In this article we're going to highlight some specific rhythm exercises that all musicians can use to improve their rhythmic understanding. The really great part about these rhythm exercises is that you can practice some of them away from your instrument, meaning that you can work on rhythmic training while you're at the gym, in the car, at work, waiting in line... anywhere. One excellent app to have on your smart phone is a basic metronome app. There are many free metronome apps available online and we will be using a metronome for these exercises so if you don't have one already it's a good idea to get one.
This first exercise is an easy one. We're going to start with a steady pulse on our metronome (60-70 beats per minute). Then we're going to simply clap or tap (on your desk, lap, whatever) the following rhythms:
Obviously we're using only whole notes, half notes, quarter notes, and eighth notes. But there are a few specific things that we're focused on when we practice this simple rhythm exercise. First, counting. We want to make sure that we're counting along with the beat at all times - "1, 2, 3, 4." And when we get to the eighth notes, we want to count and subdivide by counting "1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and." Second, we want to focus on rhythmic precision by trying to be as accurate with our clapping/tapping as possible. Try to make your clap/tap happen at the exact same moment as your metronome click. When clapping eighth notes, makes sure every note is evenly spaced.
In this next exercise, we're going to combine the basic rhythms above in random order. Again, focus on counting and rhythmic precision as you clap/tap these rhythms. (You can also play these rhythms on your instrument, of course). Start with your metronome at 60-70 bpm and gradually increase your speed as you improve. You can read the exercise below backwards to give yourself another challenge or write your own.
We'll start easy and then add levels of complexity. The dotted half note gets 3 beats. Adding this rhythmic value to our list means that we have 5 rhythms thus far - whole, dotted half, half, quarter, and eighth notes. We'll also add more rests to the exercise to really force you to count. Remember - counting and precision.
When we put a dot next to a note it adds half of the note's value back to the original value of the note. This is why a dotted half note equals 3 beats (2 original beats plus 1 beat [half of 2 beats] = 3 beats). Using this same math, a dotted quarter note equals 1 and a half beats. How do we represent a half beat? With a single eighth note. In order to play/clap/tap single eighth notes and dotted quarter notes accurately and precisely we really need to be counting and subdiving while we play. So make this the primary focus of the exercise below, and understand now how critically important it is to be able to count/subdivide while playing. (We use the "+" sign to represent the "and" which we say when counting the second of two eighth notes).