Convincing Students to Count Rhythm

To Count rhythm? or Not to Count rhythm?

Convincing students to count rhythm. Here I go again trying to cajole a student into counting aloud. I can tell what she’s thinking by the incredulous eye-roll, “Really count out loud? I don’t think so!” In my experience most piano students hate to count, especially counting aloud. As their teacher, it is my responsibility to make sure they understand and can play rhythm accurately. But before I can do this, I need to convince them that counting is worth doing.


I think I know why piano students have more trouble with rhythm than students of other instruments. Pianists have to integrate counting to accommodate both hands while reading the grand staff the way other players read only one staff from left to right. It takes a lot of coordination to play the piano with hands together so pianists often have to slow down sections of the music to accurately play all of the notes, and most young players also tend to speed up the easy stuff. This distorts the rhythm of the piece. When the student plays the wrong rhythm the ear hears that wrong rhythm and accepts it as correct. The result is… well, a mess.

Additionally, piano students don’t usually play in ensembles where counting is crucial. Playing alone means there is no one to keep the rhythmic accuracy in check. That is why it is so important for young piano players to learn to do this for themselves.

What is music anyway?

I believe that it all goes back to the very definition of what music is, “organized sound”. Moreover, “organized sound that moves through time”. What is rhythm? Simply put, “the timing of the music”. This makes rhythm the most important element of music.

To illustrate this point, I tell my students that time is to the musician as the canvas is to the artist. In my studio, I have a painting. I point out that the picture exists on the canvas, the artist painted it and there it stays. I then ask where music exists. Some students will point to the score at which time I explain to them that the score is not really the “music”. It is only the notation of the music, kind of like a recipe. You can read a recipe, but in order to experience it, you have to prepare the food and then eat it. To experience the music you must play and hear it – this takes time. Your piece starts at 5:00 and is finished at 5:04 those four minutes of time are where the music exists. To take it one step further, I ask the student to imagine what the painting would be like without the canvas. That is what the music is without the rhythm.

See Paloma Piano’s Music Theory Resources here

This usually starts to convince them that maybe they should consider counting but I still have one more trick up my sleeve to drive the point home. I take a piece they are working on (one that has various rhythms) and play it straight through with no rhythm whatsoever. I play every note is a quarter note. I then play the piece with all of the wrong notes but the correct rhythm. It is plain to hear which sounds like music and which does not.

Convincing Students to Count Rhythm

I assure my students that I really want them to become good players. I tell them I don’t enjoy harping on rhythm (or should I say drumming it into them) but I must, in order to be a good teacher. Once the discussion is finished, it’s time to roll up our sleeves and work on counting. But that’s a subject for the next blog post.

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5 thoughts on “Convincing Students to Count Rhythm”

  1. When I was a piano student as a child, my teacher was one of the Sisters of St. Joseph at the local convent. Being a teaching Order, they were experts in helping kids learn. Sister Catherine made me write in my counting. To this day, when learning a new piece that I have not previously heard, I write in the counting in the rhythmically challenging measures. And That’s how you get students to count. Make it visual mathematically before demanding it in performance. No skill is harmed by breaking it down to its component parts.

    1. Great article. I really like the painting analogy.
      I’m always hoping to find videos online of seasoned concert pianists demonstrating counting aloud when practicing some very syncopated passages, and then the actual performance. I think inspiration can help, too.

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