Essential Rhythms: Counting and Singing.
Matthew Patuto

One problem I’ve encountered with the elementary or middle school student is their ability to hear rhythms.  The technique of hearing a rhythm before you play it is an essential part of being a good reader, but without knowing how long a note should be held, success is limited.

When drummers play a quarter note on a drum, they hear only the attack of the note with a slight decay.  When a pianist or a bassist play that same note, he or she will sustain it for the full count of the note.  Drummers do not have control of the sustain of their instruments, so, they don’t hear the true length of the note from the drums.

A system that has worked for me time and time again is to teach the student to sing.  Any syllable can be used; the stress here is the length of the note.  I have used the syllable ta.  To sing ta for the length of a quarter note I have notated it as taaaa, a dotted 8th note as taaa, an 8th note as, taa, and a 16th note as ta.

If a rhythm is made up of an 8th and two 16ths, it will be sung taa  ta ta.

I have developed a series of exercises in which the student will count the rhythm, sing the rhythm and then play the rhythm.  Count it, Sing it, Play it. I have found this sequence of the exercises to be very important and I rarely break from it no matter how shy the student acts or how unhip they claim it to be.  The most popular excuse is “ I’m counting in my head”. Don’t fall for it!  One must sing out loud.

A metronome is also a must.  I require that all my students own and use a metronome for all exercises.  Since I travel to my students’ homes I always have one with me; that way lost metronomes or depleted batteries is no excuse.  With the metronome I show the student how to internalize the tempo before beginning the exercise.  After several bars I begin to count 16ths so the student can hear the subdivisinions of the beat.  Then I’ll stop counting so the student can begin.

I also require that students have a small spiral notebook in which they can record the exercises they worked on, at what tempo, on which day, and how they felt they performed.

Once a student learns a rhythm I find that many will continue to play at a slower, more secure, tempo.  I assign a tempo range, eg: 60 –72 bpm with the hope they will rise to the challenge and push for faster tempos.  If they don’t, I’ll always give them a little nudge at the next lesson.

Let’s now take a look at the Essential Rhythms page. Set the metronome. Listen to the metronome and internalize the tempo.  When you feel you have the tempo, count the rhythm, sing the rhythm, play the rhythm.

Try out Matthew's methods on the examples below. Click below to listen to audio files of these examples and play along!

Audio file #1

Audio file #2

Audio file #3