There are lots of reasons why young aspiring musicians quit after only a year or two of lessons. Because of the complex nature of playing an instrument and the impatient nature of young people, it is a balancing act for any music teacher to teach them musical knowledge and the motor skills necessary in a way that holds their interest. Most kids "just wanna play songs," especially ones they know. It takes some time for them to get to the point where they can produce a decent sound on most instruments, let alone play a melody they recognize.
Because of this balancing act, the traditional approach to teaching instrumental music is to teach as many basic music concepts as quickly and simply as possible so they can get to melody making as quickly as possible. In terms of developing rhythmic ability, this usually means a "sight before sound" method where the student is shown notation, told how many counts it is worth in 4/4 time, and then performs the sound while counting. In band methods, students normally learn the whole note first because it gives them a chance to produce the instrument's sound properly. For strings, it is normally the quarter note that is taught first, giving them short bow strokes to work with. This is the time-honored method, and it is pedagogically backwards.
Rhythm in music is the perception, measurement, and division of time. Time is measured in terms of musical pulse or beat. Beat is typically a steady, recurring marker that one can "feel" or move in time with. Rhythm is the essence of music that provides the physical action. It is mathematical in nature, but it is also an internalized perception that every musician must develop. Mathematics helps us define and measure musical time. It is the mind of the performer, however, that senses that measurement as a function of movement.
Most everyone has had some piece of music that they have heard that was "infectious." You just can't help tapping your feet, swaying, or responding in some kinesthetic fashion. Strongly rhythmic forms of music are very popular because even if a person does not have a highly developed sense of pulse they can still perceive and relate to rhythmic music. Rhythm is literally the heartbeat of music that gives it life and makes it do something.
Because of the kinesthetic nature of rhythm, students naturally feel the beat best when they move to it. Many young band students are taught to tap their foot to the beat when playing in concert band. Anone who's ever been in the audience at an elementary band concert where the students have been taught this method can attest to the wide variety of interpretations of the beat that are telegraphed to the audience via the feet. Some students are right on, some feet falter as difficulties in performing the music arise. Some tap their foot to the melodic rhythm rather than the pulse.
Tapping a foot to the beat is the right idea, but many students become attached to the notion, believing that they can't keep a steady beat unless they are tapping their foot. What those students fail to understand is that it's not a self-aware foot tapping as if it had it's own free will - the foot is acuated by a mind that is perceiving the beat internally and responding physically. Moving to the beat is natural, however in many formal music settings moving is discouraged because it attracts attention to the performer and distracts the listener. There is no question that linking pulse perception and beat groupings with movement allows the performer to physically experience the rhythm their mind is measuring.
Developing Internal Pulse
Before one can move to the beat, one must be able to perceive the beat. The amazing thing about this is that our perception of time is completely manufactured by the human intellect. We have all agreed upon a system of measurement right down to the atomic clock. There are natural repeating cycles in nature, such as sunrise and sunset, but counting those cycles and creating a calendar is purely an exercise of the logical mind. Without those mechanical inventions to measure time, human perception of time is extremely fluid.
It was first in my mid-twenties that I realized what my parents had been saying seemed to be true - the older I got, the faster time seemed to go. Waiting to turn 18 seemed to be an eternity. Now I blink and I'm 35. The reason for this time constriction phenomenon is because the more memory we build in linear time, the more removed from timelessness we become. Children live in the moment, with little concern for the future or thoughts about the past. The more active the mind and memory is, the more time seems to slip away.
Because each human being has a unique perspective and unique memory, our individual perceptions of time are equally unique. To develop a sense of repeating pulse as a musician, one must practice marking time in the mind without the aid of an outside stimulus. This can be accomplished by setting a metronome to 60 bpm and turning off the sound, then counting silently from 1 to 8, then repeating back to 1, checking to see if you arrive at 1 at the same time the metronome light flashes for the next several beats.
Another way to accomplish this is to have the teacher and student count in the same fashion starting together. The teacher only indicates the beginning of the counting with a head nod. Once a cadence has been established between the two individuals, the teacher holds up a hand which signals both people to stop verbalizing their counting but continue to count silently. When the teacher lowers their hand, the teacher and student verbalize their count again. If both have maintained pulse, they should still be synchronized.
Since every person's perception of time is slightly different, just like everyone's step length is a little bit different, there must be a standardization of recurring pulse. Not only does this standardize the time, but it gives your mind repetition needed to develop a sense of pulse that is consistent. The best reading I have done on this subject is in a book entitled The Creative Director by Ed Lisk.
As a student's perception of pulse improves, they simultaneously learn how pulses are grouped into meters.
Duple and Triple Meters
Musical pulse is typically grouped in either two's or three's. These meters provide the performer and listener with an accented primary beat on count 1 and other accented beats depending on the grouping. Duple meter is felt as very solid and stable. Think of the feel of a rock tune or a military march and you are experiencing the most common grouping of strong beats 1 and 3, weak beats 2 and 4.
