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How to Create an Excellent Sense of Rhythm in a Student

How to Create an Excellent Sense of Rhythm in a Student

Mar 01, 2018

Avoid accidentally developing students who "have no sense of rhythm"!

It's actually really really rare to find someone that has no sense of rhythm whatsoever. What is much more common is students who do have an innate sense of rhythm but it is disguised because their teacher didn't know how to teach them to find it.

These 5 STEPS show you how to discover that it's pretty likely that all your students have a good sense of rhythm.

Step by step, I'll show you how to get your students to feeel the difference between half, quarter, eighth, sixteenth notes (mimims, crotchets, quavers, semiquavers for the British Empire peeps amongst us). And then be able to read and feel rhythms using those note values.

It's a few steps (ie 5), but stick with it because it's worth it. You'll save so many students from the depths of feeling like they're hopeless at rhythm!


You probably agree it's really common to have students of the flute, whether children or adults feel terrible at rhythm. Sometimes their teachers just think they have no sense of rhythm whatsoever, but the truth is it's actually really rare to find someone without a good sense of rhythm. What's usually the case is somebody who has a really good sense of rhythm, but it's hidden because their teacher didn't know how to bring it out of them. In these five short videos, I am going to show you how to create a student who can subdivide, you know what that means. Then they can start reading rhythms really well. Sound good? Okay. Let's go.

When your student's been playing for a few weeks and they know their way around the flute, they know how to hold it. They know how to blow and get a good sound. They know some notes. They can play a couple of melodies. They're ready to start learning rhythm. The really good thing about giving them this introduction about rhythm is that you solve so many problems that come out later down the track if you don't give them this introduction. 

I use this with absolute beginners and it means that they don't get the problems down the track. The fundamental concept of this is that it teaches them to feel the rhythm, feel the different rhythms, the differences between whole notes, half notes, quarter notes, eighth notes. At the same time, you intellectualize it for them so that they can name the notes. They know how many beats they are, but deep down they can feel it.

So instead of just knowing that it's half a beat you're gonna actually teach them how to lock in with their natural sense of beat, which most students actually have. In their notebook write down a quarter note, crutch it, because this method is going to teach them some theory about what's going on as well. So they know how to actually talk about their ability to feel rhythms, write down the name of the note next to it.

By the way I'm using US and UK terms, I'd be interested to know actually, write in the comments below what terms your English speaking country users. For example, Canada, I don't know what they use in Canada. New Zealand I know uses the same as Australia, which is the UK terms, but what about other English speaking countries in the world? And if you're in a non-English speaking country, but you speak English, what terms do you use? Now under that quarter note that you've written write an eighth note or quavar.

Okay. And this bit is really important. Also we're gonna write two quavers joined up together. And the reason for this is because sometimes students who have trouble reading rhythms, like down the track when they've been taught rhythms and they don't understand it and they can't do it. And they think they're hopeless, which we want to avoid is that no one ever explained that one quaver looks like that. Sorry, one eighth note looks like that. And two eighth notes is joined up at the top. No one ever explained it to them. And if you can nip this in the bud and explain it now they'll be sorted for that little bit anyway.

So it's a very simple fix. All you say is when there's one, it looks like that. And when there's two, it looks like that or more than one, it looks like that. You tell them this is one beat. This is half a beat. Just a little word of caution is not necessary to go into the whole, a quaver is worth half a beat unless you're in three eight, and then it's worth full beat. But if you're in two two, it's actually worth a quarter beat. So  don't confuse them with that because you can imagine their brain will just go like that. We don't want that.

Okay. So that's step one, step two we start getting them to feel the difference. That was academic, next step is integrated into depths of brain. This is a really good thing. See you in step two.

All right, step two. This is where it gets good. So we need a beat and it's going to be your foot. The speed that you choose needs to be slow enough so that when we get to clapping semiquavers, 16th notes. It's not too fast. So that's an okay speed. You can use a metronome if you like, but I just gotta tell you, I find them so annoying for this because they are so insistent and they never stop. You get your foot going as the beat. And you're going to tell the student that they're going to clap quarter notes crotchets to clap with your foot.

Some students will do this like that. Some students actually need a moment to actually think about aligning their hands with your beat. Don't have the student tap their foot too. That's just way too much of a coordination issue to start with for them. So just leave that out and just you be the beat.

Now we're going to tell your student that we're going to clap exactly twice as fast and clap eight notes, quavers. Start them off with crotchets. Say we're gonna double the speed exactly and go. Some students of course are going to pick it up in a flash. Some students will go, oh my gosh, this is like really hard. And they'll go something like, or they might go like that.

This is all normal. And it is all okay. It does not mean that they're bad at rhythm. These other students that if this wasn't explained to them, they would end up being students that had a bad sense of rhythm.

