5 top tips for rhythmic success

By Melanie Spanswick


In some of my past articles for this newsletter, I’ve suggested and implied that the use of the metronome is paramount. It can certainly help pianists attain and maintain rhythmic stability and vitality, particularly if used regularly. My students often ‘live’ with their metronome, and we implement its use by instigating two or three practice speeds for virtually every repertoire choice; starting with a slow tempo and moving up to the actual speed. And, often, moving past the actual speed, so that when returning to it, playing the note patterns at the suggested tempo feels comfortable and easily within my student’s grasp. 


However, there comes a point when we must stop using this device! Eventually, we must learn to develop an inner pulse. But how can we do this? Here are some ideas: 


  1. Once you have worked at your piece with a metronome and you are confident playing along to every ‘tick’ without either rushing or pulling back (or lingering), you are ready to leave the metronome behind. We now need to develop an ‘internalised’ metronome and one which allows for a certain rhythmic freedom and vibrancy. Start by assimilating the rhythmic structure of your piece, and ‘tap’ the rhythm with your hands on the top of the piano lid (tap the right-hand part with the RH, and left-hand part with the LH); first using the metronome, and then, without it. 
  2. When tapping, ensure your ‘pulse’ is metronomic at all times. It might be useful to count out loud, but you can also ‘feel’ this pulse almost as a ‘groove’. Make sure that you ‘breathe’ clearly, it can help to do this at the beginning of every bar first, establishing regular breath control. 
  3. Now, reverse the left- and right-hand tapping. Aim to tap the LH part with the right hand, and the RH, with the left. This is a useful exercise when coming to terms with keeping a metronomic pulse. After a while, you may want to return to tap along with the metronome, just to check that your pulse-keeping is accurate. One thing to bear in mind is that it’s very easy to ‘rush’ when tapping or playing without any rhythmic aid, and therefore, breath control can be very helpful in this respect. You’ll also need focused concentration. 
  4. Next, play your piece, hands together, but choose a speed that is well under tempo. Play it slowly with the metronome and then without it. Try to notice the difference, namely, where you speed up or slow down; this requires very astute listening skills. Are you sure that you’re keeping the pulse perfectly? We often change the speed when approaching a difficult passage, which is why slower practice is helpful for time-keeping; during these sections, imagine taking a deep breath before you start – some find it helpful to ‘create’ very small fermatas (or pauses) before, during and after demanding passagework, installing a ‘break’, to gain control and thereby eliminate the possibility of rushing – I call this ‘thinking’ through the passage. These fermatas can be side-lined when rhythmic control has been assimilated. 
  5. Another useful exercise is to develop exaggerated physical movements when listening to music. Listen to a piece and wave your arms or hands (or conduct!) in time with the music. Again, be sure that you are moving or clapping precisely to the beat. Transferring this to the piano, try to feel this as an ‘internal’ movement as you play. The feeling may be in your stomach, feet, legs, or every part of you. You may wish to move or sway on the first beat of every bar of your piece, for example. As you learn to feel a regular pulse, your movements should become increasingly less noticeable, but they will still be there, guiding you as you develop your internal metronome. 

Melanie Spanswick

© Sarah Barnes