Triple meter is felt with a sway, with a strong beat 1 and weak beats 2 and 3. Visualize the music of a waltz or the music played during the high-wire act at the circus and you will be experiencing triple meter.
There are other mixed meters as well, combining duple and triple in uneven groupings. Time signatures in music provide us with the mathematical values that describe these groupings accurately. Many music students ask the question "Why do we have 4/4 and 2/4, or 3/4 and 6/8? They're basically the same thing." The difference lies in the placement of the strong and weak beats within the meter. It is a subtlety often lost on many people.
Young musicians often struggle with learning a new time signature, especially the triple meter signatures. Part of this is that our western culture is dominated by 4/4 time and major keys. The average American child listens to music that is predominantly the same meter and same mode, so as a performer triple meters are unfamiliar. It is critical that students literally "feel" the meter by moving to the music.
You Gotta Move It!
If moving to the music is the most direct way to experience the meter, why don't more music teachers teach it and more students do it? It all comes back to dealing with the primary cause of failure for every human being, and that is the body/mind ego. In western culture, people "don't dance" because they do not want to appear foolish. Moving to the music is in many cases reserved for dance clubs or wedding receptions where people flail around after their inhibitions have been loosened by a drink or two.
Many students are reluctant to move to the meter because they feel self-conscious about appearing to be uncoordinated or clumsy. It is up to a music teacher to incorporate movement into the routine often enough that movement develops into a familiar and comfortable activity. Students who physically feel the meter have a much higher likelihood of success with interpreting rhythm.
Mathematical and Spatial Relationships
Once meter is primarily felt and understood, students must learn how written notation further divides the meter into the musical sounds to be performed. The traditional approach to this is to teach the notation (a black oval with a stem), it's label (a quarter note), and its rhythmic value (one beat in 4/4 time). There of course is no problem with this method, but it does create some built-in inaccuracies when dealing with rhythm in practical application.
One of the common problems with simply telling students that a whole note is worth four counts is that most students will sustain a whole note on their instrument only to count 4 when really it should be sustained all the way to count 5 (or count 1 of the next measure). When given only the label and it's numeric value, a student playing a whole note plays the sound and counts in their mind "1 - 2 - 3 - 4" to know when to stop. This is an inaccuracy that does not rear its ugly head until later in the student's career when they are playing in ensembles at the secondary level.
To avoid this inaccuracy, a student must understand the concept of duration of a musical sound rather than just counting the sound. A 4 count whole note has a duration that ends at the end of count 4, which happens to be the beginning of count 5. If a student has practiced internalizing pulse, this length of sound will not only be counted, but it will be felt as a unit of duration that relates to the meter of the song.
Traditional rhythmic notation pedagogy also teaches the labeling of notes and how they relate to each other. Most students understand intellectually that a whole note is twice as long as a half note which is twice as long as a quarter note, etc. What students do not do in many cases is directly experience the spatial relationships between note durations. I use an exercise called "Rhythm Tree" with my students at any age, regardless of experience level.
Rhythm Tree - Experiencing Notational Duration Spatially
It is important to note that playing from long durations to short is only half the experience - students must play from short to long as well, as the lengthening of duration spatially is much less familiar for most people than the other way around. I find Rhythm Tree to be particularly valuable for percussion students, as the immediacy of their instrument calls for high levels of accuracy.
Working Rhythmic Study Into The Routine
With all of the other skills that must be taught to a music student, and in many cases under the time constraints that exist, how does a music teacher incorporate these concepts? First, simply being aware of the concepts will help teachers recognize moments in their regular work when the concepts can be applied to something students already do. Every rehearsal or practice must have some kind of pulse reinforcing activity associated with it, even if it is simply just working with a metronome.
The Metronome is a Must!
It still amazes me how some music students get all the way to high school and have never used a metronome. As stated earlier, we each have an individual perception of time and duration, so standardizing the time perception is an absolute must for musicians to be able to play accurately and independently.
When students are in the process of learning a piece of music, I generally have them work without the metronome until they have mapped the finger patterns sufficiently and have demonstrated a basic concept of the written rhythm. It is amazing what happens when you begin holding students accountable for their "time management" in the music.
To really play the music as it is intended to be played, a musician must be able to perform the elements of the music to a steady beat. I often tell my students, "Imagine what the U.S. National Anthem would sound like if performed by a singer who was not familiar enough with it to keep a steady beat. 'Oh say.... can you... see... bythe... dawn'searly.... liiiight...." :-) That usually gets a chuckle, but it also demonstrates why repetition of the music to the point of mastery at a steady pulse is an absolute necessity.
If you apply any of the concepts in this article with your students or your own playing please tell me about your experiences.
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