Solving Rhythm Problems in the Instrumental Ensemble

by Garwood Whaley

Rhythm is the primary musical element found in all music from all historical periods. It is also the most problematic. Why then is rhythm so often neglected as a daily component of band and orchestra rehearsals? Totally neglected? Of course not but it is usually addressed only when problems occur and then, not as a regular part of rehearsal strategies.

In order to implement this teaching strategy, you will need to have or do the following: rhythm sheet handouts or rhythm book (without pitches, just rhythms and rests); make sure that the materials cover all rhythm problems that will be contained in music played during the year; clap and count out loud at the beginning of every rehearsal – CONSISTENCY IS ESSENTIAL.

Dealing with rhythm problems piece-by-piece is frustrating and redundant. Teaching a difficult rhythm by rote may solve the problem in one piece but, most often, the ability to play the same rhythm in another piece does not transfer. Rote teaching of rhythms is a band-aid approach that does nothing for long-term learning. Like any musical skill, teaching rhythm requires regular application and must become a daily part of every rehearsal. Combining rhythm training with playing an instrument does not work as effectively as isolating rhythm alone. In other words, isolate rhythm by clapping and counting out loud using a standard counting system. The focus must be on pure rhythm without having to deal with tone production, intonation or articulation.

Try this. At the beginning of every rehearsal using either rhythm sheets or a rhythm book, have students count out loud using a standard counting system as they clap the rhythms (I use Basics in Rhythm which I wrote and is published by Meredith Music Publications). Begin with simple rhythms and progress to more difficult examples during the school year. Try to complete one page each day. Insist that students count out loud since over time, they will develop the ability to hear the counting syllables in their mind. After establishing rhythm training as a normal part of each rehearsal (two or three weeks), complete the rhythm drill for the day by transferring the exercise to playing on a unison pitch. Stress the need to count mentally while playing. From that time on, after clapping each exercise, play the rhythms on a unison pitch while counting silently.

Assessment is important. At the end of each week or at the conclusion of a rhythm unit of multiple pages, have each student demonstrate their mastery by clapping and counting a few measures from the unit during a designated rehearsal. This takes very little time since each student is only performing several measures. If a student cannot clap and count the excerpt successfully, work with them individually until they are up to speed.

By taking a proactive approach to solving rhythm problems before they occur, you will provide students with a long-term comprehensive approach to decoding rhythms on their own; improvement will be almost instant. And, thanks to their ability to recognize rhythms with the help of rhythmic syllablization, students will be able to transfer their new-found skills from piece to piece. A by product will be the improvement in sight-reading skills leading to more productive rehearsals and a potential increase in acceptance to regional and district ensembles. As a teacher, you can be reassured that this approach will provide students with concepts and skills that will take them far beyond their school years. Their ability to problem solve and perform independently throughout their adult lives fulfills the true goal of music education.

Click link to see a video presentation of this system in action. Play Video

This article, used by permission, is an excerpt from a publication entitled The Music Director’s Cookbook: Recipes for a Successful Program which features short articles by 57 of today’s leading music educators, conductors and composers. It is available from Meredith Music Publications, distributed by the Hal Leonard Corporation.