From my many years of teaching piano, I'd say rhythm is the area that causes pianists just starting out -- and even many who have been playing for quite a while -- the most problems.
I believe there are two main reasons for this.
The first is that too much priority is given to "learning the notes" at the expense of the rhythm. If rhythm were given highest priority (I'll talk more about this in a future post), it would be stronger, and the "notes" would be easier to learn as they ride the momentum of the rhythm.
The second reason is that in most of our society, rhythm is taught all wrong. The tools for learning rhythm that are given by most piano teachers, in my opinion, cripple the student in developing a great sense of rhythm rather than help. Two of these tools are "counting" and the metronome.
This may seem scandalous to you. "Counting" (saying the beats and subdivision of the beats, "one-and-two-and-three-and" etc.) is such a basic premise of the study of any instrument, and has been for so many years, that almost no one questions it. Yet even with this tool, many teachers tear out their hair when they hear many a student "counting" -- well, at least they are saying the numbers -- but totally out of rhythm! Saying the numbers "one two three four" does not guarantee you are saying them in a steady, rhythmic way. So that is where the metronome comes in. The teachers will insist the student practice with the metronome, playing to the strict tick-tocking of a mechanical device, so that you keep your counting steady. (This doesn't guarantee success either; you could think you are playing your quarter notes to the metronome correctly, but your subdivisions of the quarter notes could still be wrong.)
If you've ever done this, and if you haven't you can probably imagine, it's not very fun. It doesn't sound very conducive to beautiful,poetic, artistic playing, does it? Somehow, people would have us believe that you should practice for years to the strict tyranny of the metronome, also hearing the chattering of your own voice saying "one and two and..." and then one day you flip a switch and you will play Chopin with gorgeous nuance of rhythm.
I always say, "If you can REALLY HEAR the rhythm, you don't need to count. And if you can't hear it, no amount of counting will help you." So, how do we learn to REALLY HEAR the rhythm?
If I had my way, we'd all spend lots of time playing drums and other rhythm instruments in early childhood, as they do in some cultures, before we ever start other instruments. When parents call me about lessons for a 3 or 4-year old, that is what I tell them. But if you didn't have the benefit of doing that, you can still learn to have a good sense rhythm.
Think about the following analogy:
You are given a log to chop into four even pieces (length-wise, as the log is lying on the ground), but you have no measuring tape. You "eyeball" it, and chop it in half. With a little practice, or perhaps even the first time, you will do this with a fairly high degree of accuracy. Then you would repeat the process, chopping each half into half, giving you four even quarters of the log. You wouldn't start at one end of the log, chop a piece you hope will end up being a quarter, continue on to chop the next piece and so on, would you? Yet this is precisely the concept of "counting:" you start with one, move on to two, etc., without having any sense of the size of the whole. Furthermore, when you chop the log, it's the pieces of the log you are ultimately interested in, not the cuts. But when you count as you play, you are emphasizing the equivalent of the cuts (the notes), not the log, which is the time in between the notes. If you can't really hear the time in between the notes, you can't tell if your rhythm is correct.
Here is how I use that concept to teach rhythm. Sit comfortably on a chair, preferably one without arms which will get in your way. You are going to set up a "log" in time by clapping on your left side (think of 9:00 on a clock) and another clap on your right side (3:00). Move steadily back and forth clapping at the same interval of time on your left and right. Keep doing this until you really feel you hear the unit of time that is essentially defined by your claps. The time AND space in between your left and right claps is your log. Now, going from left to right, put another clap half-way between the left and right claps. Place this clap in front of you, at 12 noon. If you don't have a teacher guiding you, you will have to really listen and try to determine if you have put your clap exactly half way in the temporal (time) dimension. You are just "ear-balling" it, as you eye-balled the log, since you have no external measuring device. I find most people do not do it correctly the first try (some do), but most get it after a few tries, without my demonstrating it to them. (If I demonstrate for them, they are able to imitate me, but that does not develop their sense of rhythm to as great a degree.)
It's important that you keep moving smoothly between claps, not rigidly, as this gives you a sense of the flow of time, and also helps you stay focused on the time in between the claps (the pieces of the log), not just the claps (the cuts).
After you've cut in half, you cut each half again, putting your new claps temporally and spatially half-way between your half-way claps, giving you quarters.
In terms of musical notation, what you have just clapped is two measures, starting with a whole note in each measure. The first measure began on your left side, the second on your right. The clap on your right side feels like the end of the first measure, but it's also the beginning of the second, because this is how music works: it is almost always "driving" to the downbeat (first beat) of the next measure. We only cut, or subdivided, the first measure; that's why you didn't clap from right to left. Your half-way clap gave you two half-notes in the first measure; the next claps divided those, giving you four quarter notes in the measure. That is why those notes have those names! Whole note means a whole unit, half note means a half and quarter note means a quarter. Brilliant!
You can see this method is a top-down approach, starting with the largest unit and breaking down into small. Traditional methods teach the small unit, the quarter note, first, apply your "counting" to the quarter notes, and then count the various other values accordingly,which leads to a very stiff, un-musical kind of playing.
The beauty of the top-down approach to rhythm is that you did it all without saying any numbers or listening to an external device. Rather, you just concentrated your attention on the pure empty space between the claps and learned to really HEAR it. This may sound very Zen, but I believe it's absolutely true, and is necessary if you want to play truly well. Being able to hear the whole measure and subdivide it into beats and divisions of beats is essentially a prerequisite to being able to effectively "outline" a composition, as I describe in my previous post about this method. And being able to outline and hear the music in larger units (not just beat to beat) will help you achieve the often-elusive "long line" or "phrasing" that musicians seek.
We would then proceed to divide into eights and so on. We'd also learn to divide the log in three even pieces -- more challenging (just as a real log would be) since you can't start by chopping in half. After that you can learn to chop into any combination of pieces. We also chop different sizes of logs, very long ones and very short ones. (Which do you think is more challenging?) I spend a lot of time with my students chopping logs. Gradually, they know it so well they can look at a rhythm on the page and just know how it sounds, as hopefully, all accomplished musicians do. But they always have the log-chopping tool to fall back on if they encounter a rhythmic pattern they don't immediately get. They all agree it's not only more effective, it's less arduous and more fun.
The process described above would be much easier to understand if you saw and heard it, rather than read about it (perhaps a video will be in a future post). But for now, I hope you will try it. If you have questions, please email me (firstname.lastname@example.org).
In my next post I'll give you more tools for strengthening your rhythm.