If you’re a regular reader of this blog, then you know that I enjoy playing golf. I also enjoy watching the PGA on television most weekends. Often, I will hear the commentators discussing a players rhythm, especially if things aren’t going well for him. They’ll comment that his rhythm is off. The use of the word rhythm to describe what a golfer does to produce his swing is worth considering here. For the golfer, rhythm refers to a sequence of events, and the timing of each of those events within the sequence. The backswing, hinging the hands, the downswing, contact with the ball, movement past the ball, and the rotating of the hands. All of these things must occur in that order, and must occur at the right time within the swing in order for the shot to be successful. Furthermore, there is an organic nature to all the events. Any one of them, or any part of the sequence without the rest of it, is useless. The golf swing cannot deliver the ball to the target if any of the events in the sequence is missing, in the wrong order, or mistimed.
Now consider rhythm in music. Rhythm in music also consists of a sequence of events, each event comes in a specified order in the sequence, and each event must occur at precisely the right time. If any of those is out of place, the rhythm is changed and in fact becomes a different, unintended rhythm. While it is possible to have a single note duration, as it is possible to just hinge one’s hands with a golf club and do nothing else, the benefit or even utility of either in isolation is not worth the effort. Nobody can make a golf shot by just hinging their hands, and very few if any person would claim “I Got Rhythm” by playing or singing a single note. In the real world, rhythms are sequences or combinations of note durations, not a collection of individual ones.
If you’re not sure this is so, if you think that learning rhythm is about counting beats and holding notes, then consider this: tap out the rhythm of any song that comes to mind. I like Mozart, so I’m tapping out the Allegro theme from the overture to The Magic Flute. I don’t know about you, but I didn’t just tap one note and then stop, tap another note and then stop, and so forth. No, I tapped the whole thing at once: bum bum bum bum bum bu-da-bu-da bum bum bum bum bum bu-da-bu-da bum bum bum bum bum bum. That’s the rhythm. If you asked a student to tap out that rhythm, and they just went bum, or da, or bu, I’m guessing you would not accept that as a good response. The rhythm is the whole sequence of musical events that makes a motif or phrase or theme or theme group, or section, or movement, or entire piece of music. When Gershwin wrote “I Got Rhythm,” he needed a whole sequence of durations to make the catchy, irresistible song that has a rhythm we just can’t stay away from.
So what does all this have to do with teaching music? It is this: rhythms should not be taught as isolated durations, but only as patterns of durations. If you are going to teach a child what a whole note is, whether in general music, chorus, band, orchestra or wherever, present it as part of a pattern, so that it has a musical context. The last note in the antecedent phrases in “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” is a whole note, and so is the last note of the consequent phrase in the “Going Home” theme found in the second movement of Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9, “From the New World.” or the English Horn solo in his “Roman Carnival Overture.” Have children listen to you perform these melodies, and then repeat them. Let their bodies experience what it feels like to sustain a tone that long by moving to all the durations, including and especially paying attention to the whole note. Band teachers, have you ever stopped to consider how boring it is to play whole note, whole rest, whole note, whole rest? How about two half notes and a whole note, and let the children choose which pitches to play? How about having students move their upper bodies to the pulse while they play half, half, whole. Have them do this standing up. If they’ve been taught the proper way to hold their instrument, some gentle swaying and leaning while they play won’t be a problem, and it will be a big aid in improving their rhythm.
Rhythm patterns that have whole notes, half notes, and/or dotted half notes in them are called elongation patterns, because those note durations are longer than one beat. They are the most difficult kind of rhythm to play, because one must audiate the beat without hearing it in the rhythm. For this reason, it is bad pedagogy to start with elongation patterns. It makes much more sense to start with rhythms in which the student can hear the pulse while audiating. This would include rhythms with quarter notes, and eighth note pairs. Half notes can be changed to quarter note and quarter rest so that the second beat is treated as a separate though silent event rather than an elongation spanning two beats. Throughout, the idea is to teach duration and pulse together, and not treat it like a mathematical operation. For quarter notes, make one sound on each pulse. For eighth note pairs, make two equal sounds on each pulse. Children will learn through imitation how to easily to the latter much more readily than being told each note gets one half beat.
After students are proficient at these patterns, then elongation patterns can be introduced. With their experience with beat patterns, students can think of a half note as two quarter notes tied, with the second quarter note taking the place of the quarter rest from the previous quarter note-quarter rest pattern. If you are using notation, you can easily demonstrate this on the board, though it is important to understand that none of what I have described so far needs musical notation. In fact, all of the patterns and songs in which they occur should be learned and performed without notation first, then revisited with notation later. Like our golf swing, rhythms must be continuous; one sound following another in perfect order and timing. That kind of fluency only comes from aural/oral practice first, and then attaching what has been learned to notation.