Rhythm can be frustrating.
Sometimes it will come naturally, or not at all (you’ll know when it doesn’t).
Over the years, I’ve built a sense of rhythm from the ground up.
Here are the biggest activities that helped me master rhythm in music.
Copy a jazz pianist
If you still find yourself decoding rhythm after years of Classical music training, like me, you’ll know that this rhythm funkiness isn’t any fault of your own– it’s just harder for some, you know?
Listen to a piece of jazz music, and try to copy the rhythm. This will be especially hard if you’re a classical musician, but it will challenge you to find to a new type of rhythm in your body.
If you’ve never played jazz, start with the swing: play a blues scale in this rhythm. (You might not get it right the first time.)
Play structured pieces
Let’s face it, Czerny exercises can pass as pieces of music but we don’t want to play those all day.
You’ll want to look for pieces of music that have a strict rhythm, so you can hone your sense of rhythm and learn a fun piece of music.
In the video below, I share 3 piano pieces that help you work on rhythm/coordination.
Here’s the sheet music mentioned in the video above:
If you’re stumbling on a difficult rhythm, count out loud and clap it until the rhythm feels natural, until you can feel it without counting at any speed.
When I started piano, I had a set of music flashcards which featured musical terms and rhythm exercises. Each time I learned a new term in the set, my teacher punched a hole in the top left corner and threaded it through a metal ring.
We would start each lesson with a quiz through the cards, and I’d get a new rhythm to clap.
These clapping exercises helped me build a vocabulary of rhythm.
Think of it as a game, to clap any rhythm you can get your hands on. I alternated between practicing a piece of music and clapping exercises, so that my family thought I was applauding my own music.
When I was on a competitive volleyball team, I was the hitter, which meant I’d spike (or, hit) the ball at someone on the other team.
Mostly, I let the ball sail over the net (as opposed to jumping at the net with my arms straight up), because I was good at receiving fast, hard hits. Once I volleyed it straight up, a team mate would set it, boom, we spike and score.
I was good at receiving hits because I drilled– the coach would spike the ball at me for hours.
In piano, Hanon is a spiking drill. Once you have it in your body, your game will be much smoother, because the dexterity you get from Hanon will be applicable anywhere else.
Side Note: Pianists who are starting out and haven’t played scales and standard music technique should be practicing those instead. Most people hold too much tension anyways, and Hanon only heightens the tension if the pianist doesn’t know how to distribute energy properly.
If you’ve been playing for years and have gotten bored of scales, Hanon and Czerny is your go-to technique. You’ll have muscle memory of the scales and arpeggios you’ve played in the past, so you’ll be able to keep up your music technique efficiently by practicing these.
Recap of improving rhythm
1. Clap and count out loud whenever you can. It will help your brain adjust to confining to a rhythm.
2. But don’t spend all your days on drills because you’ll be bored out of your mind. Instead, play pieces that work like drills, but sound like music, i.e. a study. You’ll be pulling double-duty.
3. Hanon, because his work is worth your time.
4. My biggest rhythmic challenge to you is adjusting to a type of rhythm that’s entirely new. If you mainly play classical, try jazz, and vice versa.
What’s your experience with rhythm– are you a natural or do you put in a bit more effort? How do you deal with this? Join the conversation by leaving a comment below!