At some point, every musician will come face to face with some challenging rhythms.

Maybe syncopation is difficult for you, or you’re struggling with a tricky time signature like 5/4. Triplets have always been my personal nemesis.

Thankfully, when it comes to complex counting, there are some tricks that can help.

Here are five tips for counting difficult rhythms.

1. Have a Listen

This tip is especially helpful for auditory learners. Sometimes we just have to walk away from our instrument for a while and see (or hear!) the music from a new perspective.

Try to find a recording of the piece and listen to it.

Pause and rewind the difficult sections several times until you start to get the rhythm in your ear. Then go back to your instrument and try to play it.

You might have to do this several times until the rhythmic patter starts to feel natural to you, but it’s a great way to train your ear as well as your fingers.

2. Use Repetition

One of the biggest mistakes we make when working through a rhythmically challenging section is to try to learn to much at once.

Work on one measure at a time, and play it over and over again until you have it down cold.

If working on even one measure is too much to begin with, play half a measure or work on the right hand and left hand separately until you’re ready to put them together.

Once you have that measure down, work on the measure right after it.

Once you’ve learned that second measure, play it with the first measure and repeat both of them several times.

Keep breaking the section or piece down measure by measure until you can play the whole thing with confidence.

3. Visualize the Beat

This is good for those of us who are visual learners.

If we’re playing more complicated rhythmic patterns like syncopation or polyrhythms, it can be hard to know where the beats fall in each measure.

That makes for tangled fingers and a lot of confusion. It also makes it almost impossible to count correctly.

If you’re having trouble with a certain section of a piece, take a pencil and draw a line where each beat falls in the tricky measures.

Being able to visually see how the notes are spaced within the beats will help you understand them better and play them more accurately.

4. Embrace the Metronome

I know your teacher probably drilled this one from the time you were a beginner, but it’s a staple of music teachers everywhere for a reason: it really does work!

Practicing with the metronome is a guaranteed way to improve your sense of rhythm.There’s a catch, though: don’t make the mistake of trying to play along with the metronome at tempo!

That’s a recipe for frustration (I speak from experience).

Slow the tempo down. Once you think it’s slow enough to manage, then slow it down again. I mean way, way down!

Slow it down so much that you can play the notes easily without much thought. That lets you focus on getting that rhythm just right.

Once you can play confidently at the slow tempo, increase the tempo just slightly and start the process all over again. Keep gradually increasing the tempo until you are playing at the desired speed for the piece.

5. Create Word Patterns

For those of us who aren’t great with numbers (hi!), this tip can save our sanity at times.

Instead of counting the notes numerically, try using a word pattern to keep yourself playing steadily.

Count triplets as a three-syllable word such as “pine-ap-ple” or “pop-si-cle”.

A polyrhythm with eighth-note triplets in the right hand and eighth-notes in the left hand can be counted as “nice-win-ter-coat”.

One of my students’ favorite word patterns is “wish-I-had-a-wat-er-mel-on” for continuous patterns of sixteenth notes.

Don’t be afraid to count with word patterns rather than numbers if it helps you keep the rhythm steady! Anything that helps us with counting difficult rhythms is a win in my book.

What is your best tip for counting difficult rhythms? Leave a comment below!

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