Rhythm is one of the most foundational elements of music. It’s what allows music to move consistently through time.
As pianists, it can be difficult to keep up with playing rhythm consistently and correctly.
There is a lot going on at the piano, between learning correct notes in both hands, coordinating the hands and thinking of the artistic elements of the music. It’s easy to let the rhythm get messy.
However, playing with good rhythmic integrity is vital for all musicians and especially pianists.
Here are some ways that you can work to improve your rhythm.
1. Internalize the pulse of the music
This is the very most important thing that you can do to improve your rhythm. If you can feel the pulse of the music within your body, you will be able to get the rhythm to come out correctly in your music. However, if you mainly think about the rhythm but only experience it in your mind, it will be very difficult to play music with a good, consistent rhythm.
Understanding the rhythm and feeling the beat are two very different things and you have to master both of these skills in order to play with correct rhythm.
In order to internalize the beat of the music, you have to feel it in your body and move some part of your body to the music. You could sway, tap your foot, clap your hands, nod your head, or find any other movement you’re comfortable with.
It would be helpful to practice doing this outside of the music you are working on. When you listen to music in your car or around your house. Practice finding and moving to the beat. Tap your steering wheel as you drive or tap your foot as you casually listen to music.
As you listen and move, see if you can pay attention to how the rhythm of the music falls between the beats you are feeling. Don’t stress out about understanding what you are hearing, but just see if you can make some observations.
When you practice this skill in the context of the music you are practicing, take the time to feel the pulse of the music in your body before you begin playing. This will help you to start and maintain a consistent tempo as you play.
2. Listen to your music
Listening to the music that you practice is another helpful way to lock in the rhythm. Often times when we’re digging deep into the score, it can be easy to miss the forest for the trees. Playing rhythms almost correctly can give the music an entirely different feel.
If you take the time to listen to your music as a regular part of your practice, you’ll absorb the effect of how the music is expected to sound and you will likely match it naturally.
3. Play with a metronome
Many musicians have a love/hate relationship with their metronome. Metronomes can definitely create a lot of frustration if you’re not used to using one. But, it definitely gets easier over time.
Don’t feel like you have to play your entire piece of music with the metronome. It’s still really helpful to use it to drill tricky spots in the music or to tighten up small sections or transitions in the music.
If you find the metronome challenging to use with your current music, go back and practice using it on a piece that you already know or on something that feels pretty easy to play.
4. Play with backing tracks or drum loops
Playing with a backing tracks or drum loops are great alternatives to using the metronome. They can achieve the same results but they often feel much more natural and intuitive.
Many piano books come with a CD or downloadable audio files that you can play along with.
Sometimes you can find accompaniment tracks to play along with on YouTube, depending on the type of music and specific song you’re working on.
If you have access to a digital piano such as a Clavinova, there are often built-in accompaniments that you can play along.
However, if you don’t have access to any of these options, turning on a simple drum loop from a digital piano, an app or even YouTube will do the job. (On YouTube, search for “drum loop” along with the tempo in BPM you’re aiming for and you’ll find a bunch of options. For example, “drum loop 80 BPM”)
5. Play with other musicians
Even better than playing with a metronome or accompaniment track is playing with other real musicians. Playing with other people can light a fire under you to force you to think and respond quickly as you play. This is a really effective way to hone in your skills and perfect your timing.
When you’re ready to play with other musicians, make sure you’ve put in the work on your end and you know your music as well as possible. Also, try to find musicians that are at a similar or more advanced level than you are.
Note: During these times, you can Skype or video chat instead of meeting up in person!
6. Tap your foot
If you are truly internalizing the beat of your music, you will probably naturally tap your foot or move your body to the pulse of the music as you play. This is a really positive thing and something that will help you be consistent as you learn the rhythm.
If you don’t intuitively tap or move along to the beat as you play, try to make it a habit. It may feel distracting at first, but over time it will become more and more natural.
7. Count or vocalize the rhythm
There’s no escaping good old fashioned counting aloud! There’s a reason why this is a tried and true technique that piano teachers return to over and over again.
Some pianists feel really clumsy counting out loud as they play. If this is you, keep practicing it and over time it will feel more natural. Or, if you prefer, you could also say words or syllables (such as ti or ta) to correspond with the rhythms.
8. Use apps to practice rhythm
There are a lot of great apps for practicing rhythm where you have to tap the screen to the rhythms you see. This is a great way to practice counting, feeling the beat and reading rhythms.
9. Clap or tap the rhythm
Another good technique for practicing rhythm is to tap or clap small sections of music before you play. If you’re just focusing on one hand, clap the individual line. If you’re working on both hands together, tap each hand to the rhythm that it will play simultaneously.
Isolating the rhythm before adding in the notes and other details of the music is really helpful.
We hope that some of these ideas will make their way into your practice sessions soon. Which one do you think you’ll try first? What are your favorite ways to practice rhythm?