Steady Beat Part 1: The Importance of Establishing Steady Beat in Piano Students

My first two years as a classroom music teacher, I had my students do rhythm drills. We started with rhythms of half and whole notes, while students used traditional counting (1-2-3-4). From one lesson to the next, they could not accurately clap the correct rhythms and count. They could tell me that a quarter note got one beat and a half note got two, but there was something missing. It was frustrating for my students and for me. I was failing them somehow, but I could not understand why.

My music education experience centered on telling students about music. We explained it intellectually and then expected the students to be able to do it.

Fast forward to 2014 when I took the first level of Kodaly. For those not familiar, Kodaly is a philosophy on teaching music and it has transformed my understanding of how students learn music. Our amazing instructor, Mrs. Jo Kirk, shared her own revelation that students struggle to clap rhythms because they lack the foundation of steady beat. “How can a student hold a note for two beats, when they don’t even know what the steady beat is, what it feels like, or how to maintain it? And if they can’t feel the steady beat, they will be unable to take read and perform rhythms which is long and short sounds occurring over a steady beat.” How can we expect someone to intellectually understand something if they haven’t experienced it? 

After much reflection I could see that much of my student’s music errors were because they lacked the foundation of having an internalized steady beat. Think of three core concepts of music placed in a pyramid: steady beat builds the foundation for all musical concepts. If a student can’t keep a steady beat, how can they understand using short and long notes in relation to a steady beat? So after steady beat, then students can focus on rhythms with long and short notes (the horizontal element of music) and melody (the vertical element of music).

After that summer of Kodaly classes, I realized that many music errors (The inconsistent rhythms, the pauses in the music) my piano students were making were because my students lacked a solid steady beat foundation. For me, steady beat was an often overlooked concept that needed more thorough teaching, consistent attention, and never-ending reinforcement during a student’s music learning journey.

Over the next few posts, I will be sharing steady beat activities that I use all the time in my piano studio. For the first few years of students’ lessons, we spend time at every lesson with steady beat activities. Sometimes it is a specific planned activity that I work out beforehand, and other times the activities are born out of a struggle the student exhibits at lesson and I pull from my past experience and use a tried-and-true steady beat activity.

Read part 2 of the series here! Steady Beat Part 2: Beyond the Metronome – Movement Activities to Establish Steady Beat with Piano Students