The Importance of Rhythm Instruction

This article was contributed by my good friend and colleague Dr. A.N. “Buzzy” Green. Dr. Green is the retired Music Supervisor for the Irving, Texas, public schools and the founder of RhythmBee ( I am grateful for him allowing me to share it with you.

In observing some really great bands and some really bad bands, I have learned that some things are 100% consistent.

Of those 100% consistent things, the one that is 120% consistent is that good bands can count and bad bands can't. I have never heard a good band miss something and the director say, "Clarinets, it goes like this: (director sings, claps, or bops the rhythms)." Bad bands miss things and get that response all the time.

Good bands know that if they miss something, they have to go back and demonstrate that they can do it - not have the director do it so they can mimic him. The performance is their responsibility - not the director's. And the good band director is also careful not to put things in front of the band that is too far over their heads. Anytime we encounter something that difficult, we are more prone to shut down than to rise to the occasion. So the good band became what it is in little bitty chunks - NEVER by the director just discovering that his band can sight read this year or by sightreading the whole period for two straight weeks. Another result of carefully paced sequential learning is that whatever the band can do, it does with confidence, courage, and a beautiful tone. So they have the feeling of being able to play well at whatever level is appropriate for them.

From a purely educational perspective, the single most important element in music literacy is rhythm. If the students can de-code the rhythm, they can move to a higher level of intellectual activity and attempt to decipher the other musical elements. In fact, they will do a lot of the rest by themselves and without a teacher. But if they can't de-code the rhythm, they make an attempt AT NOTHING, become discouraged, and leave our programs because they think they don't have any talent!! (That is another 100% consistent trend for students without a musical passion. In many programs, we only keep those who love music so much that they will put up with anything to be around it.)

So again, rhythm - not solfeggio - not an understanding of form - not understanding the periods from Rennaisance to Post-modern - RHYTHM PERFORMANCE IS THE KEY TO MUSIC LITERACY.

So, I am sure that if we would consider rhythm as the constant element that runs from K through croak (death), we would have fifth graders who see themselves as competent performers AND are ready to tackle singing or playing in an ensemble. I think so many of them would be so jazzed about music and their own musical skills that we would have to double the numbers of secondary music faculty.

Further, I am convinced that our bands should always be taught to count far beyond what they can play. For instance, beginners should be able to count everything through sixteenths and 6/8 time at a brisk tempo and VERY WELL.

The reason they can't is that we think we don't need those skills until they can play that difficult music, so we don't let them progress in the one element that almost everyone can do - and almost everyone gets a rush out of figuring out the puzzle-like complexities of rhythm. We actually hold them back from their potential. But if they can only count what they can play, they are constantly scrambling to de-code the rhythms and cannot dedicate energy or intellect to the other elements that we have to perform.

Conversely, if the rhythms in the band music seem simple to them, they can pour themselves into the other elements and play with a maturity and ease that is otherwise impossible. When that happens, the performance of rhythm actually moves into the realm of muscle memory. It is automatic and without apparent effort.

Think about it - most bands are so busy learning to play rhythms accurately and precisely together that we never get to the real music that is on the page. In fact, even those of us with a good ear have come to accept and be pleased with rhythmic accuracy and precision as the hallmark of a fine performance. That is actually just the mathematical and scientific part of music. That which makes a musician an artist has not even been addressed when we accept that as a fine performance.

So the solution is a consistent diet of rhythm as the nutritional staple that carries the sweets, spices, and exotic textures to our palate. By consistent, I mean EVERY DAY - but never more than ten minutes - preferably five. It is amazing how well students learn to count with something that is interesting - presented so that the teacher can monitor every student - and never goes longer than their comfortable attention span. That is how I have designed the RhythmBee program.