Rhythm Walking (from the book "A Rhythmic Vocabulary")

If you really want to get rhythms into your bones, there's nothing like rhythm walking. Rhythm walking is a fun method for practicing patterns with just your body. There are two ways to do it. You can simply walk a pulse while you clap or vocalize a pattern. Or you can do triple-weave rhythm walking by walking a pulse, clapping a timeline, and vocalizing a pattern all at the same time.

Rhythm walking is a form of rhythmic cross-training you can do anywhere: at a park, on a beach, down a city street. It loosens up those muscles and joints that get stiff and sore when you overpractice on your instrument. And it's a great way to work on your rhythmic vocabulary while you get some exercise and fresh air.

To show you how it's done, we explain what to do with your feet first, and then build from there to your hands and voice.


In rhythm walking, the pulse is always in your feet. So to get the pulse going, all you have to do is start walking. Once you're moving you shouldn't have to think about your feet at all. But you do need to decide at the start which pulse you're stepping because that will affect any pattern you add in your hands or voice.

When you rhythm walk in four, one way to think of your steps is as pulses falling on 1 and 3. This will work fine on simple patterns and patterns you already know well. But when you're trying to coordinate feet, hands, and voice on a new or difficult pattern, this pulse may make it move too fast. To slow a pattern down without changing your walking speed, think of your steps as pulses falling on every numbered beat:

When you rhythm walk in six, you can think of your steps as pulses falling on 1 and 4. This 4-pulse is the right speed for most patterns. But if you need to you can slow a pattern down in six by thinking of your steps as a 6-pulse falling on the odd-numbered beats:

If you want to speed up a pattern in six or just want a change of perspective, think of your steps as a 3-pulse:


While you walk the pulse, you can add a second pattern in your hands. To play a timeline or a pattern with only one voice, you can simply clap it. Or you can hit any two objects together: claves, coins, keys, sticks, stones – whatever's handy.

But having to bring your hands together while you walk prevents you from swinging your arms freely. If you want to walk normally, you need to be able to make a sound with just one hand.

One simple solution is to tape one quarter to your thumb and another one to your middle finger. Then you can create a click by bringing them together. If you use buttons instead of quarters, you can strap them to your fingers with little strips of elastic. If you want to play a pattern with two voices, just use metal in one hand and wood or plastic in the other.

You can make a richer sound with one hand using a frikyiwa (free-kee-wah), a small, egg-shaped bell used in Ghana and other African countries. Traditionally the bell is slipped over the middle finger and struck with a metal ring slipped over the thumb. But to muffle the bell and avoid disturbing others, you can cup it in the palm of your hand and tap it lightly with the metal ring on your middle finger:

To keep one hand from getting tired – and to keep yourself from becoming rhythmically unbalanced – it's best to alternate hands. You can also avoid fatigue by choosing simple timelines or patterns without too many notes. The timeline in four we use throughout this book works well, because it has only five notes. But the timeline in six has seven notes in the space of 12 beats, so you may want to simplify it to the following pattern:

If you're looking for other timeline options, you'll find them in lessons 14 and 21.


While you walk the pulse, instead of adding a second pattern in your hands, you can add it in your voice. Or if the pulse is in your feet and a timeline is in your hands, you can use your voice to add a third pattern (or put the timeline in your voice and the third pattern in your hands).

To vocalize a pattern with just one voice, choose any sound you like. If a pattern has two voices, choose contrasting sounds for X's and O's. Use any syllables that feel natural to you. (We like “bop” for X's and “doo” for O's.) Then try using two distinct pitches for the two sounds, with the X higher than the O. If you feel like it, sing melodies. Before you know it, you'll be making up songs.

So get out of the basement. Put on your walking shoes and give your roommates a break. Go for a rhythm walk. The change of scenery will do you good.

Rhythm walking when you can't walk

Sometimes it's just not possible to walk, but that doesn't have to slow you down. Let's say you're stuck in line at the grocery store or the post office. You can always step a pulse while standing in place, clap a timeline lightly in your hands, and mutter a pattern under your breath. Of course you have to get used to people staring at you. Just smile and try to look harmless.

If you're sitting in a waiting room or riding on a train, you can still rhythm walk – just tap a pulse in your feet like you've been doing all along. Rhythm walking is the perfect activity for people who can't sit still and don't like to kill time.

You can even rhythm walk lying flat on your back by twitching your toes. Remember: No matter where you are, or how restrictive your environment may seem, there's always room to groove.