How To Teach Rhythm to Beginning Music Students

Teaching rhythm using stick notation & hand signs

I’ve been teaching how to count rhythm to most of my students using Michiko Yurko’s genius method of naming note values with easy and fun to say words.  I highly recommend her book Music Mind Games for all music teachers and home-schoolers and interested parents..

  • For example, a one beat (quarter note) is called BLUE.
  • Two eighth notes are called  JELLO.
  • An eighth note triplet, where the three notes are played in one beat is PINEAPPLE.
  • And four sixteenth notes is HUCKLEBERRY.
This is so much more fun and easier to remember than when I was in school learning, “one -eee- and – ah.”

Practice counting the beats of any song you already know and other new ones as well.  It becomes a much easier task to learn a new piece if you have internalized the rhythm already and can then focus on the pitches and fingering.
This past week, I did just that by having several of my students learn “Go Tell Aunt Rhody” by first counting out the song in this Blue Jello way.  Then, by teaching the distinct hand signals for each, which adds another level of kinesthetic learning, I played the melody while the student counted out the piece.  After 3 or 4 times, the melody and rhythm are so ingrained, that playing it on the instrument becomes just a minor technical matter.  It’s already in the body, brain and ear!  The results?  Everyone learned much, much faster and without the stumbling and frustration.
A book I recently read describes the importance of communication using multiples levels of engagement.  Made To Stick, by brothers Chip & Dan Heath, is a NY Times Bestseller and popular among business and marketing types, but is equally usable by teachers and parents.  Anyone, looking to make their ideas “stick” can benefit.  So one of the main principles of the book is  the concept of CONCRETIZATION.  By making abstract concepts concrete, giving a physical nature to the abstract, it makes it easier to grasp.  So by adding hand signs to the funny words for each note, we add another layer of concretization.  By saying it aloud, making the hand gesture and using the Blue Jello words, we are creating a unique kinesthetic experience of what was just quarter notes, eighth notes, half notes and whole notes.
And besides, how much more fun is it to say HUCKLEBERRY, GOOSEBERRY, JELLO BLUE?

2 thoughts on “How To Teach Rhythm to Beginning Music Students

  1. Hello,

    I teach high school instrumental music, and the biggest roadblock with my guitar students and some of the younger (and older) band students is reading rhythms quickly and efficiently. I have always taught through the numbers system (1 & 2 e & a, etc.), but have noticed that many of them are still struggling. I then tried a different approach with “Ti’s and Ta’s” and that seemed to help many of them. I like your concept that is presented here, and have seen it work in the elementary general music classroom. How do you address more complex rhythms, particularly when part of your “huckleberry” is a rest, or if you have rhythms like eighth, sixteenth, sixteenth (and vice versa)?

    Thanks for the input!

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