But let me tell you, having a bad sense of rhythm is pretty, a true bad sense of rhythm, a bad sense of beat is pretty darn rare. These are students - these bad sense of rhythm students are students that just never got taught these fundamentals, cuz they needed a little more time. And because they didn't pick it up instantly and the time wasn't spent on them, they never got to learn how to feel this beat, this sense of rhythm.

I guarantee you, you can get a student who does this for their eighth notes, to do this. You can explain every second clap of theirs is going to be with my foot. You can explain, make every single one even with each other. So instead of - they will be able to space it out eventually within a couple of minutes like this and you will probably see the cogs turning in their mind cuz they have to think about it. And this is great because you're starting to get them to feel the correct sense of eighth notes, quavers.

Once they've got that, whether it was in five seconds or in a few minutes, you're going to give them a little quiz and you're going to say, start with crotchets you get them to clap crotchets. Then you'll say now change to quavers and they should go exactly into quavers. Even the good students sometimes struggle with a very, very clean change. And what you want them to do is go from change to quavers change back to oops. <laugh> that was a bit of an encore moment and then change back to crotchets and be exactly change back to quavers, back to crotches, quarter notes. You want that change to be clean?

Okay. Now you're going to add in half notes minims. So write it down on the page at the top because it makes mathematical sense that way. Tell them it's two beats. Tell them what it's called and add it into your quiz. Start with crotchets, quarter notes. Get them to change to minims, half notes. You'll see them really thinking to do this. Back to crotchets quarter notes to quavers eighth notes, straight to minims, half notes and the tricky one going straight to quavers eighth notes.

Now I'm saying that's tricky, not tricky for us, but tricky for someone who has just learned the concept of a beat. So that's your aim with this step is to be able to get them cleanly changing between half notes, eighth notes and quarter notes and a total clean change and spend time with them. If you clap it with them first and then you let them do it by themself, that can be a really good sort of intermediate step if students are having difficulty doing this.

You might have a student who breathes through this. That is great. Breathes through it with them to the next step. These steps, however, are catching the students that have missed out or would miss out on this education of feeling a sense of beat and rhythm. This is going to get like 99% of students doing rhythm well right from the very beginning, see you in the next step.

Step three is adding 16th notes or semiquavers. So add that to the page. Explain like you did for the eighth notes or the quavers that a single one looks like that. And when there's more than one, it looks like that super important because some kids just never learned that. Tell them what it's called and tell them that it's worth a quarter of a beat.

Now you're going to repeat that quiz, but it's a little bit different because you have more complexity to it. Some kids are gonna breeze through this, but more likely your good students are going to not exactly breathe. They're going to need to think hard, but they'll be able to do it pretty much within a couple of minutes. Some kids are going to need a little more time, like say five minutes, maybe up to even 10 to really differentiate between the feel of these four different types of notes.

So back to the quiz, certainly clap with them to get them going. So you know what I'm gonna do here? Let's say start with crotchets quarter notes, let's change to 16th notes or semi quavers, back to crotchets. And you go through all  the different four notes and see that they get a clean, precise change. That is what you want. You want them really distinctly feeling the difference between those four different types of notes.

Normally I'll get all of this done in one 30 minute lesson easily like this whole process. But if a student needs more time, they need more time. It's important to get it right? So then because their attention span is going to be sort of Ooh, on the downhill slide. This is where you switch it and you get them to quiz you.

So you are gonna do the beat still. They'll say 16th notes, then they'll say half notes etc. The cool thing about them quizzing you is not that just not just that it mixes the lesson up in what they're doing, but it shows them what they're aiming for. And they can see someone that is you doing what they're trying to do. And it gives them a lot more motivation to be able to do this themself.

If you find that the student by the way is struggling to get the 16th notes or the semiquavers to be even firstly, use the word even cuz that's very helpful. You can explain things like, it sounds like a horse trotting. I don't think it exactly sounds like a horse trotting, but it gives them a reference for something a sound that is even. You can put a word to it of four syllables. So watermelon watermelon, semiquaver semiquaver or you can use tougher tiffie or ticky ticker. Anything that helps the student is fine.

I will see you in the next step, which is a cool one because it shows how this starts to integrate into reading music.

Okay. So welcome to step four, depending on how quickly your student has picked up the last three steps. This step is either going to fit into the same half hour lesson or flow over into the next lesson or into a longer lesson. This is a really good thing because suddenly in one lesson you are going to get or two lessons, you are going to get the most beginner of beginner students.

They've never learned before, you are going to basically be getting them to read rhythm. No problem. Okay. So what you're gonna do using those four types of notes that we have taught them, write a two bar rhythm in four, four, no rests, just those notes. So that's a super basic one. And just like how we were getting them to clap the notes before you're gonna get them to clap this rhythm. So you're gonna say after four, let's clap it and do it with them and they go.

