Author Mary Cohen is one of Britain’s leading string teachers. In this article, she delves into ideas about how to teach rhythm effectively for strings.
a world full of rhythm by Mary Cohen Rhythmic! Whacky! Engaging! Can classical music really be like this for beginner string players? Of course it can! Alongside the fun and games, classical music itself should be an essential part of the mix at the earliest stages, especially in a culture where it is becoming sidelined. We live in a world full of vibrant rhythm – it leaks out of earphones everywhere. So first lessons should be rhythmic – and you can easily introduce open strings using rhythms that fit with well-known classical tunes. Fragments of pop and jazz rhythms can be found in Bach, Telemann and Vivaldi! How to teach rhythm effectively? Simple – just do lots of it. In the earliest stages it’s easy to use words to reinforce rhythms: a good start to the lesson is inventing ‘News of the Day’ rhythms, using a phrase like ‘I had pizza for lunch today’. Straight or syncopated, begin with open strings; as skills progress try harmonics or col legno, sul ponticello or even the squeaky bits of string behind the bridge. As finger patterns are established, move on to half scales, full scales and arpeggios. (A fun way of sneaking some musical general knowledge into the lessons is to imagine what Mozart, Beethoven or other classical composers might have had for their lunch.) Years of observation has convinced me that pupils need to learn to sightsay the rhythm of new pieces. It doesn’t matter which rhythm-name scheme you use as long as it is consistent. (All the material in the Superseries is designed to be introduced in this way.) Pupils who learn rhythm as a language, and can use rhythm names on autopilot, are brilliant at duets and chamber music from a very early stage. It’s fun to get intermediate pupils to play some Vivaldi to a beginner class and then for everyone to sit down together and ‘rhythm sing’ bits of it. You only need about six different rhythm names to do a big chunk of the A minor double concerto – a great motivator for pupils. Another winner is singing rhythm names to part of Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 – a real tongue twister if done up to speed.