It should be obvious that playing in time and playing rhythmically are two rather different things. It is possible to play in time according to a fixed beat but still be unrhythmical, and – in my book – the only way to be truly rhythmical is to feel rhythm in the body.
Rhythmical mistakes can often be fixed by counting a steady beat out loud and clapping or tapping the rhythm of the passage in question. You could do it the other way around if you prefer, and clap or snap a steady beat while you vocalise the rhythmic pattern on the page using words or syllables; it is important to really bring the rhythm to life physically (using more of you than just your fingers) before trying it again on the piano.
Bach Prelude in C Minor
Students often come adrift in the Adagio bar (bar 34) of Bach’s Prelude in C minor (WTC Book 1), not because the rhythm is especially difficult to feel but because it is confusing to the eye. All those beams, it can be hard to discern where the subdivisions of the beats fall!
A simple way of solving this is to grab a piece of manuscript paper and rewrite the passage in note values that are twice as long (quavers become crotchets, etc.). Clap the pulse underneath the stave and vocalise the rhythm using “ta” syllables (or whatever you like).
If this still looks a bit foreign, double the note values yet again. The following example is a useful crib to mastering the rhythmical patterns and need only be done two or three times before it has served its purpose. Remember – this bar is cadenza-like and needs to sound free (as though improvised). In order to get to this sense of freedom, I recommend playing it strictly first.
If you struggle to solve rhythmic challenges like this, and are frustrated by how this affects your piano playing you might want to consider taking a course in Dalcroze Eurythmics. Dalcroze Eurhythmics teaches many things actually, ear training and harmony included. It has helped many people improve a weak sense of rhythm by showing them how to feel rhythm in their body in a whole variety of different ways. I was lucky to have studied Dalcroze as a postgraduate student in New York with one of the very best – Dr. Bob Abramson. I learned an enormous amount about music from this man. Here is he giving us a taste of what Dalcroze is about.