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Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Best Strategies for Teaching Rhythm

Rhythm is one of those fundamental concepts that gets infused into so many of our lessons, especially in elementary general music. Is there ever such a thing as "too many rhythm teaching ideas"? I doubt it, but it can definitely be hard to keep track of all of those great ideas so we can most effectively implement them in a properly sequenced way in our classrooms. I've written quite a bit about various aspects of teaching rhythm, including most of the month of March this year, so today I want to share some over-arching thoughts on teaching rhythm in general and also round up some of my top strategies from previous blog posts in one place to make it easier to find everything you need for your lesson planning!

1. Start the year right

I start each school year introducing any new rhythm and pitch concepts in each grade level right from the beginning. I like getting those concepts out there as early as I can so I can spend the rest of the year coming back to those every chance I get and solidifying them in students' minds. Of course the first lesson or two of the school year we review the concepts from the year before as a way of leading into the new ones, but I try to get into the new stuff as quickly as possible- if I've done my job the year before, the review part won't take too long or be too painful and they'll be ready for new stuff right away!

Of course which grade should be learning which rhythm concept is a whole separate conversation, but an important one to have in order to sequence out your curriculum in a way that allows students to grasp the material. Read my post on long-range planning here, my post on lesson planning based on the National Core Arts Standards (USA) here, see my templates that I use to create my scope and sequence for each grade here, and see my complete K-6 curriculum here.

2. Build in focused review time

Once I've set each grade up with the new rhythm concepts at the beginning of the year, I try to make sure I include those rhythm concepts anywhere I can throughout the year so that we keep coming back to it over and over again to practice. But I learned in my first couple of years of teaching that just having a general plan to include those concepts throughout the year is not enough- I get too easily distracted my shiny new lesson ideas, concert preparations, and more and those concepts can get lost in the shuffle! 

To make sure I am giving the students some good, concentrated, reviewing and practicing time, I build in some focused time in January (right after the winter/holiday break) and March (as part of Music In Our Schools Month) to specifically review the new rhythmic concepts with each grade as well. In January I focus on keeping students engaged by using movement, instruments, and composition activities to review rhythms. In March, students have an opportunity to really drill those rhythms with a school-wide competition I run called the Rhythm Battle. Read more about my activities for Music In Our Schools Month in this blog post, or get the materials for the Rhythm Battle here. Of course I also include some review of all of the new concepts they've learned throughout the year at the end of each school year as well.

3. Make drilling fun

Drill practice has gotten a bad rap but there's a lot to be said for focused, repetitive practice of certain fundamental concepts. To me, rhythm is one of those areas that begs for it. But drilling doesn't have to be boring- in fact it can be pretty exciting! One of the easiest ways to do this with rhythm is to throw some 1-measure (usually in 4/4) rhythms on the board, with actual flash cards you may actually have, hand-drawn rhythms on the whiteboard, or projected slides like this:

I have volunteers (or students that get "volunteered" by me!) speak each rhythm individually, then the class speaks and claps it together. Once we've practiced each rhythm separately, I give each student an instrument. Even something as simple as rhythm sticks will keep students motivated! The key, though, is to put those individual measures together in different combinations. I always make a big deal about what a big challenge it is to do them all in a row, then we try doing them in different orders- sometimes I'll even label each measure with a letter of the alphabet and we spell words by performing the measures in the order of the letters (like measure B, measure A, then measure D to spell BAD). That's all it takes to keep a class motivated to practice those rhythms over and over again!

Of course there are a million ways to practice new rhythms- here are some of my other favorites:

4. Check for understanding in small groups

Of course it's always easier to perform and read rhythms with the whole class than it is to do it independently. I use centers to do some informal assessments and check to see how students are doing (and sometimes I'm shocked by what I find!). Here are some of my favorite rhythm centers:

5. Work towards mastery with composition 

Just like with any written language, the best way to know if students truly understand a rhythmic concept is to see if they can use it in music writing- composition. But composition doesn't have to take a lot of time or be a drudgery for those students that groan at the sight of a pencil and paper! I try to include several opportunities for students to create rhythms using manipulatives throughout the year, do some written composition in small groups to practice, and culminate with some kind of individual written composition before the end of the year. Read more about how I use manipulatives for composition (as well as what I use and where I get them) in this post, see the composition worksheets I use for written compositions here, and read more tips for incorporating composition in elementary music in these posts:

6. My top lessons and resources

Now that we've talked about some general strategies for teaching rhythm, here are some of my favorite lesson plans and resources for teaching rhythm! First, here are all of the lesson plans I shared this past March for teaching specific rhythm concepts:

If you're looking for lesson plans for other rhythm concepts, like sixteenth notes, syncopation, compound meter and more, have no fear! I collaborated with tons of other music education bloggers this spring to put together an ebook with all of our top tips and strategies for teaching rhythm! There are SO many awesome ideas for teaching rhythm packed in this ebook, and the best part is you don't have to worry about losing track of all of those awesome ideas- you can just save the PDF on your computer and have everything easily accessible whenever you need it! Click below to visit the new Music Ed Blogs Resource Library and download this free rhythm teaching ebook:

I hope you found this post helpful for you! Looking for more teaching ideas? See my full curriculum here.

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