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Can you teach rhythm?

Guest CarminaBurana

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Guest CarminaBurana

Let me start by saying that I'm not a teacher, but I'm an advanced/pointe adult student and over the past week, I have been substitute-teaching an adult basic beginner class. One lady in the class has terrible trouble hearing the beat in the music, and moving to it.


After class we talked about it, and I had her do things like clap along to the music and stomping her foot on the beat, etc. She was fine when I was doing it with her, but as soon as I stopped, she was all over the place with the clapping. She just doesn't seem to hear the beat. Which of course, makes for terrible trouble when dancing. She gets along by copying the others (moves when they move), but when left alone she can't do it.


Can you teach someone like this to hear the beat (if so, how?), or are there people who just don't have an ear for it and never will?


Just wondering... :)

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Sorry to answer before the moderators have the chance, but I just want to tell that I was the same when I began ballet a few years back. I had real difficulties telling the beat from the ballet class music, though I could repeat the beat from some other music forms (and, indeed, count to the music if someone else was counting too).


My first teacher helped me a lot with this, so much that three years later I am very well used to the piano musics used in the class, and teachers who did not know me from the beginning even have said things like "what's the matter with you today, Jaana, usually you are the one who has zero problems with keeping to the music".


What the teacher did was that she just counted the music to me, over and over again, while we were doing the combations. All the time when she was not correcting anyone, she counted, and just counted the beats ("one and two and three and four and one and two...") without inserting any step names or "singing the combination". I paid huge attetion, cause I knew she was doing it for my benefit, and with some concentration I learned to hear it myself. A year or so after that first six months I occasionally asked the teacher "Could you please count it for me?" about a particular piece of music, and she would do that to the beginning of the piece, and I caught it usually fast.


Now it seems unbelievable I could not hear the music. I mean, most of the class CDs my teachers use have very clear beat! Also, I used to play piano myself when I was a kid and was very rarely told off for being off-beat.


It could be that since this lady you describe can follow you clapping your hands, the problem for her is also hearing the beat from this specific music, not a lack of rhythm sense in general (though you might want to try having her clap with you with her back turned to you, to check that she is not following your movements visually, or something?). If so, my experience suggests that if she wants to, and a teacher helps, she can learn.

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I have heard some musically capable people say that some just never can get the rhythm of different pieces of music. In my own case, when I first began dancing (ballroom, and not ballet) I would often have trouble hearing the beat. I wasn’t consistent, however. With some music I was fine, while with other music I was completely lost.


Many years later, I’m happy to report that I’m reasonably decent at hearing the rhythm of a piece of music and moving appropriately to it. This year I’m taking a beginner Spanish dance class, and I must say that I do have trouble hearing the Flamenco rhythm (only guitar music being played), so I wouldn’t say that I was cured.


Here is what I would advise for someone who was rhythmically challenged.


1. Just keep going to class. You will get better with the sheer repetition of music and exercises.

2. Listen to a lot of different kinds of music—pop, jazz, classical—whatever you like. Actively listen too—lights off, think of nothing else other than the music while you listen.

3. Buy some pop or dance music that has a pronounced beat and just march around the room taking a step on every beat. Play it when you do any exercises too.

4. Playing different types of music, improvise movement that reflects what you are hearing. Go for the feel in relation to the music. Nothing you do is wrong.


In my own case, one benefit I’ve derived from dance is that I hear music much differently than I did before dance. My tastes in music have also changed as my ear has improved too.

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I'm often off the beat and have trouble learning choreography if I'm not given specific counts. My teacher's always telling me that I don't really "hear" the music. I think I am, but after watching myself in rehearsal tapes, I can clearly see she's right. The steps happen a bit behind the music most of the time. I think there's a couple of factors. The first one, which could easily be applied to a beginner, is that I am just not trusting myself enough to "hit" positions. I'm still fussing around a bit, so the clarity is lost. Worrying about technique too much and forgetting that ballet IS dancing, after all...


