Some Thought on Teaching Rhythm

2011 Symposium2

For those of us who received most of our musical training within the context of classical music, we sometimes forget that music is not primarily a written art, like the literary masterworks of Shakespeare or Milton, but an auditory art. While this may seem obvious, it is not so obvious to those who observe or learn from our teaching. Very often, music is taught as something that has to be read. Students typically are taught to read music before they are taught to play music. The learning sequence goes something like this: Name the note, state how many beats the note will be held, learn the fingering on an instrument, learn how to hold the instrument and (where applicable) how to form an embouchure, and then play the note. We teach notes one at a time until enough are learned this way to play a simple tune.

We often erroneously teach rhythm by having students read a note and teaching them how long the note is–how many beats. But this is all wrong if music is an auditory art. The sound is not a symbol for the printed music, the printed notes are symbols for the sound. We should not be asking or teaching our students how many beats a printed note they see on the page gets, we should be teaching them how many beats a tone they hear gets. How many beats does a tone someone else generates last, and how many beats does a tone that that the student him or herself generates last.  We should be asking questions like, “how many sounds do you hear on each beat? Is the tone longer or shorter than the beat?”  The problem from teaching music as a visual art is that beats are not notated in standard music notation. This makes it convenient and all too easy to ignore the beat when teaching rhythm, except to use beat as the unit of measurement stated in the answer to the question, “how many beats is this note?” The child succeeds at answering this unmusical question by memorizing the appearance on the page of a particular kind of note (half, whole, quarter, etc.) without ever hearing music or thinking a musical thought. Rhythm syllables recalled in response to the visual stimulus of a printed note provides the student with the number of syllables corresponding to the divisions of the beat, but does not help the student accurately distribute those divisions across the beat, or help the student sustain an elongation of the beat for the correct duration.  Listeners infer beats from rhythms, but the performer must generate rhythms from a beat audiated in advance of performing the rhythm, also from audiation. When students produce sounds on an instrument from notation without audiating what he or she is about to play, then that student is only decoding the symbols, and not really making music. Such methods turn music performance into a non-musical exercise of mathematics and executive skills. Is it any wonder that students then have difficulty performing the correct rhythm? They are abruptly required to produce a musical result from an unmusical training.

Here is how a rhythm teaching learning sequence should go:

  • Have the class perform a beat with a patsch or by tapping the heels of their feet.
  • You clap the same beat with them, and ask how many claps are on each beat.
  • As they continue with their beat, you clap twice on each beat, and ask the class how many claps are on each beat.

When this or a similar learning sequence is followed, rhythm becomes understandable through physical and aural means, and is more easily mastered.

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