Restoring the Practice of Subdivision

Version 2Imagine you are going to build a deck for your home. We’ve all heard the adage, “measure twice, cut once.” So you take out your measuring tool, and measure out your lumber. But in my example, there’s a catch. Your measuring tool only has feet marked on it. You need a piece cut to 7 feet, 5 1/2 inches. The best you can do is eyeball it, and pretty much guess where that 5 1/2 inch spot is. You mark your board, then to be sure, you measure again. This time when you eyeball the 5 1/2 spot, it is in a slightly different place, so you measure a third time. Again, it is in in a different place, because the best you can do is guess; you have only feet marked on your tool. Meanwhile, you partner is doing the same thing, also with a measuring tool with only feet marked on it. He too gets differing results for the same reason. Eventually, you decide to take the midpoint between the extremes of your different measurements, and go ahead and make that cut. You and your partner continue cutting lumber until the needed number of pieces is done. You go to assemble your deck floor and are dismayed that none of it fits together properly, and that none of the boards are the same length.

This scenario is not unlike how students often perform rhythms in an ensemble. Each child has only a conductor’s beat “marked,” and each student guesses at how divisions of the beat should be played. If a student has learned rhythms solely with rhythm syllables without learning how those syllables relate to a pulse, then they can only guess at where to place those beat divisions as they perform. Every students will do it a little different, and the result when they all sing or play together is that the performance is rhythmically messy and inaccurate.

Every rhythm is a product of durations performed to a pulse. Gordon has called that pulse a macro beat, and others have called it an ictus. Conductors and students alike work very hard to communicate and follow, respectively, that ictus, given by the conductor’s time-beating motion. But “watching the stick” is simply not enough. Those following the conductor must be able to accurately perform what comes between those conductor beats. Noted band conductor Frank Battisti once said that a conductor’s responsibility is what happens on the beat, a players responsibility is what happens between the beat. How do we teach our students to handle that responsibility? The answer is that we must teach them to be keepers of two kinds of beats simultaneously: the macro beat and the micro beat, the latter of which is the first division of the macro beat. In common time, there are usually two micro beats (two eighth notes) for every macro beat (a quarter note). In so-called compound meters such as six-eight, there are usually three micro beats (three eighth notes) for every macro beat (a dotted quarter note). As students “watch the stick,” they must also be audiating even eighth notes (micro beats) in order to play what comes between the beats accurately.

It has been my observation that conductors do not bring this up until a difficult rhythm is encountered. Only then will they tell their students that they must “subdivide” in order to play accurately. While this is a sound remediation, the fact is that subdivision should be going on all the time. It is part of fully understanding and perceiving any piece of music. It helps groups of musicians play quarter notes together as surely as it helps them play intricate divisions of the beat. What’s more, it doesn’t require much teaching or practice to be able to subdivide. All a conductor needs to do when he or she hears the rhythmic stability start to falter is to begin conducting or tapping out the subdivision, and usually the accuracy will snap into much greater precision. The ability to subdivide, or to audiate micro beats is innate. It is drawn from how the various durations in music are naturally organized by our brains into patterns that are subdivided. Our job as music educators is to give our students as much experience with a variety of rhythms as possible.

Earlier, I mentioned the importance of associating rhythm syllables to a pulse. Rhythm syllables that are merely recited phonetically without regard to an ongoing pulse will not bring about effective rhythmic learning. Simply calling a pair of eighth notes ti-ti in the absence of an audiated ta will not transfer to music literacy. Similarly, trying to explain rhythm by telling students something to the effect that eighth notes or ti-ti’s go twice as fast as quarter notes or ta’s leaves the questions of how fast is twice as fast, and twice as fast as what, unanswered. With the syllables ti-ti, the first ti is the macro beat, and both together are the micro beat. One must hear the first ti in each pair as the ictus, and the second as what is going on between the beats, placed exactly even between the preceding ti and the following one. This is why I prefer syllables that differentiate between notes that are macro beats and those that are not. It helps the student maintain an understanding of what he or she is doing throughout. In Gordon’s system, for example, instead of ti-ti, there is du-de. Du is always the macro beat, and du-de is always the micro beat. Students know that no matter if there is an eighth note following the ictus or not, that ictus is always du and the eighth note that follows is always de; two different sounds for two different rhythmic functions.  (For a further explanation of rhythm syllable systems, see my articles on the subject elsewhere in this blog.)

