Many students struggle with rhythmic reading, evidenced by many who are unable to figure out rhythms independently. Some play along with other students, some guess at note lengths based on spatial notational distance, and some play patterns they already know, incorrectly approximating the notation. Using a subdivision-based approach can be helpful.
Because many students have good aural rhythmic memories, the prevalence of poor rhythm reading practices is often underestimated, especially in large ensemble settings. To help identify rhythmic reading habits, students should individually be asked to sightread (play or clap) rhythm etudes or excerpts they have not learned before (consisting of familiar note and rest types) to determine if they can figure out the patterns accurately. They should also be individually asked to sightread (play or clap) rhythms that are incorrectly spaced to determine if the students are measuring the lengths of the notes based on temporal note relationships or guessing them based on spatial notational distance.
Development of a rhythmic subdivision approach will help many students sightread better, learn new music more quickly and accurately, and develop an increased ability to learn music independently. They will be learning to analyze rhythms using a relatively concrete and systematic approach. They should be aware, however, that developing the abilities to execute rhythms while subdividing requires effort, whether one is a beginner or has been using another method to decode rhythms. As fundamental skills are developed, the benefits will become increasingly obvious.
A foundational skill needed for the subdivision method to be effective is the ability to feel a beat. The understanding of rhythms is merely theoretical unless the rhythms are applied to a steady beat. The beat is felt, not intellectualized. Also of great importance is the ability to play or clap upbeats, which is challenging for many students. Without the ability to feel downbeats and execute upbeats, the placement of notes when performing will be left to musical approximation. Meanwhile, the ability to execute upbeats accurately is a prerequisite to the accurate performance of syncopated rhythms.
Tapping one’s foot can be a significant aid in developing the ability to feel a beat; students who tap unsteadily and don’t realize it should be encouraged to tap on something that makes noise. An added benefit to foot tapping is that an unsteadiness in tapping serves to alert the student that something is wrong. The use of a metronome can be helpful, especially for the development of the execution of upbeats, as long as students are able to tell if they are tapping accurately to the metronome. A metronome should not be used all of the time, though, so students do not become dependent on it.
Once these foundational time sensibilities have been developed, they can be applied to measure the lengths of notes by subdividing. An abbreviated sample pedagogical procedure follows:
STEP 1: Check the time signature.
STEP 2: Determine the counting syllables.
Count using the syllables of the shortest note in the music, since the shortest note will fit into itself as well as into the longer notes. (For a general example, if there are sixteenth notes or rests in a piece, count all notes and rests using sixteenth-note subdivided syllables, which essentially become units of measurement).
STEP 3: Analyze each part of the given rhythm.
What kind of note is it? How many syllables will it get? What are those syllables for each note? Using an example in 3/4 time with four sixteenth notes followed by two quarter notes, each sixteenth note will get one syllable (1, e, &, a) and each quarter note will get four syllables (2 e & a and 3 e & a).
If presented this rhythm without the subdivided counting syllables, many students will mistakenly play the quarter notes as eighth notes but count “1 e & a 2 3,” thus labeling correctly but measuring and performing incorrectly.
Generally, the following syllables are fairly standard and work well:
Divisions of 1: 1, 2, 3, 4…
Divisions of 2: 1 & 2 & 3 & 4 &…
Divisions of 3: 1 & a 2 & a 3 & a 4 & a…
Divisions of 4: 1 e & a 2 e & a 3 e & a 4 e & a…
They enable counting at fast tempos and enable specific notes/rests to be located (e.g., the “e of 3”).
Counting up to three or four subdivisions of the beat tends to be a practical limit; beyond that, subdivision syllables can be divided. For example, rhythms with thirty-second notes in 4/4 can be executed by counting “1 e & a 2 e & a 3 e & a 4 e & a” and playing two even thirty-second notes in each sixteenth-note syllable (one on a syllable, and the other halfway between that syllable and the next).
The skills involved in this counting/tapping method require some time to develop, which will occur more quickly for some students than for others. However, almost all students can learn to decipher rhythms by using rhythmic subdivision. Once students are comfortable with the framework of steady foot tapping and subdivided counting to that tapping, they tend to progress more rapidly in all rhythmic reading. The skills developed can be helpful to students who do and who do not intuit rhythm. Additionally, subdivided counting can enhance musicality when students are executing rallentandos, accelerandos, rubatos, etc.
Use of the rhythmic subdivision approach becomes much like using a rhythm number line that, once internalized, runs on autopilot but is present when needed. Students working out rhythms should also be reminded to start slowly and gradually speed up, and to practice challenging sections separately. The investment of time needed to teach rhythmic subdivision can result in future dividends that will enable all students to learn music more quickly, accurately, and independently
Robert W. Miller directed bands at the elementary, middle, and high school levels in Howard County, Maryland, before retiring from his 34-year public school teaching career. He has taught private percussion students for the past 47 years, many of whom have participated in all-state bands and orchestras. Robert is the author of Subdivide and Conquer, available from Hudson Music and Amazon.com. He has been a percussion adjudicator at county solo-and-ensemble festivals and all-state band/orchestra auditions, as well as an adjudicator at county and state band assessments. Robert has a B.S. in Music Education, a B.S. in Psychology, and an M.Ed. in Music Education, all from the University of Maryland, College Park.