beats.

One great way to feel the inner pulse is to internalize the subdivisions of the main beats. In a duo, trio, or larger ensemble, all members should feel the subdivisions internally in addition to shaping the music together.

Feeling the subdivisions creates an incredibly powerful inner rhythmic pulse that helps create a long expressive line when required.

To continue reading, and for more information visit PracticeMind: The Complete Practice Model