Student has no sense of rhythm

Anna said: Mar 3, 2016
20 posts

I have a 12 year old boy that just started piano lessons. Most of my students have some sort of sense of rhythm when they begin lessons that I can work with and develop. This student, however, has absolutely no sense of rhythm at all. Ideas? How do you develop an awareness of rhythm, starting with the very basics?

Rebecca said: Mar 3, 2016
 19 posts

Drum lessons will help. He doesn’t even need to get a drum set and hire a teacher. Give him two pencils and have him take free lessons on YouTube.

It worked for two of my students that had no concept of timing. They also were thrilled when they could finally “drum” along with music they were listening to.

Other teachers may have better suggestions, I was only answering by what worked with my two students.

Anna said: Mar 3, 2016
20 posts

Great idea, Rebecca. Thanks! The only problem is . . . he can’t even tell that he is not clapping/tapping with a steady beat. I’ve set the metronome to quarter notes and we’ve tried clapping to it, but he’s not on the beat at all and when I point it out he doesn’t seem to be aware of being off at all. Maybe we’ll just have to keep working on it and it’ll “click” one of these days. :)

James said: Mar 3, 2016
James Guerin
Suzuki Association Member
27 posts

If he can’t clap to the metronome, try putting on music with a strong beat, and ask him to move to it or strike something as he plays along (this can include tapping on his body, moving his body while standing, or striking an instrument). Try to find how he moves best, and with which part of the body. If he is unsure, count 4’s together out loud and look at each other. Find which part of the body can then join in; try tapping, clapping, nodding, etc.

This process can be helped—parents if asked might know what songs he puts on and likes that have a strong beat. He himself might tell you if asked about dance music, and also he might be able to identify how he likes to move or keep time. He might also find a way of moving (feet, hands, head, whole body) that feels comfortable with played music.

I hope that by experimenting you will find a rhythmic boy! Then move on to the metronome.

Carrie said: Mar 4, 2016
Suzuki Association Member
58 posts

I use Rhythm Cups Exploration from with all of my students. They love it, and all of them have improved rhythmically.


Shulamit Kleinerman said: Mar 4, 2016
Shulamit Kleinerman
Suzuki Association Member
Seattle, WA
9 posts

Being able to keep rhythm depends on a connection between abstract brain (perceiving time) and kinesthetic body-awareness (feeling the beat)—so for helping it develop in a student who isn’t yet wired up in this way at all, it can be a long-term but very rewarding process. I’ve had several older students who were not capable of moving in time to any music—they might move enthusiastically but were not at all on the beat—who have “found” their beat and have even become reliable participants in one-on-a-part chamber music situations (phew!). I find this whole process quite thrilling and interesting! It seems to me as though there is a phase of first becoming able to connect to a beat that’s “out there”, and then another phase of developing rhythmic awareness as something you can maintain “inside” yourself.

Rhythmic ability develops naturally for most kids in the preschool years if they have frequent opportunities to move their bodies to music. These days many children have fewer opportunities for full-body movement in their lives, which can delay many developmental processes. Rhythm can also be an issue where there are neurological sensory-integration issues, eg with aspergers/autism spectrum, or any history of trauma. So it’s actually incredibly valuable for students to have a chance to develop their brain/body connection in their work with us!

Following many teachers’ lead, I use marching to engage the vestibular sense (balance) and gives a whole-body experience of “what the beat feels like.” Until they feel that, I think they see us clapping or hear the metronome beat but they literally cannot tell when it’s going to strike next. For a standing instrument this can include marching while playing, or it can mean singing. I work with a lot of older beginners so introduce marching as an element of rhythm reading—we do rhythm counting exercises over a 1-2 year period where students stand and march the beat and count rhythm patters on top of it.

For some students with rhythm trouble it can also be somewhat challenging simply to coordinate the body enough to march—I have to show them to bend their knees(!)—and even more so to do anything additional WHILE marching (much less counting quarter notes). For these kids, I’ll occasionally just have them march while I ask them conversational questions about their day. It can become a hilarious moment for them when they find their bodies want to stop marching while they answer. This may be more specifically an aspergers/autism thing, I’m not sure.

I never turn on the metronome until the student has become capable of being in unison with me in whatever we are doing. Then for a long time I use it while playing WITH the student, and tell them clearly that I’m not asking them to work with the metronome at home. (It’s not useful until their bodies have the ability to internalize the beat being given.)

