Using Small Instruments, Body Percussion, and Other Resources to Teach Rhythm

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Many music teachers are sharing plans to add more rhythm lessons to their curriculum this fall since these exercises can be conducted in all sorts of scenarios. Students can practice rhythm skills whether they are home, physically distant in class, or in small groups. Plus, in the long run practicing rhythm has many benefits.

Percussion lessons help strengthen timing and listening skills that are essential for music creation. And as Dr. Nina Kraus said in her blog, How Music Education Benefits the Brain, “A young child who has troubling matching rhythm will likely have difficulty learning how to read. Teaching these rhythm skills can help fix the problems in the child’s brain so he or she can be successful.”

Working with percussion also is great for stress relief, which students really need right now, and it allows for some much-needed movement. That can increase coordination and the ability to do tasks with both hands. Stronger skills will likewise help students perform multicultural pieces that may have more complex rhythm patterns.

Below are some options for tools, lessons, and inspiration to enhance your percussion and rhythm instruction.

Getting the Tools

To get started, it’s helpful to get some small instruments in the hands of students so they can effectively “strike, shake, and scrape.” Pepper has created some recommended bundles and percussion lists to help make teacher kits. 

Suggested Bundles Include:

Individual Student Percussion Kit #1 including an egg shaker, finger cymbals, güiro tone block with mallet, rhythm sticks, rubber and yarn mallets
Individual Student Percussion Kit #2 – including claves, maraquitas, rhythm sticks, rubber and yarn mallets, and a triangle
Individual Student Percussion Kit #3 – including a jingle tap, rhythm sticks, rubber and yarn mallets, tambourine, and a tick tock block
Individual Student Percussion Kit #4 – including an egg shaker, rhythm sticks, agogô bell with mallet, rubber and yarn mallets, and tone block with mallet

Mix & Match Options for General Music Students Kits

Metals
Shakers & Drums
Woods
Mallets

Planning the Lessons

Some rhythm lessons used in the past may work, but an added task could be to create rules for a virtual setting. In class it may be easier to see if a student is off task since you can see and hear that. Online the kids may be on mute, and there may be a need for more turn taking because of the time latency problem with sound.

Therefore, rules may focus on what you can see – e.g. “I want to see your instrument in front of you or out of view until we begin, and no one can hold an instrument until directed.” For lessons, a call and response lesson may be conducted as a group with only the teacher’s audio on. Therefore, again visuals will come into play – e.g. “I want to see you shake your tambourine and stomp your feet.”

Carnegie Hall has a series of lesson ideas with video demonstrations, including a number of rhythm lessons that can be adapted to today’s environment with a bit of creativity. Body percussion is incorporated in a number of the lessons.

Other videos can also serve as inspiration, like one from PBS that features a fun exercise with rhythmic cups. In addition, for elementary students you also can view a list of rhythm resources, including some digital and reproducible options, to help come up with lesson plans and games.

Another option for beginning students is Garwood Whaley’s Rhythm Reading for Drums, Book 1 for general rhythm exercises. In this book, basic rhythm patterns are introduced on each page in eight-measure studies followed by a short solo.

If there’s an interest in exploring world music options for elementary students, resources can be found here. Regardless of the lessons you use, having a metronome will help keep everyone on the same page.

Looking at the Big Picture

Students can get a better idea of how much you can do with percussion by watching the experts at work. That can include contemporary groups, percussion ensembles, and orchestral musicians.

One of the more creative contemporary groups is Stomp. For 19-years this group has shown how everyday objects and body percussion can be used to create works of musical art. Young children can explore the world of Stomp by watching a 1995 episode of Mister Rogers Neighborhood when the group appeared. The video is available on the special guest page of the Mister Rogers’ website. You also can watch Stomp performances from 2014 on this playlist.

Examples of inspiring percussion ensemble performances include The Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music Percussion Ensemble performing composer Béla Fleck’s piece Big Country, and the Eastman Percussion Ensemble performing Catching Shadows by Ivan Trevino.

On the orchestral front, Mister Rogers also visited percussionist Tim Adams, but you may need to pay a small fee to watch. Here are details. Other videos about orchestral percussion are on YouTube, including these options:

Percussion: Instruments – Britian’s Philharmonia Orchestra
Percussion on the Road – New York Philharmonic
The Percussion in the Orchestra – Utah Symphony
Learn about Percussion with Chris Deviney – The Philadelphia Orchestra
A Day in the life of the DSO Percussionists – Detroit Symphony Orchestra

Some general tips on practicing rhythm skills are found in a video from Chick Corea entitled The “Secret” to Improving Your Rhythm and Time. For teachers, one of the many inspirational videos on percussion include a piece from PBS on an afterschool drumming program for bilingual students in Texas.

Once you get rolling, students can have a blast keeping the beat and making their own. If you have any tips on ways you plan to teach rhythm and percussion this school year, leave a note in the comments. 


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Mary Rogelstad
Mary Rogelstad joined Pepper in 2018 as the company’s Marketing Content Coordinator. Previously she worked as a journalist in the international media and as a communications specialist at various nonprofits. In her free time, Mary has enjoyed singing in various choral groups and performing in musical theater.

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