MTeach class, week 2

In this week’s class, we looked at three ways of developing students’ rhythmic invention and skills.

Circle game – Accumulative Rhythms

This is a good warm-up, it can create a powerful focus in a group. It is also a big brain-teaser, so needs to be worked on slowly, adding complexity a little at a time.

The whole group stands in a circle. One person (the leader/facilitator/teacher/student) starts a clapping pattern going. The person beside them watches, learns it, and joins in. The next person along does the same, and so on, around the circle. It is important that people don’t start clapping the rhythm before it has come to them – even if they have figured it out long ago and are keen to get started!

Once the rhythm is well-established, the leader starts another rhythm. The person beside them hears it, and joins in when ready, passing it on to their neighbour. See how many different rhythms you can have travelling around the circle at the same time!

Some things to note:

  • This isn’t like Chinese Whispers – accuracy is important. Encourage students not to pass the rhythm on until they are certain they have learned it accurately.
  • When the group is familiar with the game, it is interesting to add in rhythms with different time signatures.
  • You can use vocal rhythms too. A mixture is good.
  • Try to use a range of body percussion sounds – it helps people distinguish between rhythms more easily, and adds a further physical element to the game.
  • To finish, I like to end with a rhythm that is a good, stompy, grounded rhythm that will give everyone the joy of being part of a big sound, when it has traveled the full circle and all are in unison. Alternatively, something very quiet and subtle can be a powerful way to finish.

It is an interesting game – it isn’t always easy to do, no matter how musically skilled you are (I see Orchestra musicians get very frustrated with it sometimes!). It can sometimes reveal who in the group responds to the pressure of ‘having’ to pass the sound on, when they aren’t ready. Often when people lack musical confidence, they don’t trust that they will eventually figure something out, so they pass it on in an approximate way. It isn’t a disaster if this happens, but with practise, I find it happens less often.

Composing task – Positive and Negative rhythms

This task is completed in pairs. I started by demonstrating it to the whole group. I taught them a simple rhythm (translated here into Kodaly rhythms) which we clapped together several times in a row (usually 4 – I am such a classicist and 4 repetitions encourages people to stay on task):

Ta ta ti-ti ti

This was their ‘positive’ rhythm. I then taught them their ‘negative’ rhythm:

[si] ri-ti-ri, [si] ri-ti-ri, [si] ri [si] ri, [si] ri-ti-ri

with [si] being a 16th-value rest and ri-ti-ri being 16th notes.

We divided into 2 groups, and clapped the two parts together.

At this point people realised the relationship between the two parts, that with 16th notes being the basic underlying value, the ‘negative’ rhythm is filling in all the 16th notes that are not heard in the ‘positive rhythm.

(NB. This is a class of music specialists. It is much harder to do aurally if you don’t have some knowledge of music theory. Harder, but still possible, so worth exploring!)

They then divided into pairs, and had the task of (1) inventing their own simple positive rhythm, and then (2) the negative rhythm for that phrase, using either the smallest rhythmic value in the positive rhythm as your guide, or 16th notes. I encouraged them to keep it simple, but music specialists tend to like keeping it tricky!

The outcomes were pretty good, though I think only one conformed to the instructions I gave! However, that is okay. In a way, this can be quite an academic exercise, but its overall intention is to encourage people to create interesting, complementary musical layers in a composition. Even though the pairs didn’t exactly follow the rules, it didn’t matter, because the point of the exercise was achieved very convincingly by each pair.

Another way to consider this outcome is the way I gave the instructions. How clear was I? Obviously not clear enough! My favourite Kodaly quote (from my days at the Pedagogical Institute in Hungary in 1992), is that ‘if a child gives you the wrong answer, you have asked the wrong question’. In other words, the responses people give us come directly from the way we set the task up. It is really important to recognise this as teachers – which I see as the inherent good will of our students, in general, to do what we ask.

Augmentation and Diminution

In the last five minutes of the class, I introduced this rhythmic tool. ‘Augmentation’ means the doubling of your rhythmic values in a phrase, so that it is twice as slow. ‘Diminution’ means the halving of your rhythmic values, so that it is twice as fast.

I demonstrated it with what I call the ‘football chant clap’:

ta ta ti-ti ta, ti-ti ti-ti [si] ti ta

with ta=1/4 note, ti= 1/8 note, and [si]= 1/8 rest

I’m sure you know the rhythm I mean. We clapped it at about 60 bpm, then I doubled the note values (thus doubling the speed):

ta [sa] ta [sa] ta ta ta [sa] ta ta ta ta [sa] ta ta [sa]

We tried this in two groups, noting that the original phrase gets clapped twice in the time of the second phrase. Then added the third layer:

ti-ti ti-ri ti, ti-ri-ti-ri [si] ri ti

which in which the note values were halved, so it took…. half the time, fitting into the original phrase twice, and the second phrase 4 times.

I hope no-one is reading this and thinking, ‘lordy, maths! I am bad at maths!’ It is much easier to clarify and make sense of this concept when you hear it, rather than read about it. (Which is so often the way with music). But if the Kodaly rhythmic names are familiar, try it out loud now.

We really only touched on this idea, and had no time to invite ideas for different rhythms from the group. However, my plan is that we will come back to this in a few weeks, with pitched instruments, and some unusual time signatures. My experience is that working with augmented and diminuted (?) rhythms in less familiar time signatures (5/4, 7/4, 11/4) can really assist students to start to feel more grounded in these rhythms as they start to listen out for the anchoring points.

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