The Importance of Say-as-You-Play in Teaching Rhythm Notation

Depending on how long you’ve been a music educator, it’s probably been years or maybe even decades since you first learned how to read rhythm notation. Something like clapping a measure of 8th notes probably feels as natural as breathing does to you at this point, but to a child learning music for the first time, rhythm notation often looks alien and intimidating. Finding ways to transform foreign concepts into something that kids can understand and master is a vital task for music educators who want to set their students off on the right path.  

Introducing your students to rhythm notation through having them count beats out loud is one of the best foundational tools you can give them as an educator. And while the say-as-you-play method of counting beats aloud is a massive help in the classroom, it’s a skill your students can rely on for as long as they play music. Many virtuosic musicians still count beats out loud while trying to memorize difficult material. Today, we’re talking about the importance of having your students count beats out loud while learning how to read rhythm notation.

The say-as-you-play method builds and reinforces musical connections

One of the most significant challenges of teaching music is helping a child bring music off the page and out into real life. Counting rhythms achieves this by merging intellectual understanding with physical action. Vocalizing a rhythm is vastly different than simply playing it because of how closely the voice is linked with cognition. A child might be able to memorize rhythms simply by listening, but this doesn’t mean the vital skill of music reading is being developed. Having your students count rhythms aloud as they play them on their instrument will reveal whether they’re truly comprehending the material or not. The notes that are spoken out loud in counting exercises reflect what a child is thinking and how they’re interpreting the notes.

Psychology teaches us that we can retain information by committing multiple actions to the same task. This is one of the reasons why students take notes to reinforce what they learn in classroom lectures. By reading music, playing read music on an instrument, and counting beats out loud, students will have the best chance at fully grasping rhythm notation. It’s an exercise designed to transform abstract ideas into physical actions, which is one of the biggest challenges for new music students.

What makes counting rhythms difficult for new music students

There’s massive benefits for students who count rhythms out loud, but what makes the say-as-you-play method beneficial are the same things that make it challenging. Students are often hesitant to count rhythms out loud because they’re not confident in what they’re doing or because speaking and playing at the same time will reveal that they don’t understand rhythm notation. Music educators are likely to encounter resistance while introducing this exercise, so it’s best to incorporate a patient and supportive approach.

How to teach your students to count rhythms out loud

It’s crucial to introduce the say-as-you-play method through slow tempos and simple rhythmic notation such as quarter notes and quarter rests. As your students progress, the difficulty of the material covered can advance as well. Students should begin this exercise by counting notes out loud and clapping before attempting to speak the notes while playing their instrument. It’s also important to note that students who play brass and woodwind instruments won’t be able to count beats and play at the same time. These students can practice this exercise while playing the fingerings on their instruments, or on a keyboard if one is available.

While teaching the say-as-you-play method, it’s important to have a great deal of empathy for your students. What they’re learning is often extremely tedious and difficult, which makes your role as a supporter and encourager paramount. Kids typically start counting beats out loud slow, but once they incorporate this exercise into their normal playing habits, their speed and accuracy will improve. When you see students struggling with material during normal classwork instruction, have them take isolate problem spots in the material and slowly count and clap beats out loud.

By incorporating a strong focus on the say-as-you-play method in your work, you’ll be giving your students musical confidence and a path towards being able to tackle the toughest written rhythmic material.

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