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Friday, March 17, 2017

Strategies for teaching steady beat

I've been thinking a lot about how to teach steady beat/pulse.   Have you seen the videos on YouTube that show Japanese precision walking?  It's amazing how these kids have such perfect timing:

My orchestras are somewhat large so I have to teach multiple sections of the same level.  I currently have 3 beginning orchestra classes, 2 intermediate classes and 1 advanced class (which should be 2 classes).  Each group learns the same music and combines into one large group when we perform (Approx. 105 in Beginning and 80 in Intermediate).  It is not possible for us to practice together at the school because we don't fit in a classroom.  This makes concert days interesting since we only have a few minutes on stage to practice with the large group.  My students have done a great job with this, but we sometimes start to rush and it's hard to get a large group to keep a tempo when they don't have adequate rehearsal time to get used to playing together.  In most cases students don't realize they are rushing and are not aware enough to look up at the conductor to fix it.  We don't always encounter the same rushing tendencies in class because students are not nervous in a rehearsal.  When we perform students get that natural dose of adrenaline and our pieces sometimes speed up.  I joked with my class that I would give them all a dose of Benadryl to counteract the adrenaline, but I believe we can fix the problem with these teaching strategies:

1.  Move.

Students need to internalize the beat to learn to keep a steady tempo.   There are many ways to have students move to a beat to help them develop an internal rhythm.

Younger students enjoy playing 'leader' and directing the group in various movements to the beat.  Start a fun piece of music and have one student stand in front and move to the beat by clapping, tapping their legs, snapping, stomping, etc.  All other students follow what the leader does and the entire class is feeling the beat.

You might have students walk around the room during a warm up.  It's fun for them to get out of their seats and play!  Have them march as they play a D scale with various rhythms.  When I taught Suzuki lessons, we would have young students do a Tukka Tukka Stop Stop March around the room and kids loved to get moving.  This doesn't work as well for cello and bass students, of course.  Perhaps they can participate by tapping a beat on their instruments, or trying to march in place as they sit and play.

Sometimes when practicing slurs I have students rock back and forth with their bow changes.  It's amazing how they are able to stay together and switch bowing exactly at the right time.

One fun activity might be to have students sit or stand in a circle all facing the same direction.  Have one student tap the shoulder of the student in front of him/her at a chosen speed.  The latter student mimics the speed and taps the shoulder of the student in front of him/her...and this keeps going until all students in the circle are tapping and simultaneously feeling the same tempo.  Choose students to change the tempo...speed up or slow down the tapping and have change of speed spread around the circle.

2.  Conduct.

Teach students how to conduct!  Give them each a glow stick and turn off the lights.  Turn on some music and have them mimic your movements through simple beat patterns.  It helps to also have them count along out loud as they conduct to the beat.

Let students try to conduct the class when rehearsing simple activities like scales.  Let them feel what it is like to get a group of players to speed up or slow down.  They soon realize that students need to be attentive in order to stay together.

3.  Technology. 

There are many great metronome apps you can use to help students hear the beat.  Lately I've been using Tunable for my tuning procedure and my metronome.  But since the tone of metronomes can get a little annoying I more frequently use the smart drums in GarageBand as a steady beat.  Students enjoy playing their tunes with a drum beat.

I recently started wearing an Apple Watch and I enjoy an app called 'Tacet.'  It's a simple app that allows me to set any tempo and will then pulse that speed on my wrist.  No annoying clicks...I just feel the tempo.  It helps me when conducting to not start rushing.  If only all my students could feel the same pulse. :)  

4.  Listen.

Most of the time students have no idea when they are rushing.  Record students often and let them listen to themselves.  They are more able to fix issues on their own when they are made aware of what needs to be done.  Phones and iPads work great for quick recordings.  Videos take up lots of space, so I like to use the voice memo recorder on those devices.

5.  Play. 

One great thing about Suzuki students is they listen to the music they are learning.  When my son when in lessons he was required to listen to his pieces all night.  That music was on everywhere we went because it was always playing in the car, too.  When students listen to their music they can pick up on bowings, rhythms, intonation, tone...and also steady beat.  I encourage students to listen to our pieces on  We also play along with the recordings during rehearsals using JWPepper or SmartMusic.

6.  Count.

When trying to count out exactly 60 seconds without a clock we learn to say words between the numbers to keep the speed steady.  For example, many people count by saying "1 1,000, 2, 1,000, 3, 1,000."  Some say, "1 Mississippi, 2 Mississippi, 3 Mississippi, etc."  Teach students that just counting 1, 2, 3, 4 is not as accurate as filling in the space between numbers.  Teach counting with subdivision (1 and 2 and 3 and 4 etc.)

One way to teach this is to demonstrate a beat/speed by saying "1, 2, 3, 4."  Students are to then think that speed and count one measure in their heads, then clap on beat 1 (they count in their head for one empty measure then clap on beat 1 of the next measure).  It's usually not super accurate until you teach them to count using subdivisions.  You can also have them try to do it with their eyes closed.  There are many variations on this activity that can get students thinking, counting, and staying together.  Have them count for 2 empty measures before clapping, or change the beat their are to clap on.

I hope you find these strategies helpful in your performing groups.  Let's put an end to run-away tempos! (or tempi if you prefer)   :)


  1. I think we need to be friends... I'm in Davis School District (Utah too!) And am having the same large class "problem" --it's a good problem... But comes with its own bag of worms.
    I use a lot of the same techniques, and love picking your brain/blog for more.
    Thanks for being here and willing to share!

    1. Yeah Utah! :) A large class is a good problem to have but there are certainly some unique challenges. Do you ever go to UMEA? Maybe I'll see you there next year.