Category: Teaching

The beginner who has trouble with rhythm and counting

At her lesson yesterday “C” told me that the amount of focus and concentration she needs to keep track of rhythm as she plays through a piece in real time is so great that she often cannot sustain that effort, given that she is already focusing on what the notes are.

There are some students who are convinced that they do not have the ability to play with the rhythm in addition to playing the correct notes.

Often I find that their conclusion is inaccurate.  They do have the ability to feel and reproduce a rhythm; what they lack is the ability to translate the visual notation of that rhythm, a series of odd looking musical symbols, into the feeling of the rhythm that is already in their bodies.

While playing, the student if necessary can interpret and react to just one note at a time.  However, for rhythm, it requires fusing a group of successive written symbols into a single sustained act through time.  In other words, the rhythm does not lie in a single note but in a series of notes.

To prove to the student that they do have the ability to execute rhythms accurately, I use just one note (middle C for example) and reiterate it in a certain rhythm.  For instance if I play the sequence:

| dotted-quarter eighth  |  dotted-quarter eighth  |  eighth eighth  quarter  | half  |

the majority of students will be able to play that rhythm back.  They will do so at the same tempo in which I played it.  This last fact suggests that they achieve this without subdividing the conscious duration of their rendition into separate notes, without breaking it into a series of separate notes, each with its own private duration.

Now that the student is aware that they do have the ability to mimic, and therefore repeat if necessary particular rhythms, what’s left to do is leisurely learning to recognize the visual concatenation of symbols that stand for that whole experience that their body already knows and has internalized.

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A Brief Postscript About Ear Training

All music theory is, really, is ear training.

The most general definition of Ear Training is knowing what you are hearing (often without a score).  Certain subjects, which properly belong in ear training and which should be taught in the form of sounds, are most often taught with pencil and paper.  Included in this category are Harmony, Counterpoint, and Analysis of musical form.  These subjects can benefit from being brought back under the practice of ear training.

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Teaching technique for younger beginners: tolerance for criticism

A useful technique is to create ‘room’ within the student for accepting negative criticism, by the creation within the student of a second person, who views the first person from the outside (as someone in the second person singular).  This person can be called a colleague-teacher.  Someone the teacher can consult with about the way the student is playing.  This term puts the student into a position of authority with a sense of power and omniscience, thus steering around the potential for the student to feel as a victim of negative criticism.

Agree ahead of time on what the important things are that should happen during the next run-through of the piece.

a) the notes in the correct order.

b) rhythm

c) a steady even tempo*

plus anything else that seems relevant to help improve that particular student’s playing, such as fingering, dynamics, tempo, articulation, clarity, enthusiasm, etc..  But not too many things.  Perhaps a maximum of two or three to five.

After each run-through of a piece, consult with the ‘colleague-teacher’, and ask him to give his opinion on each of the categories, by assigning a separate grade, from one to ten, for each of the agreed upon categories.  It is easier, with this setup, for the student to give criticism to himself without the resistance and hurt feelings that would result from negative criticism by the adult teacher.   It creates the possibility of working on the aspects of his playing that he acknowledged as having lower scores.

* this may be the hardest for the young student to admit because, tacitly, she is acknowledging that certain sections of the piece are more difficult for her and therefore in need of more work than other sections.

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Ear Training Part 4:  Resolving more complex ear abilities to simpler ones.

All ear training skills, from the simplest to the most complicated, from skills that the youngest child will have success, to skills expected of a fourth-year student at a music conservatory.

Regardless of the difficulty of the type of question, and the type of answer with which to respond to the question, all ear training abilities ultimately boil down to three, very simple types of questions:

1) which is higher in pitch of two notes?
2) which is longer in duration of two notes?
3) how many sounds just occurred, one after the other?

The principle is that of a prism, which separates white light into its component colors.  Each ear training ability can be put through a prism to resolve it into component simpler abilities.  When the ability is quite complicated, then after putting it through the prism once, the separate components that result, if each of them is put again through a prism, will resolve into even simpler component abilities.   This procedure can repeated as many times as necessary, until you end up with abilities of the utmost simplicity.  And these three are the ones listed above.

An important thing about the simplicity versus the complexity of an ear training question.   Here is a typical ‘simplest’ question posed to a first year college student in the first ear training class.  The question seems very simple as it is presented.  For example, “what chord did you just hear?”.  But this chord is already in a highly complex form in terms of component/ simpler ear training abilities.  A first pass through the prism will resolve the question about the chord into these types of component questions: 1) how many notes in the chord, 2) what is the quality / type of the chord, 3) is the chord in root position or in an inversion, 4) can your ear single out each individual note in the chord, 5) What is the interval between two of those notes, 6) starting with the lowest note in the chord and proceeding to the highest, specify whether that note is the ‘root note’, the ‘third’, the ‘fifth’, or the ‘seventh’ of the chord.

And there are others components as well.  Each an ear training ability in its own.  It is prudent to work on each ability by itself for a while before trying to put them through a second prism so that they converge back together.

If you trace back the simpler abilities to even simpler abilities, after a number of rounds of doing this, you will end up with the simplest abilities – the three mentioned above.

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Ear Training Part 3: Two people make up an ideally sized study group. How to proceed.


If you do not have access to a computer, or to a class being offered locally, Ear Training can be easily practiced with the help of just one friend.  It is advantageous, but not necessary, for both people to be on a similar level in terms of their prior ear training experience.

The best setup is if you have access to a room or space with two pianos.  But other than a minor loss of time for logistics, one piano is fine too.

One person plays for the other a “question”: a sound, or group of sounds, made up according to one of the “recipes” shown below.  The other ‘answers’ the question either by words or, sometimes by playing a sound or sounds at the other piano, if there are two pianos

Questions can go back and forth in groups of questions.  For example, one can pose to the other around 8 sound-questions, then the two can switch roles.


Here are examples of answers to sound-questions that made from the simplest recipes.

1) “I hear just one sound”, 2) “I hear two sounds”, 3) “I hear a low sound then a high sound”, 4) “I hear a series of three (or four) sounds”, 5) “I hear two sounds at the same time”, 6) “I hear two sounds in a row, the first having a shorter duration than the second.”

As things advance, and the recipes become very gradually more complex.  Here are examples of questions made from the slightly more complex recipes.

1) Which is the highest in pitch of three sounds heard one after the other?

2) Which is the longest in duration of three sounds heard one after the other.

3) How many notes do you hear in sequence?

4) How many notes do you hear sounding together (1, 2, 3 or 4)?

As a general rule, as the recipes become more complex, restrict, at first, the number of possible correct answers to just one of two choices.  After a while there can be three possibly correct choices.  Etc..   Here are two possible cases:

5) Can you match the note I am playing on my piano with the same note at the second piano  Start with a choice of 2 notes and gradually, as warranted, add in one more note at time.

6) Do the two chords consist of all the same sounds or are they different in some way {start with single sounds, then harmonic intervals, then triads, 4-note chords, etc.}?  At first make the two sound-groups very different, one from the other.  As progress continues, make sound-groups that sound more similar.

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