I mean, I don't really need to demonstrate this to you, but you know what I mean? <laugh> I really did not need to clap that for you. Then you get the student to do that by themself. Okay. Now add some semiquavers or 16th notes. If you think the student could have done that straightaway, you could put that into the first one.

So here's a more complicated one for the student, not for you. And I'm not going to demonstrate for you because you know, very well how it sounds. You have a very beginner student who has never learned to read music before, you write out something like that and then say, okay, clap it, ready go. And they clap it first go. And they think that it's fine and easy. You are onto a winning method.

So do a few of these enough that you've got time for enough that the student has an attention span for. And when you need to mix it up a bit, what you then do, they give you the rhythm to write and then they clap it themselves. You'll probably find they say something like I want three 16th notes and then one quarter note and then three eighth notes.

You know, something that doesn't make sense, but they know from your little page, the value of each note. Keep them in groups, just for the purpose of making it clappable. So not only in a lesson, have you taught them how to read music, but you've taught them how to actually create their own rhythms. When I say read music, I mean, obviously I'm mean the rhythm portion of it. You know that you're doing these little rhythms at the right level for them when it takes them one, two maybe three goes to get it perfectly.

If it's taking them longer than that, they're a little hard. And the only reason it's a little hard is because they haven't had enough practice at the previous step. If they're getting it first go every time, getting it right, make it harder, make it longer. You could start with two bars and then add two bars to it. So then next time they're clapping four bars and then add two more bars. So that they're just getting longer and longer. If they need to need a little challenge like that, do that.

So now I'm gonna see you in the next step, which is integrating all of that into actually playing the flute.

You're now at step five. Integrating what you have taught them in the last four steps into reading music while playing the flute. By this stage, you'll have a little flute player or a big flute player. If they're an adult who can play the flute with a clear sound, they know a number of different notes, they've got good posture. They can play a couple of melodies, perhaps a scale. You have just taught them the concept of feeling rhythms, not only feeling rhythms, but interpreting written rhythms into that feel.

And you're gonna take this student that has these things already launch them into a learn to play the flute book, which is basically a learn to read music book. And when they get to the part where they've learned how to read, sorry, G, A, B maybe B flat. And it's teaching them the difference between crotchets quarter notes and quaver eighth notes and minims, half notes.

They will already have behind them that knowledge. They will already know the concept of interpreting what's on the page, the rhythms on the page with how the notes need to feel when they play them. And it's a very short step into being able to play G’s, A's B’s different rhythm, perfectly in their first few lessons.

And when you have perfect rhythm and they're playing the right notes, you are creating a student who has an excellent ability to read music. You have created the foundation in this student that is going to last. It's gonna live with them for a lifetime. Along the way you're gonna need some little tweaks because obviously there are more complicated rhythms as they come up. But if you always refer back to this sense of exact shift between each type of rhythm, each type of note, I mean, if you are always referring back to that, all new rhythms will make sense.

Another way you can think of it is you're teaching them to subdivide, but you're teaching them not only to intellectually subdivide because you've taught them how many beats each note is worth. You are teaching them how to feel rhythm, how to feel the subdivision. And when you've got those two things together, the intellectual side and the, oh gosh, what would you call it? I just keep calling it the feel of it. But you know what I mean? When you have those two things together, you're creating a good musician. Aa musician with good rhythm. I am very, very excited for you and for your student, because I tell you what, not only out of this, do you get students who have really good at rhythm, your status or your caliber as a teacher has just gone because you are now a teacher that can teach a student to have good rhythm.

You know it's amazing what that does for yourself. Like, you know, we are thinking about the students here but think about yourself too. It feels good to be good at something. So that's why I'm excited because I like people feeling capable. I like the students feeling capable and I like the teacher feeling capable. It's just a great, a great feeling. It's like, everything is worth it when you can do that.

They were your five steps to just getting the fundamental rhythm in a student correct. There is a whole lot more to teach you about reading rhythms, ties over bar lines, compound time signatures, more complex rhythms. But this was the beginning.

I should probably say my name is Jane I'm from The Flute Teachers School, which is my business. I love teaching players and teachers of the flute, how small little smart changes to their student or their own technique makes a massive impact on their playing.

In this case, it's five steps to having awesome rhythm. If you wanna do the same for your tone or for your student's tone, go and grab the course called how to quickly improve your tone on the flute. It's totally free, which is the same as free and it's five days or less to complete. By the end of that your sound or your student sound will be clear and fuzz free. I hope to see you inside that course. And I hope you've enjoyed these five lessons. Bye.

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