“Out of the Box” Rhythm Exercises

It’s not uncommon for band directors to focus on counting with their students during their beginner year, then struggle to keep the momentum going in the following years. It can also be easy to fall into the trap of counting the same rhythm page over and over and simply “going through the motions.”

We must learn to be creative in the way that we approach counting and, hopefully in doing so, keep counting relevant to students as they get into their 2nd and 3rd years (and beyond). If we think outside of the box, we can also unlock important skills of independence that students often struggle with. As music becomes more difficult, it requires more individual independence. It is our job to provide them with strategies and training to help them stay ahead of this learning curve.

Here are a few things that might not be ground-breaking, but are some ways I like to keep counting interesting. They can also keep older students engaged, while communicating that you never outgrow the need to count rhythms properly!  

Check out these rhythm exercises to see exactly what’s being counted in the following examples (click here for a free instant download).

To start out, here’s a video of some of my students counting a standard rhythm sequence in the normal way — all together, from left to right:

There is absolutely nothing wrong with that, but doing it over and over can take a student beyond mastery and cause them to be complacent and lazy.

Consider these slight variations:
– changing the tempo
– hearing individuals count
– adding in dynamics

(While it’s great to encourage students to count with a loud, robust voice, you can also teach them about dynamics and how to link them to the rhythms they see on the page.)

Let’s try something a little more adventurous. Here, the students count straight down in a column, by counting measure 1, 5, 9, 13 and 17 in order:

Not only does this keep students on their toes, but depending on the rhythm sheet you use, you may see the rhythmic vocabulary change noticeably from line to line. I also love doing this because it may cause students to change time signatures and have to do it with ease, like it’s no big deal.

From there we can try counting diagonally (measure 1, 6, 11 and 16):

Again, this mixes things up, but in a different way. Sometimes we’ll count diagonally, but then do the “Pong” variation (count diagonally and when you hit the right of the page, go to the next measure down and to the left. Maybe if you’re a little younger you could call it the “Arkanoid” variation!)

Did you notice the students pulse when they count? This is a topic for another article, but having students pulse (breath impulse) the down and up greatly enhances the understanding of subdivision.

Did you also notice that students have a verbal place marker for quarter rests? Certainly, I can’t take credit for that, but I can say that I’m happy I stole it and use it! (A major tip of the hat to the late, master teacher, Marcia Zoffuto for showing me that one.) Students say “mm-mm” in 8th note speed during quarter rests to be sure that they “observe” the time. This is SO USEFUL when they start to learn about 8th rests, especially when they are on the downbeat. Suddenly, you have a built-in way for them to feel the “down” and the “up” of the rhythm when they say “mm-and” or “mm-te” (for the Eastman counters out there).

Now, one more thing. Here are each of our five counters counting their own line (simultaneously):

Full disclosure, this is still pretty rough, so you may have noticed that, but we’re going to keep working on it!

Having students count independently of each other not only helps them develop independence, but it can really bolster a student’s sense of confidence in counting. We may be inclined to tell our students to “ignore” everyone else to achieve quick results. I’m not thoroughly opposed to that, but it’s also an opportunity to teach students to listen to each other while knowing that everyone is not doing the same thing. How similar is that to playing actual band music?!?

Of course, I could throw another 20 examples at you of strategies you can use, but hopefully, this gets you thinking about ways you can change up the counting in your program. No matter what — even if there is eye rolling (which teenagers are AMAZING at) — I want to encourage you to keep counting with your students as they get older. Throw new challenges at them and keep this aspect of their musical development fresh!

Eric Rath is an active educator, clinician, adjudicator, arranger, and composer. He has served as a band and orchestra director as well as a percussion specialist at the middle and high school levels. He and Ralph Hicks are the co-authors of the percussion ensemble collection, “Beyond Basic Percussion” and the snare drum and keyboard fundamentals book, “Five Minute Drill” (Tapspace Publications). Recently, they launched their latest book, “The Golden Age of Ragtime,” which features five ragtime piano pieces transcribed for xylophone soloist and marimba ensemble or piano accompaniment. ericrathmusic.com

Related Reading:
Measure Mix Up – Teaching with Games
Teaching Rhythm Logically
8 Ways to Teach with Chorales

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