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I'm teaching viola to a beginner high school student.

His progress with technique and reading are pretty good, but one thing he has trouble with is rhythm and tempo. He tends to want to work on expression and tone quality a lot -- which is understandable; a lot of beginner violinists tend to be more self-conscious about their tone (and these are probably the ones that end up excelling later on, given they don't become discouraged and quit). This is his first exposure to music performance, though, so tempo is more important than he thinks -- and he's struggling to grasp it or to appreciate its importance, as enthusiastic as he is about learning music in general.

I've tried a few things so far -- tapping to a metronome, counting subdivisions, playing a straight 16ths melody on top so that he'd know when he can guess intuitively from the chord change when his note comes in -- I've had moderate success with the last one, but he tends to rush ahead, especially during rests.

Are there any other tricks that I might try? I think it just hasn't "clicked" for him. Once it does, I'm sure he can pay more attention to it and either improve quickly with a metronome or at least over time with practice.

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5 Answers 5

Make him play exercises. The emotional content of the music here is a distraction for your student when he is getting his tempo right. Therefore, the exercises you prescribe must be as devoid of this as possible. The best example for such an exercise would be ( as @victor suggested ) scales. You can give arpeggios and make up patterns that go up and down scales for your student to play. Let him start his practice sessions everyday by rigorously playing these, giving attention only to tempo, before moving on to anything else. And let him do this while trying to get faster and more and more accurate each day. This may seem tedious and perhaps boring, but your student will himself embrace this approach, when he sees that it ultimately makes his tunes themselves more evocative, controlled and beautiful.

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I think using his inner hearing more will help:

Let him sing a simple four phrase song, something he knows really well, such as Frere Jacques. After that he can progress through a scale of difficulty:

  • sing alternating phrases with you
  • sing alternating phrases out loud/in his head, while you tap the pulse
  • sing two consecutive phrases out loud, then two in his head
  • sing the song according to cards you hold up for each phrase:green for sing, red for singing your head, yellow for tap the pulse or rhythm, progressing to combinations of green/yellow and red/yellow
  • repeat this with you changing the card shown mid-phrase
  • sing the entire song in thinking voice and indicate when finished
  • sing simple songs where more words can be missed out each time, such as "Bingo", "Chest Chest Knee Toe" etc -repeating simple 4/4 rhythms by clapping, only using crotchets and quavers at first,then introduce crotchet rests

At first keep a pulse for him, then experiment with weaning him off it. It's worth doing this vocally so that technique considerations don't create an extra obstacle for him, and things always embed more easily with voice first.

I've had success with these activities with much younger children; hopefully they'll work for someone older too. They are used by teachers of Kodaly methodology.

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A technique to concentrate entirely on the rhythm is to put away the instrument entirely, and clap the rhythm along with a metronome. You should also clap along to emphasize what would be the correct rhythm. You can vary this technique with the methods you have already tried with counting sub divisions etc.

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If they don't like clapping, try a single drumstick on a textbook. –  luser droog Nov 23 '11 at 12:23
    
The thing I don't like about clapping/tapping, despite its popularity, is that there is no concept of duration to the notes. It's sufficient when trying to count out something in the midst of a busy rehearsal, but as a general practice, especially for students, I'm not a fan. –  Josh Fields Mar 11 '12 at 2:40

When I was in choir in high school, a technique that clinicians and teachers from different events I was involved with used was just singing the rhythm.

Pick a note for the student to play that is in a comfortable playing position and have them play the rhythm (without changing notes) throughout the piece. If the piece is accompanied then play the accompaniment part while they do this; this is so that the student can internalize the rhythm of the piece in actual context.

This was a huge help to me in pieces with complex rhythmic lines (Daemon Irrepit Callidus was a really tough one for me early on.) Another tip is to encourage your student to "play the rests". Help them to realize that “Music is the silence between the notes” (Claude Debussy). Have them do the aforementioned exercise but, on the rests, mute the strings and either play the rest as though it were another note with a pitch or have them subdivide the rest into regular beats (quarters, eights, sixteenths, depending on the piece) and have them play those. This will emphasize the importance of the rests in the music.

Rhythm was a huge struggle for me in my musical youth and I hope this will help your student as it helped me.

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1  
+1 for "singing the rhythm". Check out Sheila Chandra's "Vocal Percussion" pieces for a cool way to do it. –  luser droog Nov 23 '11 at 12:20
    
Playing the rests is HUGE. A college professor published "The Addition Method," and among the techniques used were subdividing counted rhythms using breath-impulses, and whispering/speaking a different pitch for rests. –  Josh Fields Mar 11 '12 at 2:36

When I was starting to learn the piano, my teacher told me to practice every scale I knew so far, every day, with a metronome set at a different tempo each time.

After a month, he gave me some sheets that were just scales, but with different rhythms each, and he told me to do the same thing, practice everyday with a different tempo on the metronome.

It helped a lot!

The scales are a good way to practice rhythm, he said, because the student does not need to pay attention to the notes (since scales are almost built-in in the hands of a pianist, I don't know how is it with a violinist) so he can focus all his attention to the rhythmical aspect of the music.

I hope it helps.

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I would think scales are equally "built in" for any instrument (or at least should be), so this is a good answer for violin as well. –  awe Nov 22 '11 at 10:31

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