When students are in the phase where all of this is beginning to connect when they are not playing music, but they are still erratic while playing, I’ve had some interesting successes in coaching students to “turn on the beat in their bellies” before they play. There is a very interesting change in their playing and a visible change in their bodies when they connect to that “in your belly” feeling.

For a student who comes in without any connection to rhythm, this whole process can take years. Ample time to experiment with ways of teaching this skill ;)

Kelly Williamson said: Mar 4, 2016
Kelly WilliamsonTeacher Trainer
Suzuki Association Member
Flute, Suzuki Early Childhood Education
Cambridge, ON
248 posts

Great idea, Carrie—that looks like fun!


Marian Goss said: Mar 4, 2016
Marian Goss
Suzuki Association Member
26 posts

Great response. For some kids it’s too late if they never developed basic rhythmic competence as a preschooler or even tottler. This is one of the many reasons I became a trained music together teacher. Basic rhythmic and tonal competence can be learned at a young age if the child is given the right exposure. I do believe this can be learned through simple play and organic music making. That is to say, not necessarily with an instrument in one’s hands or with a CD playing in the room. I’m guessing the student that has no sense of rhythm probably had no way to develop rhythmic competence at a young age.

Friederike said: Mar 4, 2016
Friederike Lehrbass
Suzuki Association Member
Plano, TX
71 posts

This reminds me to the movie: Mr. Hollands Opus. He is teaching a boy rhythms. It’s a great scene, well, the whole movie is great.

Praise the Lord with the stringed instrument

Anne Brennand said: Mar 4, 2016
Anne Brennand
Suzuki Association Member
Boulder, CO
37 posts

Hi all. I loved reading this discussion thread.

Shulamit, thank you for such a thorough post, and bravo for your work with students with disabilities. What I propose here, merely this emphasis on saturation listening, might be too simplistic. On the other hand, that cannot hurt as an adjunct to these modalities you so expertly describe.

I had a college age student with this same problem. She could not clap a steady beat. We tried everything. Most of the suggestions put forth here proved unfruitful.

As a last resort, as this student was going to be quite free the entire summer, I firmly suggested listening to the Suzuki recording a minimum of two hours every single day.

I am pleased to say that, lo and behold, this student returned after the summer away with a wonderful ability to keep a steady pulse!!

I was astounded, but not surprised. It seems to me rhythm, along with so much of musicality, is something caught, rather than taught. Honoring Dr. Suzuki’s spirit in belief in that innate ability in all, given the right environment: I was thrilled at this confirmation.

  • Anne

Anne Brennand, cellist and cello teacher

Jennifer Visick said: Mar 5, 2016
Jennifer VisickForum Moderator
Suzuki Association Member
Viola, Suzuki in the Schools, Violin
998 posts

Go for a walk with the child? Help the student find the rhythm of walking. Then try stepping in time to music.

Also (perhaps), something like the body beat metronome might add another dimension to trying to get in sync with an outside beat source.

Vanamali Medina said: Mar 5, 2016
Vanamali Medina
Suzuki Association Member
Minneapolis, MN
4 posts

I have been dealing with a student like this for a little over a year—high schooler. When we started, she could not keep a steady beat, hear when she got off, or even recognize rhythmic patterns on the page. If I had a penny for every time I had to re-explain how to count a dotted-8th 16th….

I asked the FluteList for advice and one really interesting response was that many children with no rhythm have difficulty crawling. Often because they jumped straight to walking as a baby, for instance. They will either move jerkily or have trouble coordinating the opposite knee and arm. Sure enough, I asked my student to crawl without any direction on how to do so and she began crawling with the same arm/knee rather than in opposition. And she only crawled as a baby for a few weeks before walking. When I asked her to crawl in opposition, it was quite uncoordinated! So for a couple weeks, part of her assignment was just to crawl. And while we did many other things too, it truly did help.

Walking/marching to a beat was initially too much to ask, but “conducting” also worked well. I just had her vaguely wave her hand around from side to side and that was a small enough motion (but still motion) that with minimal practice, she could do that along with a beat. She also needs quick subdivisions to stay on track. She can keep a 1-e-&-a going steadily now (finally!) but if I ask her to count quarter notes instead, she will veer off course quickly.

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