A Novel Approach to Teaching and Learning Rhythm

When I was 13 years old, my drum teacher taught me the rudiments and. more important, how to groove. He had an encouraging way about him, always smiling, and he taught me about the importance of developing my own style. However, when I read and played music, I never completely understood what I was doing, even though my teacher patiently demonstrated how it was done. I paid close attention, but some of the time I was guessing.

Years later, I was teaching drums at a music store in Mesa, Arizona, but not with a high level of success. I was a graduate of the Arizona State University School of Music, was gigging professionally, and was teaching fourth grade at an elementary school. How was it that I could teach 30 energetic nine- and ten year-olds effectively, but have difficulty teaching drum students one on one?

One day I found myself transfixed while watching a Rod Morgenstein drum clinic at the music store. Rod was playing a drum solo, much of which was over-the-bar and polyrhythmic, while he counted quarter notes out loud the entire time. After he played that amazing solo, he said, "Drumming is not rocket science. If we are drummers, then naturally we should have complete command of and become experts in rhythm. Anything less than that is a cop-out." It hit me that I had somehow learned to understand rhythm through repetition and memorization, but I had never sat down and thought it through. In turn, I was asking my drum students to do the same. I needed to do something about this.

At the same time, my fourth-grade students were struggling to learn the concept of fractions, so I found this to be a perfect moment to experiment. The kids didn't mind at all becoming test subjects. I focused on the time signature of 4/4, and I hung up the following poster.

Note: In the Rhythm Chart in 4/4 Time, counting written below the staff shows that the note is played and counted out loud. Counting written in the middle of the staff and in parentheses means that the note is counted but not played.

I told the fourth graders that the fraction bars (which I called candy bars) related directly to the notes above, and I demonstrated the corresponding rhythms and the counting. Without realizing it, they were hearing what fractions sound like. Counting every 16th-note position (even when playing quarter notes or eighth notes) was the same as the concept of least common denominator. In other words, playing quarter, eighth and 16th notes evenly and in solid time was the same as adding fractions with unlike denominators.

Note: Going back to the wonderful days of fourth and fifth grade, least common denominator, or LCD, is the tool used to add or subtract fractions with unlike denominators. For instance, 1/4 + 3/8 doesn't equal 4/12. You can't necessarily add the numbers in the numerator (top) and the denominator (bottom) together. However, if you change 1/4 into 2/8, then 2/8 + 3/8 = 5/8.

The class made shakers out of Pringles containers and beans, and formed the 4th Grade
Rhythm Band. The kids enjoyed themselves and improved their understanding of fractions. (Unfortunately, we also made a bit of noise and angered the surrounding teachers.)

Breathing, while playing and counting out loud, became an issue. I instructed the students to take a short breath whenever they needed to, but to make sure that they inhaled on the "a" of any beat and exhaled on the downbeat (1, 2, 3, or 4). I related this to working out in the gym. When you bring the weight back (negative resistance), you inhale, and when you push the weight (positive resistance), you exhale and (if you are keeping track of the total number of repetitions) you say the number.

After the kids mastered the rhythm chart, they were ready to play more involved rhythms. Quarter, eighth, and 16th notes were combined all within one measure. (The candy bar below the staff shows the fractional relationship.)

As a fourth-grade teacher, I had learned the importance of teaching using a multi-sensory approach. In other words, I had discovered that not every student learns in the same way, so as a teacher I had a responsibility to tap into all of their senses. I knew that it wasn't enough just to have children play their shakers and count out loud. They also needed to write the fraction bars and the corresponding measure of rhythm.

The following set of directions took the students through this process.

How has this novel approach to teaching/learning rhythm translated to private drum lessons?
Excluding a couple of students under the age of eight, this method has worked for every one of hundreds of students, including both children and adults. A solid foundation of rhythm has been attained, while the mystery has been taken away.

This method commonly brings up two questions:

What about whole notes and half notes? Why haven't you included those in the rhythm chart?
Whole notes and half notes don't make for a very exciting rhythmic experience.

With all of this counting going on, at what tempo should you start?
To teach/learn effectively using this method, you need to use extremely slow tempos, sometimes starting as slow as 30 beats per minute.