I have always felt there was a gap in the Montessori sequence when it comes to teaching rhythm. My boys worked through an entire Montessori music album (I have three) and I noticed that they had excellent pitch experiences but that the rhythm experiences were "ho hum." Mainly the Montessori rhythm experience is to work through several sets of cards of increasing difficulty that allow the child to clap and count the rhythms on the cards. I added a point of interest by collecting some rhythm instruments they could perform the rhythms on instead. However, I noticed that in other places in the Montessori sequence that involve expression there are materials that allow the child to build it themselves such as the movable alphabet or the pitch notation materials. As Montessorians have learned from observing the child, anything they create themselves (such as a math equation) is likely to be bigger, more complex, and more compelling than anything pre-provided on a card.
But, how do we do this with rhythm? I stumbled across the solution on accident when my son started building rhythms he knew out of our Christmas ornaments:
The traditional Montessori materials certainly hint at these capabilities. However, the Nienhuis notation set is oddly inconsistent regarding what rhythm materials it includes. I had to DIY some wooden symbols to match:
I was, apparently, not the only one who noticed this gap. Laurie Oakley from Teaching Aids for Music noticed the same thing. Laurie is a 25-year music teacher and her resume includes teaching music as a specialist at a Montessori school. She developed a product for her studio teaching and her Montessori students that allows them to easily build and practice their own rhythms. It is called Little Hands on Rhythm. Laurie sent a set to our family, free of charge, for my children to use and for me to review. As always, my opinions here are my own and unfiltered.
The set is a lot like a movable alphabet box, except for building rhythms rather than words or sentences. It contains separate compartments, each containing many copies of an element one would use to build a rhythm. The set we received included everything one would need to teach and build rhythms in 2/4, 3/4 and 4/4 time. For most people this is exactly what you would need and want. If your child is a Suzuki child or already has several years experience your child may find, as mine did, that he didn't have quite all the elements he needed to build the rhythms he wanted (such as sixteenth note rhythms). However, we also received an expansion kit with single eighth notes (flagged) and dotted quarters. An expansion kit for 6/8 is nearly available and Laurie already has samples of sixteenth-note rhythms that will soon go into production.
Each of the pieces in the box are magnetic. They stick to this well-made, 36" board that folds and fits inside the box for easy storage. The boys could fit four measures in 4/4 time on the board very nicely. If you are a Montessori teacher or music teacher, one nice thing about it being magnetic instead of the loose wooden pieces used with the Nienhuis package is that you can hold or prop the rhythm up vertically to show a class without your work crashing to the floor.
Above is one of the rhythms that Kal-El built on the board. It is fun to put pieces on the board so it really encouraged him to put the counting below which is something that he might be tempted to skip otherwise. He likes to put the time signature next to the orange rectangle for it rather than on top of it so that he can see the definition given for each part of the signature. There is room to do it either way. You can use or not use the basic beat strips provided as you wish. We prefer not use them most of the time, perhaps because the boys are advanced enough to no longer need them. However, they did an excellent job of teaching the boys to space their rhythms appropriately rather than bunch them together. This was something they needed to work on so I was pleased.
Of course, us being us, it wasn't long before we were using the board in ways it wasn't intended. Above you can see some of the pieces from the dotted-quarter/single-eight expansion package in use. We replaced the basic beat with a very-useful eighth-note subdivision and built rhythms using dotted-quarters. I would love to be able to do this with sixteenth-notes someday. However, this is not exactly how this set was built to be used. Regardless, I wanted to show that you can make it work and with the sixteenth note rhythms soon to be available might be a useful extension for a lot of people.
Thank you to Laurie for letting us try this product! If you are interested in a set for your home or classroom, they are available at Teaching Aids for Music (teachingaidsformusic.com).