Teaching Beat Divisions is Essential To Teaching Rhythm

2011Symposium_1_2It is quite common for music educators to ask of young students that they move to the beat. Patsching the beat is a basic skill that all children should acquire in formal music training from three years of age and older. One often overlooked aspect of perceiving the beat from a musical work one is hearing is being able to recognize divisions of the beat. Without knowing how the beat is divided, meter and beat becomes a highly subjective item. It is not at all unusual for some of my youngest students to patsch micro beats while others patsch macro beats to the same music. Those patsching macro beats have realized that at least some of the beats contain two equal notes, whereas those patsching micro beats have concluded that every note is a beat. These students are also more likely to patsch the rhythm instead of the beat.

This misunderstanding occasionally happens with older students. Today, my sixth grade students were doing a eurhythmics activity, walking to the beat while bouncing, catching and tossing a ball, also to the beat. The music they were walking to was the first movement of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto in F major. I played the opening bars first so they would become familiar with it, and demonstrated how to use the ball, and how to walk to the macro beat. The students then got to practice with the ball before using it to the music or walking. The micro beat pulse is relatively prominent, and this one student, attempting to walk to the beat, began walking to the micro beat, while her classmates all walked to the macro beat. She could not at first accommodate two notes within a single beat. The sixteenth notes did not present a problem, because they are not constant, and therefore cannot be a steady pulse. Training students in divisions of the beat forms the basis for accurate beat perception, meter perception, and rhythm performance. What follows are some activities that can be used for this purpose.

Practicing rhythm patterns on a neutral syllable while keeping the macro beat on the floor with the heels of the feet isMusical-Balance an essential part of rhythm training. Once rhythm patterns are learned on neutral syllables, they should be done again, this time with functional rhythm syllables, such as those provided by Gordon. With the mico beat always chanted to “du,” and all divisions consistently assigned their own syllable, students learn the divisions of the beat by name: du de for divisions into two, du-ta-de-ta for divisions into four, and du da di for divisions into three. Tapping the heels forces a weight shift which is necessary for a person to feel the beat in their body. Merely tapping the toe is of limited value, because no shift in weight occurs. With the heels tapping, students repeat after the teacher rhythm patterns in duple and triple meter with the tactus and its divisions into two, three, and four micro beats. Students can also practice tapping quarter note micro beats with their heels while patsching eighth note micro beats. Both activities afford the student the opportunity to feel a pulse and a division of the pulse at the same time.

Another activity, this one from Jaques-Dalcroze, is to have students walk to the rhythm of music the teacher plays on the piano, while they conduct the beat with their arms. As the teach plays, s/he calls out the subdivision, and then proceeds to play music with that subdivision. For example, the teacher calls out “two” and then plays music where the beats are divided by two. After several measures, the teacher may call out “three” and then play music where every beat is divided in three (perhaps an excerpt form the “Moonlight” Sonata of Beethoven). The teacher continues to change divisions and the children adjust their stepping accordingly, going from a comfortable walk for “one” to a trot for “two” to a run when “four” is called. Throughout, students maintain a steady pulse in their arms, even as the divisions change.

From these activities, students learn that through a steady pulse, beats are divided several ways, and the variety of divisions is what makes rhythm. On the other end of the spectrum, there are also elongations of the beat, which also can be experienced with a combination of conducting and movement; this time with a bending at the waist for the duration of the note while the conducting continues. The differentiation between beat and rhythm becomes part of the student’s personal experience, and then transfers to musical performance.

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