Rhythm: Make It Count

Sack-race champions discover the only way to cross the finish-line is to stay in step the entire race. Likewise, ensemble players know that the race is "won" when reaching the double bar line together, preferably with style and beauty. Since I always assign student ensembles during the late summer session, it seemed wise to prepare small but memorable rhythmic tidbits for weekly lessons. Belows is a list of visual and practical aids that helped my students (of many levels) boost their rhythm-reading skills and their chances of reaching the double bar line with their duet partner! (Note: In an effort to accommodate various learning styles, my teaching method includes a buffet of visual, auditory and kinesthetic activities. Each student experiences any concept by ear first, then they play and create with it and then the correct sign or symbol is memorized. Although not mentioned below, each strategy listed follows this pattern.

The Sales Pitch

Next to my studio piano hangs a bulletinboard which is saved for special topics. For this unit it was entitled--you guessed it--Rhythm: Make it Count. I divided the board into three sections and each student memorized these three essential parts of rhythm: Group, Add and Divide.

Divide: Candy Bar Jam

From the type of note values on the bulletin board mentioned above, students, realized that "Divide" meant notes with beams or flags. (To connect with students and to keep it simple, I chose the word "divide" instead of "subdivide") Since dividing the quarter note seems to puzzle some, I made a second bulletin board with favorite candy paired with various quarter note divisions. Ex: the quarter was equated to a Twix, two-8ths--a Snickers, 4-16ths--a Butterfinger, etc. When any of these beamed rhythms were identified in repertoire, students immediately referred to the Candybar Jam Board. One look at the matching candy and most division problems were solved!

Add: Paper Plate Division

Every student embarks on a rhythmic journey learning that a quarter note represents one beat. However, I wanted to make sure students could make an association with ALL note AND rest values that would stick. Each student received one paper plate (the very inexpensive kind!) and drew a whole note on it. They then received a half of a plate and immediately realized that this "plate" was the half note/rest.  As you can imagine, as each new and smaller section was given, they could anticipate what kind of note to draw.  Many early-level students were introduced to the 16th and even 32nd notes for the first time and they could easily see how many fit within a quarter, half and even the whole note. (Note: each student recieved two plates, one whole and one cut to the various note-value sizes.)

Divide + Add = Dotted Notes

The dot seems to confuse many so, for one lesson, I made a point of focusing exclusively on dotted notes. Students were instructed that they must do TWO things when approaching a dotted note: Divide and Add. The paper plates came in handy for this explanation as well. Students could see that one half of a half note was a quarter (division) and that must be added to the half note (addition). Now my students not only tell me how many beats make a dotted note, but can also explain what note values make up the note and dot.

Group: The Bigger Picture

To de-mystify the top and bottom number of time signature, first each student heard, moved,and played in groups of 3 and 4 beats. The countless Clavinova options provided great styles for these improv execises. Flash cards of various rhythms helped students see measures as groups of notes.  With their skills in addition, they could easily add and see how beats were grouped. The top number solved! The bottom number is always the tricky one but once they made the connection of the "4" symbolizing the quarter note (referring to the paper plates) it was easier for most to make the connection. Thanks for the transfer of learning kicking in, an "8" or "2" on the bottom of a time signature made sense. The terms "simple" and "compound" were briefly introduced or reviewed with the use of a magnetic board called "Fit-A-Rhythm". Students noticed that in 6/8 time the 8th notes are always beamed in "3's" while in 4/4 the 8ths are beamed in pairs. Although a simplified explanation, this magnetic board provided a clear visual for the metric differences.

Make it Count

Group lessons, scheduled once a quarter, provide performance opportunities and also a fun learning environment. To capitalize on the subject of rhythm, each group watched an excerpt from a "Stomp" DVD (http://www.amazon.com/Stomp-Out-Loud). They were captivated by the amazing creativity this group found within the boundaries of rhythm. Next, SCAT cards (http://www.drumming-event.com/cards.htm) were handed out and students talked the rhythm of the nonsense words. Then they played the rhythms on percussion instruments and various household items (like Stomp). Students were encouraged to improvise their own rhythms while listening to each other and soon a drum circle was born!

Later each student received a baton (hi-liter) and asked to listen and decide the time signature of repertoire in various styles. Once the meter was identified, the conducting began. Each student conducted in 2, 3 and 4. Thanks to this large motor activity, the reason for the terms "down beat" and "upbeat" were clarified.

The "Race" is On

As my students made progress on their duet part, these visual aids and exercises were pulled out to reinforce any tricky rhythm issues. Students seemed more equipped to de-mystify new rhythm patterns AND they realized that counting aloud is a necessity and not just a dreaded task attempted to please the teacher. It has been fun cheering on each duet rehearsal as the primo and secondo win the "race" to the double bar: TOGETHER!

Computer Lab Assignments included lessons from: Alfred's Interactive Musician, Music Skill Builders and Spell and Define, www.MusicLearningCommunity.com, Music Ace, MusiColoRide. Youtube: [youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fY-ZoVMwGKM&w=560&h=315]