How Do I Learn to Play the Correct Rhythm on an Instrument?

Updated on April 17, 2018
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Courtney is a violin, viola, cello teacher, and professional violinist from Kansas City, MO. She has been playing the violin since 1992.

It's important to use a metronome.
It's important to use a metronome.

If you are having trouble playing the correct rhythm, not just on the violin but on any instrument, the problem is likely that you are trying to hear or feel the beat instead of counting it. If you don’t understand how the notes relate to the rhythm, trying to hear or feel the beat will only confuse you. When you count beats, what you count is constant, like the ticking of a clock. Notes are often played longer or shorter than the main beats, the ones you count, and often fall between them. Merely listening to the beat won't tell you when a given note needs to be played any more than listening to the ticking of a clock will tell you what time it is. You need to learn to count the beat in order to track and interpret what you hear, just like you need to learn how a clock should be used to tell time. Then, you will understand what you are hearing.

Learning Tempo and Meter

The details of how counting works are enough for a separate article, so I won't deal with that here. Basically, counting has two components:

  • Tempo: Tempo is the speed of the counts, often expressed in beats per minute.
  • Meter: Meter is how those counts are organized, often indicated by a time signature, with a given note value occurring a fixed number of times within a space called a "bar" or "measure."

Each measure begins with count one. If the time signature indicates that there are four beats in a measure, then the last beat of one measure is followed by the first beat of the next measure with no break in the tempo. You would count "1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 3, 4..." continuously until the music ends or the meter changes.

Why Music Students Should Learn Counting

A lot of my beginner violin students think counting is silly, that it is something they need to outgrow as musicians. Some of those, roughly between the ages of seven and ten, will protest that "counting is for babies." Well, yes, counting is something we begin learning while we are very young, but that's precisely because we need to count not just to learn about numbers but to make use of them, and we continue to do so for the rest of our lives. You are never too old to count, and as a musician, you are never too advanced to count. In fact, if you don't count, at some point you will stop advancing because you will be unable to play the more difficult rhythms.

Other students want to focus so heavily on a different property of music, usually pitch, that they find rhythm to be a distraction. The problem is, playing the “right” pitch at the wrong time actually makes it the wrong pitch because a different pitch should have been sounded at that moment. Therefore, you need to get the rhythm right first. On the violin, until you have enough experience that counting no longer distracts you, the best way to do that is to not even use your left hand until you are comfortable with the rhythm, either by clapping or by bowing an open string.

Music Students' Priorities Should Be

  1. Rhythm
  2. Pitch
  3. Articulation
  4. Dynamics and Expression
  5. Performance Tempo

If a lower-numbered item is wrong, it doesn’t matter that a higher-numbered item is right. Until your sight-reading skills are developed so that you can handle rhythm and pitch at the same time, no slowing down or hesitating when you need to concentrate, you need to develop the left and right hand activities separately.

Using a Metronome to Help Count

Set a metronome to something much slower than the speed you eventually want to play. Clap the rhythm of the first measure, just the first measure. Either count out loud or tap your foot (just on the numbers, not the subdivisions). Do it five or ten times in a row without a mistake. If you make a mistake on your fourth rep, the next rep is the first time instead of the fifth time. You only permanently correct mistakes by deliberately choosing to play things correctly more than you played them incorrectly. Do the same thing with the second measure. Then, put the first two measures together. Work on the third and fourth measure separately, then together, then the first four together. Continue until you have the rhythm for the entire piece.

Once you have the rhythm down, work through the music in the same manner, this time with just the left hand, either plucking or fingering without sound. Then, work on just the right hand, either air bowing or bowing an open string.

I know this seems painfully slow. However, it really is the most efficient way to practice. It allows your brain and muscles to focus on one thing at a time so that you don’t accidentally ignore something important and then end up forming a habit you don’t want. Learn it the right way the first time and you won’t have to worry about habit breaking.

As you go through this process, never stop counting. You can silence the count as you become more comfortable with it, but don’t stop counting.

Questions & Answers

    © 2018 Courtney Morgan

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