Marking Rhythms (Miss It? Mark It! part 4)

Marking Rhythms (Miss It? Mark It! part 4)

This is the fourth article in a series about “marking music,” providing visual solutions to problems musicians encounter during practice. Our brains cannot remember everything. By carefully and consistently making marks in the music, musicians will learn music faster and with less frustration. This blog post will focus on how using pencil marks can aid in the learning of difficult rhythms.

Rhythms are the analytical, mathematical side of music making.

There is little grey area in interpreting rhythms. They are either right or wrong and learning them correctly from the beginning is critical.

My favorite way to mark rhythms involves drawing lines to represent the beats in a measure. I draw a short vertical line directly over the note that is to be played on the beat. The lines occur in the same place that my foot comes in contact with the floor when tapping the tempo.

rhythms visually organized - vertical lines show beats

Doppler’s Hungarian Pastoral Fantasy

In the above example, a have drawn vertical lines to represent where the beat falls in each measure. Notice that in the syncopations, the vertical line is drawn between the notes. When playing syncopated rhythms, it is important to feel the beat (or the foot hitting the floor) in the space between the notes. In this example, notes are played on beats 1 and 3 but not on beat 2.

Marking the beats can help with complicated rhythms. Consider this passage with a 9/8 time signature:

rhythms made easier by marking the music

from Danse de la Chèvre

This measure is made much more readable by adding in vertical marks over the large beats (dotted quarters). Visually, the organizes the measure into three distinct parts. By tapping my toe, I have kinesthetic feedback to tell me if my notes are starting on the right beat.

This is a simpler example from a student’s etude in 6/8 time:


etude in 6/8

In this example, I wrote in the numbers 1-6 for each of the eighth notes within the measure. This makes it easy to see how the notes relate. We could re-write this measure in 6/4 time with quarter notes and eighth notes to achieve the same rhythm and the same counting.

For the final example, I offer this example from the opening passage of Doppler’s “Hungarian Pastoral Fantasy.” I have added vertical lines to represent where each of the six eighth note beats occur in the measure. You will notice that there are longer lines over the two larger beats – the dotted quarter notes.

wild rhythms, organized

Doppler’s Hungarian Pastoral Fantasy

I am a visual and kinesthetic learner so marking my music with vertical lines to represent beats is essential. It graphically organizes the music into discreet packages that I can see and feel easily. Of course, this is not a new idea, nor is it one I created. In fact, I see these kinds of marks all the time in orchestra music used by professionals. I have developed a system that works for me. Now, go find one that works for you and use it consistently!

More ideas for marking music:


New Ideas for Marking Music (part 5 of Miss It? Mark It!)

Miss It? Mark It! part 5

A new student arrived at her lesson this week with music beautifully colored. Last week I had encouraged Madeline* to write in her music. I suggested that if she missed something twice, she should mark it. (Miss It? Mark It! part 1) We have just started talking about how to practice, and marking the music seems like a good place to start.

Because she owns this book, I told her that it was OK to use color, not just pencil. (The book, my current favorite flute method, is Flute 101: Mastering the Basics by Phyllis Avidan Louke and Patricia George.)marking music

I was delighted to see that Madeline had created her own colorful system to help her with this week’s assignment. In blue, she had highlighted the pieces in the key of F major. The pink circles indicated exercises that were easier and the orange circles indicated more difficult exercises. She told me that it was an easy way to see which exercises needed extra practice (orange.)

Madline’s lesson was well prepared and her practice was focused. I told her that I would take a picture of her colorful music and share it here, on my blog. Perhaps it will inspire others to experiment with novel ways to mark music. There are many creative solutions for marking music, some of which I have talked about elsewhere on this blog. I invite you to find systems that make your practice productive.

Marking Music… again

Update… Madeline came to her lesson this week with an even more sophisticated system of marking the music with color:


Now there are three levels of difficulty: pink, blue, and orange. Key signatures are highlighted in blue and time signatures are in orange. It goes without saying that Madeline was very well prepared for her lesson this week also. Bravo!

For more ideas about marking music, please check out my series “Miss It? Mark It!”

  • part 1 Practical Advice for Music Practice
  • part 2 How To Mark Music
  • part 3 Pencil Marks
  • part 4 Marking Rhythms

How do you like to mark your music? Do you use color? Do you have a system for showing which lines need extra work?

