On Rhythm: How to Develop a Steady Pulse  

I decided to put together an occasional series on rhythm, in response to readers who say they experience rhythmical issues when they play. There are many factors that may contribute to this problem, and I am going to cover one point at a time. Welcome to the first post in this series, on the importance of setting and maintaining a steady beat.

I can’t think of many activities we do at the piano that are not connected to a pulse, therefore establishing and maintaining the pulse should be the first priority in all we do. This demands special attention during our practice when we are stopping and restarting.

At the elementary level it’s the job of the teacher to set the pulse in lessons by counting out aloud energetically one or two bars before every scale, before every piece, and before every time a passage is repeated. After a while, the pupil is invited to set their own pulse by counting out aloud before they play. Laborious? A bit, but well worth the effort. In this way the process becomes internalised, and happens as second nature.

Clapping to the Metronome

How good are you at maintaining a steady beat? In this metronome experiment, continue to clap the beats when the metronome suddenly drops out. Can you maintain the pulse? Find out here…

And now for another exercise. Set a metronome to whatever speed you like, and clap so that your claps drown out the sound of the metronome. If you hear the metronome, the chances are that your clap is a bit before or after the beat.

Clapping is just one way of responding to the pulse, but notice how in this Dalcroze Eurhythmics class the teacher asks the students to put the music in the feet, and then in other parts of the body. This reminds us that rhythm is felt physically, in the body.

Clapping and Chanting

The ability to subdivide a steady beat is an essential skill for all musicians. A very simple way of developing this skill is to clap a steady beat with a metronome set at 60 (or thereabouts) and speak or chant words of one syllable (for crotchets), moving on to two syllables (for quavers), then three (for triplet quavers), then four (for semiquavers), etc. Make sure to chant rhythmically, subdividing the beat equally. You’ll probably find it’s enough to go up to words of six syllables. Choose words where the stress goes on the first syllable – you may want to have a bit of fun with this and use animal names, or fruits, or whatever category you fancy. Let’s go with some animals:

One syllable: Goat
Two syllables: Po-ny
Three syllables: El-e-phant
Four syllables: All-i-ga-tor
Five syllables: Hip-po-pot-a-mus
Six syllables: Higg-le-dy pigg-le-dy (at least it has “pig” in it – let me know if you can think of a six syllable animal where the secondary stress goes on the third syllable).

You might want to think in 4/4 time, and do a bar of each before mixing them up. Can you move seamlessly between ponies and hippopotami? Or alligators and elephants?

This website will help you come up with other words of various syllables

With the Metronome

And now to the piano. With your metronome set at 60, play a one-octave scale up and back until you are confident you can coincide each finger stroke precisely with a click of the metronome. Not a millisecond early or late, be really strict with yourself about this (if you’re not sure how together you were, record your scale and listen back to how you did).

The Ever-Expanding Scale

Here’s where the fun starts. Play a one-octave scale with both hands together in crotchets up and back down. Without stopping when you get back to your starting note play a two-octave scale, this time in quavers. Again without stopping, play a three-octave scale in triplet quavers, followed by a four-octave scale in a semiquavers. If you start in the lowest octave of your piano, in the key of A, Bb, B or C, you will be able to make it as far as six octaves, but you might want to start with just four octaves. Try this with the metronome, and then without (counting the crotchet beats out aloud).

Not only is this an excellent exercise in subdividing a steady beat, it is a great way to practise your scales!