With “what happens between the beats” firmly in the mind’s eye, students will quickly become more accurate in their rhythm performance. Subdivision should be a constant and ongoing operation for all musicians, not just an occasional remedial strategy. Subdividing while listening to music also enhances enjoyment and understanding, because the rhythmic structure of the music to which students are listening is revealed to them through the accurate realization of duration to beat relationships, and resulting patterns of strong and weak beats which constitute meter. Subdividing fosters greater musical success and enjoyment.

The difference between rhythm syllables and note kinds

2011 Symposium2

If I point to a flute and ask you what I’m pointing to, how many of you would tell me that it was a toot toot? Hopefully, no one would. Instead, you would tell me that I was pointing to a flute. We all understand that the instrument is called a flute, and that the sound it makes is toot toot. In fact, I think we would be hard pressed to think of anything that has a name that is the same as the sound it makes. Now, if you point to a quarter note on the board and ask your music class what you are pointing at, would they (correctly) say that you were pointing at a quarter note, or would they (incorrectly) say that you were pointing to a ta, or a du, or whatever syllable you taught them? The object you are pointing to has a name, and that name is quarter note. It has a sound, and that sound is the sound of the rhythm syllable. The name quarter note provides information about the sound, but it is not the sound itself. Knowing that a note is a quarter note tells us that when that note is sung, or played, or audiated, it will have a certain duration relative to a beat that has been established as a unit of measure. But what sound will last for that duration? It is the sound the performer gives to the note, which can be a rhythm syllable, or a tone played on an instrument, or the syllable of a word that is being sung.

Knowing that the note on the board is a quarter note tells us that the note will last for a given duration, but no one knows what that duration is until a tempo, and an ictus are set. Stating that a quarter note gets one beat tells us nothing concerning how long it will last because we don’t know the tempo, and we don’t know if the quarter note, eighth note or half note is going to be the ictus. It may very well turn out that an eighth note is the beat unit so that a quarter note gets two beats, or it may be that a half note is the beat unit so that a quarter note gets one half of a beat. Without knowing the tempo, we can’t know how long the quarter note will be.

Now, getting back to rhythm syllables, let’s not tell our students that this note is a ta or these notes are ti-ti. Instead, let’s tell them that this note is a quarter note and it sounds like this: ta, and that these notes are eighth notes, and they sound like this: ti-ti. The rhythm syllable gives a name to something that the student has already experienced and performed. The parallel here is to language acquisition. An child is laid down to sleep in a recite-fxefca crib. The child sleeps there every day, long before he or she knows that the thing they are sleeping in is called a crib. They have used the crib before they have learned the name or spoken the name.  After many hours of sleeping in the crib, the child learns from listening to parents speak the word “crib” in phrases like “time to nap in your crib.” After hearing the word “crib” spoken in the context of a sentence, the child eventually learns to associate the word “crib” to the thing he or she sleeps in, and eventually learns to speak the word, and recognize and use the association now made between the thing and its name.

In the same way, children hear music comprised of quarter notes and eighth notes for years before receiving any sort of formal musical training. After hearing chants, nursery rhymes, and simple songs sung by others, they become familiar with the rhythm patterns they hear within them, and then begin to imitate them in a sort of babble. Over time, this babbling becomes more precise, to the point where they can accurately repeat songs they have heard, and then learn that those patterns of note durations are made up of things called quarter notes and eighth notes, and that there are words they can use to sing and chant them that will help them remember the patterns and understand what they are perceiving and performing. Those words are rhythm syllables, and it is in this place in the learning sequence where rhythm syllables are properly introduced. It is of little or no value to teach children rhythm syllables before they can accurately audiate (Gordon) or know using their inner hearing (Kodaly) that for which rhythm syllables are being taught. The rhythm syllables must be associated with a sound with which the student is already familiar and has already heard, understood, and performed.

