Forum Q&A's, repertoire / methods, Rhythm, Teaching Piano

Q&A Forum | Rhythmic “Simplification” in Arrangements of Familiar Tunes

For last week’s Forum Q&A, I broached a few questions about memorization and many of you left comments regarding whether or not to require memorization for performances within your studio — but not many of you addressed my initial question about whether you consider the skill of memorization is essential to piano playing (i.e., do you think it is necessary/required for concert pianists to play by memory?  Why or why not?).  I discussed this topic further in yesterday’s post, which you can view here.  As always, it’s never too late to add your thoughts to this ongoing discussion.  =)

Today, however, marks the introduction of a new topic for discussion:

Many popular piano methods today include (as they should) arrangements of familiar tunes for students to learn.  This is great, because many students LOVE learning how to play tunes they are familiar with!  (Side note: click here to view a post regarding some thoughts on what makes a great piano method.)  However, these arrangements sometimes present a problem:

Oftentimes in arrangements, the rhythm of the tune is altered and “simplified” in order to accomodate the rhythmic values that the student has/hasn’t learned yet.  This is all fine and dandy, but as a teacher, what do you do when a student comes back the next week playing the rhythm “wrong”?

To give one example that frequently occurs with beginner students, I’ve heard many students return playing the rhythm of “Ode to Joy” with dotted-quarter-eighth rhythms instead of playing all quarter notes (despite the fact that we sightread it together with the rhythm as written).  How do you handle this situation: do you “fix” the student’s rhythm to match what is on the page even though it goes against their intuition, or do you “let it go?”

I’m sure many of us piano teachers have been in this situation before!  Share your experiences in the comments below.

Photo Credit: Rick Harris | CC 2.0

7 thoughts on “Q&A Forum | Rhythmic “Simplification” in Arrangements of Familiar Tunes”

  1. Ah…. the “Ode to Joy” issue. I used to try and correct students when they would come in playing the dotted rhythm rather than the simplified straight rhythm. Nowadays, I use it as a way to briefly introduce the idea of dotted quarter notes, even if the concept is many pages ahead in their method book. It’s what I call a “natural teaching moment,” and I’ve found that it’s better to embrace it than to try and correct students for playing the “wrong” rhythm. (Although I *do* point out to them that the rhythm is different than what is on the page. Having them clap it out normally helps them realize what they’re doing incorrectly.)

    Since the “Ode to Joy” is so great to introduce dotted quarter notes, I have to wonder why most method books rely on songs like “Silent Night” and the “Bridal Chorus” to teach quarter notes. I don’t find them nearly as helpful, and it’s rare that I have students who are as excited about playing “Here comes the bride!” as they are a familiar Beethoven tune. (Sorry Wagner!)

    1. Sara! You are right — Ode to Joy is perfect for teaching dotted-quarter-eighths and it is strange that methods don’t use it as such! Maybe they use it so early on because the range of the piece stays within the five-finger pattern?

  2. I let it go – after years of frustration trying to “fix it”. The notes are easy – it’s a big confidence booster to play the familiar tune – and at that point they’re generally not ready for the concept.

    I don’t use Piano Adventures exclusively, but I do like the way it introduces the concept with London Bridge. For me, that’s a more natural way to teach it.

    LaDona

  3. I encountered this over the holidays with “Silent Night” in Alfred’s Premier Christmas book 1B. The theme of silent night was notated in all quarter notes. This particular student liked to sing along with the words included in the Alfred books, and she came back the next week dotting the rhythms because “that is how you sing it.” I found it helpful that those measures were marked with an asterisk with a note that the teacher could instruct the student to play a dotted rhythm there. I took the moment to ask if her way of playing was different than her notation. When she noticed it was different, but couldn’t offer the reason why, I then took the time to explain how those dotted rhythms work.

    Familiar tunes are great teaching tools, but I emphasize that it is important to always be watching the music. If the student is old enough, I explain what an arrangement is, and how a “tune” can be used as a starting point for a new composition. Just because we know the tune differently does not mean we have the license to alter the music any way we please.

  4. I am a huge fan of the “Ode to Joy” moment in Piano Adventures Primer. For me, this is not about ‘fixing’, it’s about ‘observing’. This is an opportunity for me to discover if my young student is an aural or visual learner. It is so important that teachers are able to tap into a child’s preferred learning style. Teaching familiar tunes can provide us with valuable clues.

  5. I agree with Sharon’s final comments above. I use it as an opportunity to discuss “arrangements”, and that it is important to observe what is actually written on the page. In certain settings, it’s ok to take some “artistic license” when playing a piece of music. But in other settings (such as a competition), it is critical to observe the notes and rhythms exactly as they are written. So, I do make sure they learn it as written. Then, once it is mastered, I give them some freedom to play it the way they think it should sound. This also helps me know that they are reading the notes, instead of just playing by ear.

  6. I love all of the comments above! I think most of us can agree: the rhythm discrepancy issue can be a wonderful teaching moment to take advantage of, whether it’s to teach about the dotted-quarter-eighth rhythm “early”, or to make a point about arrangements / appropriate artistic license. I hadn’t thought of the latter before! I usually point out the difference in rhythm between what they are playing and what is actually on the page (and have they play it both ways), and then with big eyes tell them they’ve stumbled upon an advanced concept that they weren’t supposed to learn about for another level or two. =) They love that.

    I have to admit, though, that occasionally I have made the executive decision not to bring up the rhythm discrepancy during the lesson. It depends on the student. If the student is very young and hasn’t developed a solid sense of rhythm yet, sometimes I wonder if it’s worth the time/trouble to get the student playing it as written….

    I guess I’m somewhere in the middle of the road, as usual, for this issue. =)

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