I Got Rhythm... how to use rhythmic patterns in music practice

October 5, 2017


Using rhythmic patterns is one of the most powerful practice tools I know. I learned it first from my Mom, an amazing piano teacher, whose ears suffered a lot when I played the piano as a child ;) Today I want to show you, how you can improve your music skills by using this method.


Be it scales and arpeggios that you struggle to play in a faster tempo, or especially tricky fragments of music pieces where you often get tense and make mistakes, using rhythmic patterns can help you to get rid of such difficulties. No matter which instrument you play, you can benefit a lot from using rhythmic patterns. In this article I'm going to show you how to do it. Ready? :)



A few words about rhythmic patterns


As the word "pattern" implies, this method is based on repetitions of certain rhythmic ideas. Here are a few examples:



Rhythmic patterns can vary in length and complexity. The ones used for practice purposes usually combine note/notes of longer rhythmic value with shorter ones, for instance:


One of the main ideas behind rhythmic patterns in practice is to use them in a variety of ways (= switching between a few or more patterns). Therefore other elements of a specific passage practiced with this method need to stay unchanged — usually, it's the melody and, as a result, also fingerings or harmonies. The following examples are based on the flute Sonata in C major BWV 1033 attributed to J. S. Bach.



It's also possible to combine a rhythmic pattern with a melodic pattern by repeating a chunk of a melody before going on to the next part of the tune.



Using rests as part of rhythmic patterns can be a great idea, especially if you tend to get tense when playing a challenging passage. No matter how tricky a fragment is, you can learn to stay cool, confident and relaxed when playing it (even if you make a mistake!). You can either use rests instead of long notes, or add them between repetitions.



Now you know what the method is about. But how to make use of these patterns and why in the first place would you want to use them? Let me explain.



How you can benefit from using rhythmic patterns


Rhythmic patterns, like most exercises, help you to become a better musician in many ways. Here are the main benefits that you can experience as a result of including this method in your practice:


1. You can play in faster tempi


2. You feel the pulse better, your music becomes more groovy and your phrasing sounds more natural


3. You develop a variety of motions as your fingers, arms, and any parts of your body used during practice get more flexible, ready to do pretty much anything


4. You play with more rhythmic exactness, which is especially important if you want to play with other musicians or play along a recording


5. You are able to play technically demanding passages in a confident, stress-free way



How do all these things happen? Or, more exactly, how can you make them happen? Read on for more specific ideas that will help you to develop all these skills.


1. Speeding up tempo


If you want to speed up tempo in which you play a specific passage, remember that it's the short notes in a pattern that directly take you further in terms of how fast you can play. However, the longer notes are no less important as they are your anchors — they give you time to get rid of tensions and think of what comes next.


It is a common tendency to get tense whenever there's a difficult passage to play. Therefore it might be a good idea to extend your "anchor notes" even more. As long as you are aware of what you are doing and stick to the chosen pulse, you can change your patterns in a wide variety of ways.


Always keep in mind your goals: you play each exercise in order to get closer to your desired tempo and be comfortable with it. So if a pattern seems to you too long or too complex, or you feel like there isn't enough time for you to prepare mentally for the next group, adjust your pattern suitably. How?


- You can make you patterns shorter or stay longer on anchor notes. For example, like this:




- Instead of holding a long note, you can also play repetitions on the same pitch. This might help you to stay in pulse and make your exercise more lively and easier to shape musically. Here are some examples:




2. Feeling the pulse better and phrasing more naturally


Since emphasizing the first note of a group is quite a natural, nearly effortless thing to do — especially when it's longer than other notes — you can benefit a lot from focusing on rhythmic patterns which start with an anchor note. Such patterns basically change your thinking about the music you play — there are no more separate notes, but rather whole groups and phrases.


I recommend you to begin with shorter patterns where anchor notes appear frequently, e.g. on every beat. Then choose increasingly longer patterns with anchor notes appearing rather sparsely, for instance only at the beginning of each bar. This way you can learn to play even long and technically tricky phrases in a smooth, flexible manner.


Getting through difficult fingerings becomes easier when practiced in numerous different ways. This happens because you are more aware of your key notes, and acquire the skill of playing passages from pretty much any point, not just from the beginning. Therefore using rhythmic patterns in practice can help you to stay in pulse even if you make a mistake or need to leave out a few notes, for example due to taking a breath.


This skill is essential if you want to make music with others, in a group, or even if you just want to play along a recording, so do work on developing it — it's one of the most useful skills you can learn in music!


3. Becoming a more flexible and more skilled musician


Again, variety is essential here. Using patterns that differ in length, complexity, and rhythmic structure, can help you to become a flexible musician.


Be aware of your body when you practice in order to make sure that you get rid of any tensions that might appear as soon as you notice them. When the tonus of your muscles is optimal — you are neither tense nor slack — your technique can be developed best.



4. Playing with rhythmic exactness


Use a metronome as often as you can to help you stay in a chosen tempo and control that you repeat your pattern consistently. It's better to repeat a pattern 10 times exactly the way it is rather than 100 times but with decreasing exactness. Here are a few examples of what often happens when one doesn't pay enough attention:


Usually, the more irritating you find practicing with a metronome, the more you need it ;) Good news is that as you get better, a metronome really turns into your friend — a simple but extremely useful tool supporting your development as a musician. Since the skill of playing with rhythmic exactness is especially important if you want to play with others (or even just play along a recording), try to work on it from the very beginning.



5. Being able to play technically demanding passages in a confident, stress-free way


This skill is absolutely vital! Especially when you perform publicly, you really don't want anybody to notice that you're struggling — it looks and sounds quite awful, and makes your audience feel like they are struggling too... Becoming a confident musician is not about pretending that you are the best musician ever or about trying to hide something from others. Playing difficult things in a stress-free way is rather about learning how to always stay cool — how to keep your posture optimally balanced, how to have faith in your practice and your skills, and how to just play whatever you want to play. Sounds easy, so it should be easy enough to do, right? ;) Well, if you practice rhythmic patterns, you have definitely good chances of developing this important skill.


Patterns help you to overcome the fear of tricky passages as it's often actually more challenging to play all those rhythmic or rhythmic-melodic variations than the original passage. Also if you practice something in a variety of ways, you are ready for pretty much anything and the danger of getting stuck disappears. Even if you screw up, you are able to quickly find the right notes and move on, so a mistake is no big deal any more. Of course, at least half of the skill of playing with confidence is purely psychological, but this is the part that you can fix in one second if you want to — make a decision to stay cool no matter what: you can do it!



I hope that now you are really motivated and ready to add some (more) rhythmic patterns to your music practice. Go back to the examples if you need some ideas for a start and remember about these few things to get the best out your rhythmic pattern practice:


  • use a metronome (and your ears) to make sure that you stay in tempo and play the chosen patterns with exactness — don't let your patterns turn into a random pulp after a few repetitions!

  • stay aware of your body to ensure that your posture and tonus of your muscles are optimal — stop playing when you feel that you are getting tense — first relax, and then continue

  • go for a wide variety of patterns to make your practice more creative and more fun, and to ensure that you can play pretty much everything :)



I wish you enjoyable, effective practice, and have fun with rhythmic patterns! :)



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