Consider how absurd it would be to teach children words without ever teaching them to what the word referred. Of what use is knowing the word “cat” if a child has never seen one and has no idea of a cat? We must view rhythm syllables like the word “cat.” Of what use is knowing ti-ti or du-de if a child doesn’t know what two eighth notes sound like? Those rhythm syllables are meaningless utterances unless the student can associate them with the sound of two eighth notes, which they can only do if it has already been taught to them before learning the syllables.

So first children must learn the sound. Through listening to music in their environment through early childhood and being taught rhythm patterns in formal training during the early school years, children become familiar with and able to accurately reproduce rhythm patterns. Next, children are given rhythm syllables with which to associate the various note durations they have been hearing and performing, and then finally, they are taught the kinds of notes they are dealing with, such as quarter notes, eighth notes, and so forth. Like note letter names on the pitch/tonal side, teaching note kinds is the last step in the rhythm teaching process. This is because they are not necessary for learning to audiate, sing accurately, or read music. They are necessary for learning, writing, and talking about music, and so should not be ignored; the teaching of them should only be delayed until the other steps in the process have been completed in the correct order.

Strengths and Weaknesses of Orff Schulwerk

2011 Symposium2

Today I will discuss the advantage and disadvantages of the Orff Schulwerk Approach to music education. At the outset, I should mention that no single method of teaching music is sufficient for meeting the needs of all children, or for teaching all aspects of music. Each method bring valuable perspectives into the music classroom, and the wise music educator utilizes the best of each in an eclectic approach. That said, let us take a look at the Orff Schulwerk method.

The Orff method is fundamentally a blending of music, speech and dance. Because rhythm is common to all three, it tends to be more prominently featured throughout the approach. The earliest teaching is done through speech, and movement. For example, a kindergarten class might learn the concept of high and low  using speech and movement. The teacher might play in the high and low registers of the piano and have the children change their body level to show which register they are hearing, high or low. For speech, the children might recite a story with a high voiced character, perhaps a boy or girl, and a low voiced character, perhaps a giant or a talking pig. Beat is taught with movement to the pulse of music played on the piano or from a recording. Locomotor (such a walking) and non-locomotor (such as conducting) movements are used. Through these kinds of activities, children build proficiency at recognizing and performing basic musical concepts from a reference point of familiar things they already do–speaking and moving–which are then applicable to singing and playing musical instruments. This progression, from familiar to new is a strength of the Orff approach.  From the speaking voice, children are introduced to other kinds of voices, including a singing voice, whispering voice, and calling voice. When children learn the difference between a singing voice and the others, they are able to focus their singing activities on basic good singing.

The combining of rhythm, beat and movement is not unique to the Orff approach. Laban and Dalcroze are well known for their use of movement to teach rhythm and beat. Orff’s substantial investment in movement make it a good choice for teaching students to rely on their bodies to understand enjoy rhythm and beat in music. Movement is also Orff Quoteimportant to playing instruments in the Orff approach. The method famously includes using barred instruments to play ostinato, harmony, and melodic parts. Because barred instruments are played with mallets on an instrument on which the notes are laid out horizontally, both vertical and horizontal movement is required to play. When the entire arm is used for striking the instrument, the body naturally counter balances itself with each stroke, thus infusing each note played with a physical experience of the rhythm being played. For this reason, it is important that students not be allowed to play from the wrists, but to engage the entire arm while playing barred instruments.

Further uses of movement can be added to the playing of these instruments. For example, if a child has a rest as part of the rhythm pattern in the ostinato, the mallets can be struck together on the rest, or they can be moved silently but rhythmically in the air to give motion to the rest. With slower rhythms, gestures reflecting articulation and resembling conducting motions can be made between notes. For example, if the song being accompanied is legato, then the children can move their hands with fluid, smooth motions from the wrist. All of this engages the body in music making and interpreting beyond what singing only can accomplish.

One aspect of the Orff approach that is frequently overlooked in music education in general is improvisation. Perhaps it is because most music teachers are trained using the Western art music model of studying an instrument or voice with classical music, and receiving nearly all musical training through notated music traditions that many music teachers without experience with jazz or other traditions that feature improvisation, are uncomfortable improvising or teaching improvising to others. This is troubling, because improvisation, to my way of thinking, is essential to developing music literacy and fluency. Improvisation is the musical equivalent to conversation. Imagine how dreadful our communication would be if we could only talk to each other from what we read. On their website, the New England Orff Chapter offers that “improvisation permeates all aspects of Schulwerk activity. Children who regularly improvise and create their own dances and musical settings are uniquely prepared to solve problems in many other contexts.” Notice that even here, improvisation includes not only music, but dance as well. This focus on improvisation is another strength of the Orff approach.