The second thing one of my teachers noticed is that I seem to be "waiting" for the music in class, and am therefore always a bit late, and get behind. He suggested that I try dancing a bit ahead so I can learn to anticipate and fill out the counts better.



I've seen people who can move great in a club or whatever, who seem to have zero musicality in ballet class. I think most people just want to get the step "right", and focus so much on alignment and stuff that musicality takes second priority. It's important to remember that ballet is dancing, after all. It may not really be a problem for this student to hear the music...nerves may be getting in the way, or the student just hasn't prioritized interpretation and musicality yet, because they're still trying to learn the steps. I'm pretty advanced technically, and am still struggling with musicality. It's not natural for me, but it needs to be a priority. It would have been nice if it was given attention earlier in the process.


CarminaBurana--it's really great that you recognize the need to work on this with a student.


--I just wanted to add that it can be scary to throw your weight around. I know that I naturally tend to hold myself too rigidly, and this probably throws off the ability to move through the music. Lots of people think that ballet is all rigid...it may help to mention something about this. It's helped me to study with teachers who are influenced by Balanchine's choreography. You learn to transfer weight quickly. Oh, and breathing helps :P .

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Here's an idea to add to Gary's list... Buy yourself a simple metronome;

the portable, digital kind that are simpler and more accurate than the old

windup "tick tock" ones you may remember from music lesson days.

Here's an example:


Simple (Cheap) Metronome


Then, get a copy of the music you use most often from class, and

play it at home, along with the metronome, dialing it in until the metronome is

clicking in time along with the music, starting with something obvious

and slow (like a waltz) and moving onward from there. Listening to the

two in sync together can help reinforce the beat.


I've not tried this with dance music, but I think it should help. I used something

like this approach during my misspent youth when I played bass in a blues band;

we started covering a few reggae and latin/cuban songs and I needed to be 100%

sure I knew exactly where the '1' was coming...


Good luck!

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The only problem with the metronome is that the tempo is often not constant throughout an exercise. Some pieces will have a ritard (temporary slowing of tempo or pause) every 32 counts or so. I have a terrible time getting students to listen to the music - they hear the beat and are in time, but the pause comes and they all blow by it at normal speed! Then they are confused three or four beats later when the music doesn't seem to be "right" :P. Which just goes to show that even for people that have a good sense of rhythm still need to really listen to the music! These pieces of music are good for "musicality and interpretation" lessons because you can ask them to listen to the music and change how they are doing an exercise based on changes in the tempo or dynamic of the piece.


Tempo changes can also be exciting if you have a live pianist - I've had some excellent ones that sometimes get excited by what they're playing and have a noticeable increase in speed, which can be quite challenging (and fun, and funny!) to dance to.



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The only problem with the metronome is that the tempo is often not constant throughout an exercise. 


That's a good point, and also I suppose that it might be difficult

for some folks to sync the metronome to the recording in the

first place, if they aren't sure where the beat is falling initially.


I did have another (even crazier) idea. There is an arcade game that

I've seen, called "Dance Dance Revolution" in which you dance on a series

of colored pads in time to music and following directions from a video screen.

I believe there are home versions of it also, for the Playstation and the like.


I've not played the game, but I believe it scores you on how well you

dance the patterns from the screen, both in terms of accuracy and timing

with the beat of the music. While I doubt very seriously that there are

classical music versions of this, the fundamental idea of feeling where the

beat is falling would be the same, and likewise the coordination to land your

foot on the correct pad at the correct instant. It looks like good exercise,

and like it might be fun, too. And who knows, one day someone might make

a ballet version that directs you to do sautes and changements in place :P


OK.... we now return you to a more serious discussion of rhythm in ballet... :thumbsup:

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Guest CarminaBurana

Thank you for all the feedback! I didn't realize that this was such a wide-spread problem. I have laways been able to hear beats in music clearly, but then I have lots of other problems :lol:


This lady I'm talking about told me that she sings in a choir and also plays the flute, so when we first talked about the problem I couldn't understand why she had so many problems. I thought if you sing and play an instrument you must be naturally able to hear beats and have rhythm.


