Teaching time

Tempo literacy
Lately I’m surprised at the lack of understanding of time signatures even among my private students some of whom study piano in addition to violin. For a while I have focused on the technical and spacial aspects of using the bow to produce sound through the full duration of a rhythm. I’m realizing now that many students do not actively feel a beat and/or do not understand that quarter notes mark the beat.

Movement is the key
It is essential to ensure that students do feel a beat. As a child I loved to dance to the music played in my home. I was always hanging around older siblings who listened and danced to their pop music and parents who at least tried (lol) to dance to their “oldies” music. We listened to classical music too but it didn’t seem to matter what style of music was played. What mattered was that we were moving to that music.

Connect beat with notation
Point out to students that rhythmic notation is used to show how the rhythm of their music fits in with the beat they are feeling. Because it’s an easier concept to comprehend, beginning students mostly only understand the top number in a time signature. They see four quarter notes and they know to say there are four beats (?) in a measure. I put a question mark here because students frequently say the word “notes” instead of beats which is a sign that the understanding may not really be there.

Teaching time
Students need to understand the unit of time, i.e. the bottom number. Teachers must help students make the connection of beat with these two numbers. Teacher: “What if there was a store with a whole table of cookies with a sign that said 50 cents. Do you think it means 50 cents for the whole table of cookies or for just one cookie?” Student: “I don’t know. Which one is it?” Teacher: “It isn’t clear, is it? Do you understand now why it’s important to know the unit of time? What are you counting as the beat?”

Violinist Linda Beers is the creator of the Inspiration for Violinists, a 50 card deck. Each card has a unique image and text inspiring musicianship, mindfulness and spirituality.

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