Solving Problems of Teaching Rhythm

Of all the musical elements, rhythm seems to present the most difficulty to students and teachers alike. There are several reasons why this may be. In this article I will discuss some of them.

The first reason is that rhythm is often mistaken for a system of counting. While rhythm syllables and the numbering of beats is a useful tool in teaching rhythm, rhythm itself is not by and large a mathematical operation. For example, it is incorrect to define two eighth notes as “1 and” or “ti-ti” or “du-de.” It is correct to define two eight notes as an equal division into two parts of a quarter note beat. This equal division of a beat into two equal parts comes quite naturally, and does not need to be counted in order to be perceived or performed. If we take our cue from Orff methodology, if you or I were to speak any two syllable word, we would naturally do so in such a way that the two syllables were of equal duration. We would accent one syllable or the other, but rarely, unless we were attempting some special effect, would we elongate or quicken one syllable, making unequal in duration to the other. While the length of some words may be made longer than the length of other words in a sentence, syllables within a single word tend two be of equal duration.

Now consider a typical error student make in performing a rhythm; they rush two eighth notes. They do this because they haven’t internalized a pulse to which those two eighth notes can be attached. But even in rushing those two eighth notes, they are still performed with equal durations, just at the wrong speed. For rhythm performance to succeed, the pulse must be accurately divided. If the performer does not have a firm grasp on that pulse, it will be impossible for them to accurately perform the rhythm, or even have a faint idea of how to do so. So rhythm training must start with steady beat.

This brings us to the second reason. Many music educators believe that the way to get students to play or sing with a good pulse is to “watch the conductor.” But a conductor’s movement means nothing to a musician that doesn’t already know what the beat is. That is why musicians require a preparatory beat before they play in order to know how to begin. It isn’t just a question of when to begin, but also of how to begin. The conductor’s beat is a point of reference, not a driving force that transfers to otherwise beatless musicians. The pulse of the music must be transferred from the conductor to the “inner clock” of each musician, so that each musician has a beat, their beat, to elongate or divide as necessary.

As I mentioned, once each musician has the beat securely, they can do one of two things with it: elongate it, or divide it. In dividing it, it is divided into equal parts; essentially into twos or threes. If the beats are divided into twos, then the musicians must grasp the beat at the quarter note level, and the beat at the eighth note level. This can be practiced by having the students tap the quarter note beat with their heels (toes stay on the floor, heel is lifted) while they patsch the eighth note beat. If this is too difficult at first, the students can patsch the eighth note beat and accent the quarter note beat. They should do this while you sing to them in the process of teaching them a song that they will sing. They listen to you sing and patsch the eighth note beat while they listen. In having them do this, they are practicing steady beat and beat division, two essentials to learning rhythm.

Just as their are levels of beat equal to (quarter note) or less than (eighth note) the pulse (ictus), there are also levels of beat greater than the ictus. In four-four meter, there is a half note beat and even a whole note beat which is equal to one measure. All of these levels are simultaneously performed and heard. When a conductor decides to conduct a four-four meter “in two,” they are deciding to make the half note beat the ictus rather than the quarter note beat. It follows then, that a half note is one beat at the half note level, and a whole note is one beat at the whole note level. Musicians can select these deeper level ictuses. Doing so improves the accuracy of elongations such as whole notes and tied notes, because it minimizes the need to count beats, and instead ties the duration to a felt beat at a rhythmic level perhaps different from that of the ictus. This works the same regardless of whether ictuses are divided into two or three divisions.

Perceiving these different rhythmic levels is not difficult. Children in first grade can be easily taught to work with them. While listening to music, have them tap the ictus with their heels as before, and with their hands patsch the beat at a different level. While feet might be tapping quarter notes, hands can patsch half notes or whole notes in common time. Grouping durations into longer beats is intuitive, so it doesn’t require much instruction to show them how. After a while, the children will begin to perceive these levels on their own, and be able to perform them upon request. Often when I played music and simply asked the class to tap the beat while they listened, I would get two or three different levels from students. One child might be tapping eighth notes, while another was tapping quarter notes. I always made a point of acknowledging that there were several beats going on at once, and that both beats was correct.

When children are able to do the beat work described above, they will be able to easily learn rhythms. It is a simple matter to say, “when the beat is divided into twos, they are written like this.” We also have a name for this, which is easier to say than “the beat divided into twos. We call this ti-ti (or do-de, or 1-and, or ta-di, or whatever system you choose to use). Teach the beat levels, then the rhythms applied to the beat levels, then the labels by which they will remember the rhythms and will use to read the rhythms. Labels without the beat work will not succeed. As the students progress, you can have them do rhythms and beats simultaneously. At first, students can walk to the quarter note beat and clap rhythm patterns they echo from you. Advanced students can shift between divisions of two and divisions of three. Getting students moving to both ictus and rhythm pattern strengthens understanding, because it allows the ultimate rhythm expert to become engaged: the human body.

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