Whereas the use of movement in teaching rhythm is a strength of  the  Orff method, the method of teaching rhythm for singing and chanting is problematic. Orff believed that speech was a natural way of teaching musical rhythm. He used the rhythm of words and Orffthen transferred those word-rhythms to drums in order to teach rhythms. Chanting words, phrases and nursery rhymes is a common practice among teachers using the Orff approach. While using words to learn rhythms is indeed natural to the child, the words chanted cannot easily be generalized to notated rhythms like rhythm syllables can. Also , because words have their own meaning apart from their rhythm, they are difficult to dedicate to a particular rhythm in memory. In other words, “du de du” means nothing apart from two eighth notes and a quarter note, whereas “lumber jack” means both a person who cuts down trees for a living and two eighth notes and a quarter note. But it only means the latter when associated with music. Also, “lumber jack” tells the student nothing of the function of any of the notes. Where as “du” is always a macro beat, “lum” could be a macro beat or an anacrusis. Also, “lum” and “jack” are both on macro beats, but are given entirely different labels. Because of this, the way in which rhythm literacy is taught in the Orff approach is a weakness of the method. It is greatly strengthened by abandoning the speech-to-rhythm aspect, and replacing it with rhythm syllables that make functions clear and consistent.

Overall, the Orff approach t music education has much to offer music educators and students. It’s emphasis on improvisation and extensive use of movement are strengths, while the less extensive use of singing (compared to Kodaly method and Music Learning Theory, and the approach to rhythm literacy are weaknesses. When the strengths of the Orff method are combined with the strengths of other approaches, the result is a solid, well founded, and comprehensive music education.

What Do Music Notes Mean?

2011 Symposium2

I searched the title of this post today, and the results were any number of explanations of how to read music; what the note names were, the different kinds of notes, the treble and bass clefs, and so forth. But is this really what those notes on a page mean? Not at all. As you read these words on your phone or computer, what do the letters mean? Would you say that in the word “ice cream,” the individual letters mean anything? Of course not. The letters mean nothing unless they are in a string with other letters so that the string of letters spells a word. It is the word that has meaning, not the letters from which the word is formed. It is the same with music Each note has a sound of its own, just as letters have sounds of their own, but an isolated note means nothing. It must be part of a group of notes which one can understand as expressing some human quality that the creator of that group of notes intended to express. Leonard Bernstein, in his Young People’s Concert “What Does Music Mean,” said  “if I play a note, one note all alone means nothing. It’s just a plain old F sharp or a B flat.

If a person knows that a particular note on a musical staff is g, or a, b-flat, or whatever, then good for him or her, but that knowledge alone, or even in combination with hearing or performing that one note, won’t result in an expressive musical experience. It will result in a pitched sound being heard. Music must be a musical creator’s  expression of something. The creator can be a composer, improvisor, or sage passing along an oral tradition in song. One note all by itself cannot possibly be so expressive. People innately understand music by grouping perceived sounds into rhythmic or melodic groups often called rhythms, measures, motifs, phrases, themes, and so forth. Whether it is a West African drum pattern, an Indian raga, or a marching band drum cadence, music makes sense to us when we are able to aurally organize it into groups. Music that purposefullyBernstein impedes or blocks a listener’s ability to do so is perceived as confusing or unintelligible. Listeners find it difficult to determine what such music means, because they do not have a familiar way of responding to it emotionally or kinesthetically.

