Teaching Rhythm and Rhythmic Literacy in Orchestra: Strategies for Developing Independent and Rhythmically Literate String Students

By Christopher Selby

 The goal of teaching rhythm is to develop independent string musicians who can decipher, recall and perform written rhythms without the help of a teacher. How many times have we heard students ask “How does this go?” If we are not careful, teachers can unintentionally create students that become rhythmically dependent upon the teacher or other players.

Students with a “good ear” are often the worst readers, because they find it easier to listen and learn by copying than to learn to read music. So, the best time to teach rhythmic literacy is when students are learning new exercises or music that they have not seen or heard.

The next time you introduce a new piece or exercise in a method book, consider how you approach this opportunity. The strategies described below teach students to become rhythmically literate and independent.

Explaining Rhythm

All rhythm has two components: the pulse and the rhythm that goes over the pulse. The teacher must develop both components for a student to properly understand and perform rhythms. Pulse should always be taught and established first; students need to learn that there can be a pulse without a rhythm, but there is no such thing as good rhythm without a pulse. 

Getting Started

  1. Establish the tempo first. Model the tempo and counting style you want your students to use during the rhythmic example. Explain that the students are to count the pulse (not the rhythm of the music) out loud. After they demonstrate their ability to keep a steady pulse counting, they can begin performing the rhythm of the music with their bow hand (while continuing to count out loud.)
    1. If the example is mostly quarters and half notes, counting 1, 2, 3, 4 works best.
    2. If the example has dotted quarters and eighth-notes, count the pulse and division (1 & 2 & 3 & 4 &)
    3. If the example has dotted eighths and sixteenth-notes, count out the subdivisions (1 e & a, 2 e & a, 3 e & a, 4 e & a)
  2. While the students count out loud, have them perform the new music or exercises with their bow.
    1. Air bow first. Students can get a preliminary feel of the rhythm as they count the pulse out loud. Longer notes should be bowed with a slow, sustained motion. The Teacher can check to make sure students are counting and watch the bows to assess who is struggling most.
    2. After students demonstrate success with air bowing, have them count and bow the rhythm on an open string. Watch students closely to make sure they continue counting as they play; the students who don’t count will not know when to come in after long notes and rests.
    3. When they are ready, instruct students look at the key signature and the pitches. Give them time to mentally practice (silently air bowing and putting fingers on the string) before the class plays together. This important step gives the non-readers with good ears a chance to practice reading without having the opportunity to listen to the person next to them.
    4. Instruct students to perform the notes and rhythms on the second line with their bows.

Counting Out Loud

To genuinely understand a rhythm pattern, students must perform the rhythm while simultaneously keeping a consistent pulse somewhere else in their body. The biggest benefit to this strategy is that students are counting while they perform through long or dotted notes and rests, which is the most important time to count.  Students will find it easier to “count in their head” (and they will beg their teachers to let them do this) because in truth, they temporarily stop counting during the toughest rhythms; instead, they should count out loud, especially when the rhythms are difficult.

 Modeling is encouraged, but avoid teaching rhythm through repetition. Hammering a rhythm over and over may clean up rhythmic inaccuracies, but the students are only learning to copy the teacher, and not learning to count and independently perform the rhythm.  Each time a rhythm or exercise is repeated, the students with good ears and poor reading ability have less need to read. 

Additional Teaching Strategies

Teaching pulse

As a general rule, teach pulse without written notation. Introduce notation when teaching rhythms, as explained in the next section.

  1. Instruct students to count to two, three, or four with and without the metronome depending on the meter the teacher has chosen. Practice changing meters by holding up two, three, or four fingers and having students count the correct number of beats with a steady tempo. Have students play half notes, dotted-half, and whole notes with their bows on an open string while counting to two, three, or four respectively.
  2. Teach 2/4, 3/4, and 4/4 with eighth and sixteenth note subdivisions with and without a metronome.  Use a syllable system (like 1 & 2 & for 8th notes and 1 e & a 2 e & a for 16th notes) to add subdivisions to the pulse. Have students march or clap the pulse while counting the subdivisions to reinforce the connection between the two.  Instruct students to play 8th or 16th notes with their bows on an open string while counting (and/or marching) to two, three, or four with a consistent pulse. Demonstrate quarters, 8th or 16th notes in different time signatures, and have students identify the note durations and time signature by ear.
  3. Explore different tempos and the effects different tempos have on the pulse, 8th and 16th notes. Discuss tempo markings like Allegro, Adagio, Moderato, and Presto. Count off different tempos for students to echo; have students take turns choosing a meter and tempo to count off for their peers to echo. Have students play different note lengths with their bows on an open string while counting to two, three, or four at different speeds.
  4. Look at different time signatures and tempo markings in written examples (especially concert music and sight reading examples), and ask students to count out a pulse that reflects what they see. Encourage students to include 8th and 16th subdivisions when counting slower tempos. Have students demonstrate the meter and tempo marking on their instruments by counting and playing open string notes with their bows. Demonstrate quarters, 8th or 16th notes in different time signatures, and have students identify the note durations and time signature by ear.

Teaching rhythm and notation

As a general rule, teach students how a rhythm sounds first, and then teach how it looks. Students will learn how to count and recall rhythms within a pulse in the next section.

  1. Use 2/4 to teach quarters and half notes; use 3/4 to teach dotted halves, and 4/4 to teach whole notes. Instruct students play quarter notes with their bow on an open string while they count to two, three, or four with and without the metronome depending on the meter the teacher has chosen. Have students play half notes, dotted-half, and whole notes with their bows on an open string while counting to two, three, or four respectively. Demonstrate the rhythms taught in this section on an instrument, and ask students to write down the rhythms they hear.
  2. Use a syllable system (like 1 & 2 & for 8th notes and 1 e & a 2 e & a for 16th notes) to teach eighth and sixteenth notes with and without a metronome.  Students can march or clap the pulse while counting 8th and 16th notes to reinforce the connection between the two.  Have students play 8th or 16th notes with their bows on an open string while counting (and/or marching) to two, three, or four with a consistent pulse. Demonstrate 8th and 16th notes in different time signatures, and ask students to write down the rhythms they hear.
  3. Syncopation, dotted and tied rhythms are much easier to learn after the quarters, 8th and 16th notes addressed in the previous section. In this category of rhythm, the dot, tie, or syncopation holds the note over a beat. This is more easily explained visually in terms of 8th and 16th notes that are contained in each note of the rhythm.  When students begin playing these rhythms over a pulse in the next section, it is imperative that the students count through the rhythm to keep track of the beat that is contained in the dot, tie, or syncopation. 

Assessment

Use a rubric like the one below to assess the students’ reading ability. The first and most important component to test is Tempo and Rhythm. Test this category by having students count and clap, and then count and pizzicato or bow an open string. After students demonstrate their ability to sight read the rhythms, add the components of Intonation and Tone into the assessment.

rhythm-assessment-rubric