How to Teach Rhythm In Music

pedagogy corner Nov 04, 2019

How can we incorporate one of the most important elements of music into our online classes? Cheryl Reid gives us the best tips on how to teach rhythm.

Our main goal as music instructors is to teach musicianship, so every single exercise we do should sound musical and rhythmically “in the pocket” from the first lesson onward. Rhythm needs to be integral to everything else we teach.

1. Start with rhythm

Start with rhythm from the very beginning of day one and of every class.

I use call/echo and call and response every chance I get. Working with hundreds of kids every week, it’s important to have tricks that help with classroom management while simultaneously nurturing their musicianship. Try calling the “shave and a haircut” melody to get their attention. The first time you sing it you can say “finish this for me … bup bada bup bup” and, almost guaranteed, they will know to end “bup bup!”

From then on, you can usually just call it up and they will know to respond. You can also do it with shh and it helps focus the attention of the class even more:

Teacher: sh shsh sh sh 

Class: sh sh.

Such a great way to get started. They’re already performing rhythm in time with each other and we haven’t even played a note on the ukulele yet! As a bonus, there was no need to say ”Excuse me… I’m starting now… attention please!”

2. Keep talking to a minimum and play!

Once you do start picking, you can keep verbal instructions to a minimum and get playing right away by saying, “As soon as you hear what I’m doing, do it with me.” Even the very first day when you are teaching the open strings, try repeating a simple rhythm such as ta ta titi ta and your students will quickly join in, this is a great way to teach rhythm. You can play softly enough (and they will quiet down with you) to give instructions about proper position for your thumb, the name of the string, etc, while they are continuing to repeat the pattern. This works to teach rhythm just as well with adults and kids.

I love that you don’t need to ask for their attention; just go.

As the students progress, this same trick becomes a great way of reviewing skills without the class becoming bored of the routine. I often start more advanced classes by saying “Jump in as soon as you can,” while I play a scale they have already learned, but with a different rhythm. Again, I love that you don’t need to ask for their attention; just go.

Meanwhile, they are doing so much musical thinking right off the bat. They are training their ears by listening for your rhythm and seeing and hearing which scale you are playing. They have to figure out how far you’ve gotten by the time they’re ready to join you and jump in on that note as the scale is already in progress. They need to be in sync with your beat. All so important!

Related Article: Classroom Popcorn Intros

3. Using words for rhythm

If you are feeling stuck in a rut and can’t think of a new rhythm to use, try thinking of a two or three-word phrase like “blueberry pie” (this has a nice 6/8 feel) or the first few words of a song like “Hello my Baby” (aka “synco-pata ta”).

Build rhythm into all of your classes and your students will definitely learn rhythm and find their groove in no time.

Cheryl Reid grew up in Halifax in the heyday of Chalmers Doane’s music program and is now a supervising teacher with his daughter Melanie Doane’s Uschool (a charity that provides subsidized ukulele classes to over 900 students every week).


Stay in the Uke Loop!

Subscribe to the Uketropolis Gazette. Free arrangements, tips, interviews and more delivered to your inbox.


Stay in the Uke Loop!

Get monthly teaching tips, learning strategies and interesting interviews delivered right to your inbox.