There is, however, a sense in which an individual note, if it is one among other notes,  can have meaning. In Western tonal music, individual tones can have meaning according to a harmonic function. We have names for these individual notes which give us a clue as to what their function is. These names include leading tone, tonic, supertonic, dominant, subdominant, mediant, and submediant. The leading tone has meaning in that it draws us to the tonic a semi tone above. It compels us to anticipate the arrival of the tonic, and in so doing creates tension and forward motion in the music. But without other notes to establish it as the leading tone, it is powerless to do any of this. So even an individual note relies on relationships to other notes to give it meaning. So what music notes mean has nothing to do with note names or where a note happens to be placed on a musical staff; it has nothing to do with what a note is named, it has to do with what a note does. There are leading tones, dominant tones, tonic tones. There are blue notes, altered notes, dissonant notes and accented notes. These characteristics are closer to the mark; they describe what a note can mean. An altered note is one that becomes a leading tone, or dominant tone within a tonality where this ordinarily is not the case. Altered notes introduce tension because they have strong tendencies to move us toward another note, and because they are often dissonant in the current tonality. The name of a note–b-flat or f-sharp–is merely a convenience; it tells a musician which pitch ought to be played or sung. The names themselves have no meaning, only the sounds one produces by reading a particular pitch in written music.

snare drumWhat of notes that have no pitch? Do notes that are for non-pitched instruments such as a snare drum or high hat have any meaning? Yes they do. Just as pitched notes have tonal meaning, non-pitched notes have metrical meaning. Meter the ordering of beats into patterns of strong and weak beats. Like pitches, these different strengths of beats have names, like crisis and anacrusis. The note at the beginning of one of these patterns is the strongest, and the note at the end of one of these patterns is the weakest. This kind of note meaning gives a waltz its characteristic lilt, and a march its orders to step LEFT right, LEFT right. Like pitches, non-pitched notes have no meaning apart form relationships with other notes. One note cannot be perceived as strong unless it is surrounded by other notes that are less so. Conversely, one note cannot be perceived as weak unless it is preceded or followed by one that is strong. Syncopated notes, relatively long notes or loud notes, accented notes all have meaning because of the relative importance duration and articulation assign. As with pitches, rhythms have names. These names are called rhythms syllables, and include Curwin, Eastman, and Gordon rhythm syllables. These syllables, like pitch names, help identify durations and in some cases also rhythmic function, but they are not the meaning of the rhythms. The meaning, again, is in how the notes sound in relation to other notes, and in how groups of notes sound. Bernstein summed all of this up well when he said, “the meaning of music is in the music, in its melodies, and in the rhythms, and the harmonies.”

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.

Why Do Instrumental Music Students Have So Much Trouble With Rhythm?

2011 Symposium2

When I was a band director, I often wondered why it was that drum students so often had so much trouble with rhythm. For the most part, they didn’t have to learn how to read pitches, they had no fingerings to learn, no embouchure to form. All they had to do was hold a stick or two hand tap out rhythms. Why was it so difficult for them? The answer eventually came. Drummers are, at least with traditional pedagogy, trained to play standing still with the drum in front of them, and to play from the wrists, using a minimum of arm motion. Drum kit players use more arm and move around more, but most beginning drummers are started on a single snare drum, not a kit. Dr. Edwin Gordon pointed out that rhythm is understood through shifts of weight in the body. If the body doesn’t move, then no weight is shifted, and the body cannot understand the rhythm. The answer to my question was that drummers had trouble playing rhythm because they were always standing still while playing. I was intrigued by this, and immediately began teaching my drummers to move slightly from side to side just enough for there to be a weight shift. Immediately, their rhythm accuracy improved.

Encouraged, I decided to try the same approach with students playing otherEnsemble instruments who were struggling with rhythm. I told all my students, whether standing or sitting, to move slightly left and right while they played. This created the need to teach wind players how to keep the instrument constant in their embouchure, but that was a minor adjustment. Once again, their rhythm accuracy immediately improved. Gordon was right. The key is in shifting the weight.

Even though shifting weight helped both the snare drummer and the wind player improve rhythmic accuracy, there is an important difference between how those two instruments are played. A snare drummer is required to maintain a fixed relationship to the drum, because the drum is not being held, it is on a stationary stand on the floor. If the player moves, the drum will not move the player, and the relationship the instrument and the musician will change. This is compensated for by adjusting the arms and hands to move counter to the body so that the sticks stay on the drum in the correct way. By contrast, a wind player is holding the instrument, and can move the instrument with the body and in so doing maintain the same relationship with the instrument. In other words, the instrument connects with the embouchure at exactly the same angle and manner, even as the player moves, because the player moves the instrument with him or herself.

piano practicePianists must handle shifting weight similarly to the drummer. The pianist cannot move the instrument with their body, and so must adjust the arms and fingers so that they stay correctly placed on the keyboard, even as the torso shifts from side to side or from front to back. While it may be beneficial to teaching hand position to both the drummer and the pianist to have students remain still while playing, doing so will be to the detriment of learning and accurately performing rhythm. Of course, all of this must be constrained to small and manageable movements. Playing any instrument while performing a dance is difficult at best, and impossible for most of the students we teach. The movement I am referring to only needs to be sufficient for weight to be shifted, and generally only involves moving about six inches to one side or the other.

