Piano Teaching Q&A: Teaching Eighth Notes

I recently got this question from a good friend:

I have an adult beginner student who is having some difficulty with reading eighth notes and dotted quarters. If it's a song she already knows, like hymns, of course she can play it, but if I give her an unfamiliar piece with those rhythms she has no idea.
She already got through Alfred for adults level 1 with her other teacher, but she is very frustrated because she can play those songs by memory but not because she can read the notes. I've been doing a lot of sight reading with her (very basic), which helps, but counting songs with eighth notes is frustrating. I've tried using colored papers of different shapes as a visual demonstration: squares for quarters, rectangles half as long for eighths, etc. Part of the problem is that she says math was always her worst subject...My counting method is one-and-two-and-three-and-four-and, but if you have a better method I'd love to know.
What ideas do you have for teaching how to count rhythms with eighth notes and dotted quarters so that she can sight read them?

I think this is a fabulous question! I have had the same problem with students, particularly when they are transfer students, and it can be tricky to figure out what to do. Here are a few quick suggestions (and I hope to hear lots of input in the comments section as well!)

Feeling the Beat

In a situation such as this, it may be wise to go back to the basics...as in, the very basics. I have sometimes been amazed to discover that a student who is struggling with rhythm and counting has an underlying problem understanding and feeling the beat. So while math can be a big huge part of counting, rhythm is also quite related to physical movement.

It is good to find out if your student is able to feel the underlying beat of a song. Can they tap their foot, clap their hands, march or otherwise move to the beat of a song? I was recently teaching a teenage student when I surprisingly realized she was struggling to feel the beat. I immediately asked her what kind of music she listens to, went to my computer and opened up iTunes. We spent the rest of the lesson listening to all sorts of songs (rock, country, whatever) and trying to feel and clap the main beats. It was surprisingly challenging for her, but after some practice it got much easier. 

It may be that a student may need to practice listening and moving to music for awhile before they really get good at finding the beat. I have no qualms assigning a student to listen to music and walk, jog, clap or march to the beat for their practicing. If they can't feel the beat and are struggling to fit eighth notes into each beat, this is an essential step. 


Once they are able to feel the main beats, you can then venture back into the actual rhythms within the framework of even, steady beats. It may be helpful to have them walk or march or tap their foot to the main beat, and then practice subdividing into eighth notes by clapping their hands. Or have them play a steady beat in the left hand while counting out loud, subdividing into eighth notes ("one-and-two-and...").

I also wonder if you could help teach this visually by using a highlighter or colored pencil to draw vertical lines through the notes, highlighting each main beat in the measure? That way the student can see exactly how the main, steady beat (which they are now PRO at feeling) fits underneath the rhythm of the measure.

Hear - See - Do

I grabbed my copy of Practical Piano Pedagogy off of the shelf to see if Dr. Martha Baker-Jordan had any tips on this subject. Just a couple of brief ideas - she mentions the "Hear - See - Do" idea. In order to learn a concept, students should hear it (so you could play and count the rhythms aloud for them), see it (see how the rhythm fits within the steady beats - maybe by highlighting the main beats), and do it (play it and count aloud by themselves).

Dotted Quarters & Eighths

Baker-Jordan likes to count aloud on a dotted quarter-eighth rhythm and she says the count on the dot VERY loud. So if the rhythm is dotted quarter, eighth, dotted quarter, she would count: "one-and-TWO-and-three-and-FOUR-and." This helps the student hold out the dotted quarter for its e n t i r e length (since it is often shortchanged) and I imagine it would really help the student to feel the beat well.

Count Out LOUD!

I have to also add the counting loudly with CONFIDENCE is an excellent idea! Too many people count very quietly and timidly, and it is very easy to fudge on the steady beat if you are talking very, very softly. Speak up and say the counting as steady and as confidently as possible!

I hope this helps anyone who may be experiencing this speed bump in your student's progress. I would love to hear YOUR excellent ideas as well!

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