Beat & Rhythm: A Whole Body Event

Picture this – Six beginner piano students in my relatively small studio. Three on one side and three on the other. I’m at the piano. We’re about to explore beat and rhythm. I give a quick demonstration to remind everyone what it looks like when we keep the beat with our whole body. Followed by a demonstration of what happens when we use our whole body to do the rhythm. Looks like we’re all set to go. I’ll play a series of pieces from their first year of lessons. On one side, students will be keeping the beat. On the other, it’s their job to do the rhythm. But, there’s one more thing. When I shout “Switch!” students must get from one side of the room to the other, change from beat to rhythm or vice versa, and if at all possible avoid bumping into another student in the process. Yes- it’s a whole body event!

I’ve consistently used this activity throughout my entire piano teaching career because I want students to experience beat and rhythm as musical elements that come with huge amounts of physical involvement. I deliberately emphasize whole body movements in weekly lessons and monthly group classes, knowing that as soon as students sit down at the piano they’ll most likely reduce everything to the minimum. That’s why during students’ individual lessons I frequently make sure students get off the bench and get reacquainted with moving their bodies. Encouraging whole body involvement is my way of reinforcing that beat and rhythm spring right from students’ most internal core.

Sometime during students’ second or third year of lessons, I introduce another beat and rhythm activity that intentionally builds on students’ familiarity with whole body physical involvement. With the name Tap & Play, this activity consists of tapping one foot (while playing hands separately or hands together) or tapping one hand (while playing with the other). Knowing that it’s easy for students to engage minimally in this activity – a kind of automaton approach – my emphasis is on maintaining the level of full body involvement students experienced previously. I give enthusiastic reminders for students to engage with their core and breathe generously in the spirit of full participation. After a few months, students can typically use Tap & Play in multiple ways to explore various groupings of the beat, for example keeping all four beats in 4/4, keeping two beats in 4/4, keeping one beat in 4/4. Tap & Play is especially practical in helping students focus their practise on various tempi in relation to the inherent structure of the piece and their own internal momentum, rather than just playing slowly or quickly.

I’ve discovered that using a whole body approach to beat and rhythm has a positive and lasting impact on students’ musical development. For example, when one of my senior students recently played a relatively new piece with several vacillating tempi from beginning to end, I asked, “What can you do to check the consistency of your tempo?” Without a moment’s hesitation, he started tapping his foot coupled with a subtle yet committed movement across his shoulders. I watched in amazement as his own self-awareness took over to shed light on his tendency for wavering tempi. Where did that come from? – I thought to myself. Then I remembered all those group classes with the “Switch” game and the lessons with endless cycles of Tap & Play. It all made sense.

What seems clear is that I approach beat and rhythm as a matter of internal awareness. After all, students already know what it’s like to feel beat and rhythm from the physical momentum involved in their own daily experiences of walking, running, skipping, and dancing. My goal is to keep those feelings alive at the piano by making sure that students continuously explore beat and rhythm as nothing other than a whole body event.