One other point to remember is that just as movement that causes weight shift is beneficial to rhythmic understanding and performance accuracy, movement that does not involve weight shift does nothing to help. Most notably among this category of movement is tapping one’s foot. Foot tapping is of no value in understanding rhythm, it is only of aid in counting beats. While there are times when beats must be counted, as when the player must perform an elongation of the beat, in most cases, counting is unnecessary and more of a hinderance than a help. It is made necessary in the absence of weight shifting and audiation. In fact, it is exactly because foot tapping is so often used as a replacement for auditing that rhythm problems are so common.

Regardless of the system you use to teach rhythm, be it numbers, rhythm syllables, or neutral syllables, weight shift and the slight movement that brings it about is necessary for learning and understanding rhythm. Rhythm syllables and neutral syllables are effective tools, and are part of sound training in audiation, but they alone are not sufficient to get the job done. There must also be weight shifting if students are to gain proficiency at rhythm.

The Way of Musical Beat Development

2011Symposium_1_2In music, awareness and sense of beat develops from a largely kinesthetic-motor response in the pre-kindergarten years, to a more internalized understanding with older children. Beat can be felt in any of a number of locations in the body, but it must be felt. Beat is not something that can be understood only from an intellectual perspective. Knowing about beat is not a substitute for knowing beat, or even knowing the beat. Gordon found that beat is felt in the body only when a shift of weight is involved. This disqualifies foot tapping as a way of knowing the beat, because no shift of weight occurs when a person is just tapping a foot. Foot tapping can be part of choreography through which beat is performed or expressed, but it must be known and felt elsewhere. Rocking motions are effective with young children for this reason; a shift of weight is felt with each rock. Other motions that are effective include swaying of the body, swaying of the arm, walking and stamping with alternating feet.

All of these motions should be done while music is being heard or performed, and the relationships between the movements and what is heard or performed must be learned. Rhythms can be equal to, elongations of, or divisions of the pulse being felt through movement. It is best to let elongations and divisions be learned by rote and occur naturally as children are moving to a steady pulse, instead of pointing out the relationship and trying to teach the music theory behind it. As children become accustomed to moving to a steady pulse while singing, chanting and listening, they will develop a sense of beat.

To begin to help children internalize musical beat, the motions can progress from largeDance-and-Movement muscle to smaller muscle. For example, initially children will rock, sway their arms and walk. Later, when they have become secure with musical beat understood through these motions, smaller muscle movements such as finger snapping with a gentle sway, shoulder tapping, head nodding or bouncing on the balls of the feet can be incorporated. These motions are more localized in the body. When the child has become accustomed to several of them, they should be encouraged to choose the one with which they can most easily feel the beet. People feel the beat best in different parts of their body, so giving this choice increases the effectiveness of using movement to develop beat. The more localized and the smaller the muscles involved, the more internalized the experiencing of beat will become. Most people will never loose the urge to move something when they listen to music, and just the presence of that urge is evidence that a sense of beat has been internalized.

With the exception of finger snapping, I have so far avoided movements that create sound, such as clapping and patsching. I have found that students who are unsure of the beat will try to copy what they hear other students doing. As a result, they are always a little after the beat, and will practice this inaccurate pulse keeping so that they become quite good at it, but they will not develop beat independence. For this reason, I prefer to delay using sound producing movements until all students are secure in their pulse keeping, at least for their current  level and repertoire. Once non-sound-producing motions are being used comfortably, the pulse can be securely performed aurally with little need for remediation or further training. This same principle holds for transferring body percussion, which is sound producing, to instrument playing. I keep students on body percussion as long as possible before giving them Orff instruments to play. I also like to have them sing the rhythm or solfege syllables of the music they will eventually be playing on instruments during this stage of instruction.  Doing so prepares them for success on the instruments much better, and allows them to enjoy playing accurately from the start.  Beat is foundational to all musics of the world. The importance of developing a complete understanding of it cannot be over stated.