*names of students are changed


Practice Hacks: The Pencil Problem

The pencil monster struck again.

I was listening to my 8 year-old daughter while she was practicing. She was playing the flute in her room and I stepped in to help her by circling some notes in the method book. “Where is your pencil?” I asked. She wasn’t sure but maybe she used it to complete her reading log and maybe it was on the floor… or under the bed… or maybe her brother took it… or maybe the cat was playing with it…. Five minutes later, we still couldn’t find the pencil, so I went looking in the office (only pens here), then traipsing downstairs to grab one from the music studio. By the time I retuned, pencil in hand, she had wandered off to play with Legos and I couldn’t remember which note I wanted to circle anyway.

Sound familiar?

It’s important to keep everything you need for practicing within an arm’s reach.

I have a shelf that clips to the music stand:


music stand shelf

My next purchase is going to be a caddy that attaches to the stand like this:

music stand caddy


Or you might have a Gummi Bears (TM) plastic cup filled with mechanical pencils and other writing utensils on the table next to your music stand.


pencil cup


Practicing is hard work. Sometimes something as simple as a missing pencil can seem overwhelming. Conveniences like having what you need where and when you need it can be the difference between wasted time and progress.

My daughter now has a shelf on her stand and five mechanical pencils. It won’t solve all of her practicing problems, but maybe she will circle the next A-sharp she misses.

Miss It? Mark It! Part 3 (pencil marks)

Adding pencil marks to music are effective in helping learn new material. But exactly what parts should be marked and what symbols are helpful?

If a mistake happens consistently, try to figure out why the brain is having trouble. When we know what the error is, we can be creative about finding a solution. One way to fix errors is to make pencil marks in the music. In “Miss It? Mark It! Part 1” I talked about adding color; in part 2 I showed an example of a student’s use of reminder sharps. Today I helped a student whose fingers had a mind of their own.

I added the pencil brackets to this tricky passage from Addie’s* music:

pencil mark

marking skips

Most of the rest of the etude involved stepwise motion (up and down a scale). However, in this measure there are two skips. Addie’s fingers wanted to play the last four notes as A-G-F-E. By adding the brackets above the notes that skip, her eye was drawn to this spot earlier.

Pencil marks, if used properly, can become little flashing lights, telling us to pay special attention.

The brackets are my shorthand for “not stepwise” or “skips.” I use this symbol (^) for notes that move stepwise among skips. I know the brackets and ^ also indicate bow directions for string players, but flute players don’t seem to mind. If you’re a string player, you may want to develop your own symbols for “steps” and “skips.”

It doesn’t matter what marks you use as long as they fix the problem. Work out a system and use it consistently. Happy practicing!

Miss It? Mark It! Part 2 (How to mark music)

Do you know how to mark music?

This post is the second in a series about how to mark music to aid practicing. Teachers may say “Mark it,” but don’t offer specifics. Here’s one example of a time that marking the music was helpful to a student.

Adding reminder sharps (or flats or naturals) can aid practicing for a better performance.

Emily*, a bright 16-year old student, came for her lesson tonight. I asked her to play the Irish Dance I assigned last week (from Anne McGinty’s 99 Irish Dance Tunes.) This week’s hornpipe was in F# sharp major. SIX SHARPS! Enough to make even the best players cringe. I listened as Emily played this final tune. It sounded good. Then I looked at her music and noticed that she had marked in some reminder sharps. Bravo!

marking sharps

a student’s music showing how to mark music

Adding reminders like this to the music strengthens the memory. It takes a few seconds but can eliminate practice time wasted on wrong notes.

A good rule of thumb is that if something is missed twice, it should be marked. Always have a pencil or two within arm’s reach. Read my post on The Pencil Problem for more practice hacks concerning those pesky, disappearing pencils.

It’s easy to get caught up in the delusion that “next time I’ll remember” the missed notes. The sad truth is that there are too many things to remember when playing music. Our brains can only remember seven things at once. Free up some of that memory by adding pencil marks. Your brain will feel less cluttered because the reminder is visually available in the music.

Let’s continue the conversation about how to mark music. Check out my other blog posts on the subject: part 1 and part 3.