I think to start with I will print out your replies for her to read, and then she has something to go on and can start to work on a long-term solution.

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I have been a skater for many years before I started ballet and luckily I have never had problems with counting beats and feeling the rhythm. As long as everything is done at the count of eight, that is, but when we do off-ice and need to do ten of something (push-ups or whatever) I get completely confused :shrug::lol:

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I would suggest the dancer listen to music with a strong rhthym as often as possible.

Tapping your finger while driving or on public transport (Ipod or walkman).

Walking to music helps a lot as well.



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As some have suggested, I think in this case, the problem might not the student's rhythmic sense in general but ballet music rhythm in particular. I know a lot of musical people who had difficulties with ballet music at first.


For myself, I found the ballet practice of counting bars in some pieces and beats in others very difficult to grasp at first. :huh: It caused me endless hours of confusion, because the teacher counted the rhythm differently than I heard it. It took me a long time to figure out how each particular type of music is counted in ballet. I still make mistakes sometimes. (I think the main revelation was that in ballet counts happen at a timewise fairly constant rate range that depends on the type of exercise, and the used music type and music speed actually define how many musical beats correspond to a single count! :ermm: )


I teach renaissance dance now and then, and renaissance dance music can be difficult to hear for first-timers, even if they are otherwise musical and experieced dancers. (A lot of the music is counted to six or has frequent rhytmic changes, there is no 4/4 disco drumbeat, and the melody is seldom helpful - musical phrases might be 5.5 bars long or other stuff like that. The instruments are also often unfamiliar.)


Most of my new students can hear that there is a rhythm, they just cannot find the counts. I've found that the fastest way to teach them to hear the counts is to keep the exercises simple and patiently count/clap/sing the steps/demonstrate all the time (and I mean all the time!), every time, over and over again. Very tiring. :lol:


Most people can walk to a count much before they can dance to it. (All that additional coordination...) If they can walk but not dance, I usually let them walk for a while every now and then. It gives them confidence, so they believe me when I tell them that all they need is practice. I also try to position less secure dancers next to those with less problems on this particular area.


With new students I usually start to see some results after 2-3 classes of fairly intensive work. After 6-8 classes I usually only need to count in the beginning and then during the more difficult bits. Often it helps to verbalize the phrasing and stresses of the music, especially if the movement stresses conflict with the musical ones.



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This is the classic of being able to walk and chew gum at the same time. Look at somebody doing this sometimes. If they're chewing in time with their walking cadence, they're dealing with movement one way. If they're chewing in double or triple time to the step, they deal with it another way. If they have to STOP, chew a few times, then continue walking again, then you know they've got rhythm/co-ordination problems. I've seen these people! :ermm:

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This is the classic of being able to walk and chew gum at the same time.  Look at somebody doing this sometimes.  If they're chewing in time with their walking cadence, they're dealing with movement one way.  If they're chewing in double or triple time to the step, they deal with it another way.  If they have to STOP, chew a few times, then continue walking again, then you know they've got rhythm/co-ordination problems.  I've seen these people!  :rolleyes:


I've seen that with the nicotine addicted types, Walk Stop Puff, walk stop puff.

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Guest CarminaBurana

Ha, that analogy is too funny!


Actually, this lady has extreme trouble coordinating her arms and legs. I usually see her do the legs just fine, as long as the arms are on her hips or just in second. The reverse works for her also: The arms are no problem when the feet are not moving. When it comes to anything other than that, she gets totally flustered and everything goes downhill from there.


Maybe those two issues are related (the coordination and rhythm problems).


I just told her the other day that with patience, it will come. She's only been doing this for six months, never danced before--it's not as if she has do the Sugarplum Fairy next week!

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I don't think that coordination of arms and legs is connected to rhythmic ability. In my experience, all beginning students struggle mightily with this problem, and it should be worked on from the very beginning classes on up.



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