Almost everyone understands that Rhythm is one of the essential parts of music; what is not appreciated is how difficult learning and developing rhythm is. Most people have some idea of Rhythm, but very few who are new to playing music can hear if they are on time or not, which is fundamental to its development.
Rhythm is also tough to learn as you must learn to hear it and play it. If you can’t hear it, you struggle to play it; if you can’t, you struggle to hear it. The teacher must work out what skills you have and assist in getting both to improve. Often a source of struggle as when your ability to hear rhythm improves, your playing sounds worse even when you are getting better!
The main aspects of learning are
The physical aspect of playing rhythm on the guitar is keeping the strumming/ picking hand moving continuously in time with the beat while the other hand keeps in sync with it. Sounds obvious, but most learning guitarists approach it the other way around, with the fretting hand controlling when the strumming hand can play. It is impossible to keep time with the hand’s priorities the wrong way round. Developing techniques to keep the strumming/ picking hand in time with the beat is essential to ensure the student can play along with music or other musicians.
Most people can hear and feel the pulse of the music they are listening to, but understanding what they are hearing and feeling enhances the enjoyment of music. The pulse of music falls into the dynamics of a musical piece and is about which beats are emphasised, which are quieter, and what the feel should be as we play. Because we are training how to feel and express feelings, it isn’t easy to measure and for the student to know their successes.
Knowing where the “1” beat lies is one of the best phrases I have heard from a drummer to describe how to keep in time. Musically, most performers move away from the beat or pulse to add tension and dynamic to their performance and resolve it back. When they move away, they instinctively come back on time and in sync with everyone else. This is knowing where the “1” beat is at all times. It is developed by listening and playing along with music, a frustrating practice method that the tutor often continually encourages.
We all think we are good at playing in time until our sense of time improves. The metronome is essential for this practice. It is a torture device for musicians as it removes any feeling from the beat and forces you to play like a robot. However, it has been used for hundreds of years to develop a sense of timing and still has its use today. Using it to focus and get our automatic synchronisation with the beat works very well, but it is not a satisfying way to practice. When the metronome is being used to develop speed, we can measure and record and see an improvement. When we use the metronome for improving timing, it is either in time or out of time, depending on how good our ear training has been. Creating the enthusiasm to practice with a metronome is a must.
Reading rhythms brings about an understanding of musical language and expression that is not usually developed from listening alone. The rhythmic marks in music are an artistic expression of how the beat of a piece of music should go and how it should feel. Learning to read, understand, play and feel helps the conversations between musicians about rhythm in a started format that they all should understand. I prefer the notes to be called a quarter, eighth, sixteenth, etc. It is all an expression of the division of a beat. The terminology of minims, crotchets, and quavers can confuse those new to learning music.
Rhythm lessons must balance all these aspects together in a way that keeps the student’s interest there and minimises frustration. A difficult task, but very worthwhile and successful if the student does what the tutor advise and the Tutor listens to the student to keep the balance in place.