There will not be a posting to this blog on Thursday, November 27 or Friday November 28. Happy Thanksgiving to all.

A Review of Rhythm Counting Systems


Previously, I wrote about rhythm syllable systems. Like solfege, rhythm syllables provide a singable word to verbally associate with the audited sound. I reviewed rhythm syllable systems for Kodaly and Orff oriented classes, as well as French, Gordon, and tamarin I systems. Today I will discuss rhythm counting systems. These differ from syllable systems in that the tactus is assigned a number according to its placement within a measure. As a result, each tactus within the measure is given a different name.

The two most well known counting systems in the United States are the traditional American system, and the Eastman system. The traditional American system counts the beat number on the tactus, & on the half beat, and n-e-&-a for four sixteenth notes, n-&-a for a triplet or three eighth notes in compound meter, where n is the beat number. The Eastman system is similar. The beat numbers are used for the tactus, te for the half beat, and n-ti-te-ta for four sixteenths. Triplets or three eighth notes in compound meter are n-la-li and six sixteenth notes in compound meter is n-ta-la-ta-li-ta. Froseth also developed a similar counting system using n-ne, n-ta-ne-ta, n-na-ni, and n-ta-na-ta-ni-ta. All three systems have internal consistency for all divisions of the beat except the tactus, which changes according to the beat number.

So what is the difference (besides the use of numbers) between syllable systems discussed yesterday, and the counting systems being discussed today? The answer is, each requires a different philosophical assumption on how to teach music reading. The syllable systems can be learned and understood aurally. They are not dependent on seeing notation to make sense. This may sound like an odd statement to make about a device that is supposed to be used for teaching music reading, but in fact it is critical.

For most of the time our music notation system has been in existence, accepted practice on how to teach it has meter signaturesbeen sound before sight. Teach what the music sounds like first, then teach what it looks like in notation. The syllables are consistent with a philosophy that favors teaching sound before sight. They represent what can be heard, and then allow students to carry that understanding over to notation. With the syllables, what the music sounded like with syllables is the same as what it looks like when read with the same syllables.  Incidentally, the same can be said for moveable do, which represents audiated tonality in the same way that rhythm syllables represent audiated meter.

Methods for teaching instrumental music tend to start from the opposite philosophical position. Instrumental methods take a sight before sound approach. (This is also true of fixed do, although as we will presently see, there is not the disconnect between audiated and read pitches that there is between audiated and read meters.) Students are given notation first, and taught how to produce the sound after they read the music. For this approach to succeed, students must know what beat they are on at all times so they can follow the music while still being at a very low “reading level” for music. The solution for many instrumental music teachers is to use a counting system to help students keep their place. Apart from the music, the counting system becomes at times arbitrary. While listening to music, most people can’t distinguish between common time and two-four time, or between three-four time and six-eight time. Counting systems impose a way of understanding heard meter that may or may not reflect the notation they are supposed to represent, or the meter that the listener is perceiving. This becomes confusing for the student who is playing in an ensemble. S/he may be hearing one meter while being forced by a counting system to read a different meter.

I recently encountered this very situation while practicing a transcription for clarinet of Bach’s Chromatic Fantasy. A passage is notated in groups of two and four sixteenth notes, without bar lines. Reading the notation, I audiated  the passage as a syncopated alteration between twos and fours. Then I listened to someone else playing it without looking at the notation and immediately realized the passage sounded like constant threes. Returning to my music, I played the passage by ear while reading the notation. A sight-based system would be unable to provide a way of counting this passage as notated, but a syllable system, unencumbered by having to account for beat numbers, can easily accommodate dividing the audiated grouping as a series of triplets. If instrumental methods were taught using a sound before sight approach, as they are presented, for example, in Jump Right In, then there would be no need for counting systems. For vocal, choral, and general music purposes, the syllable systems are preferred, and within syllable systems, beat function ones are preferable.