Playing in time

With our focus on jamming and improvisation this term, I’ve been looking for ways to help the children play more in time with each other. This is tricky enough to teach in English, let alone with students with a very minimal command of English!

Firstly, I want to state my own position: I believe that we all have an innate understanding of music, that gets built on everyday, when we listen to music (of our own choice, or as background music). I want to tap into this innate knowledge somehow, in building ensemble-playing skills. I think that one of the main things that gets in the way is trying, when we become so focused on effort and on getting it right, that we tense up and become more awkward (and less natural or easy) in our efforts. (This earlier post talks in more detail about the way I like to teach, for those who would like to know more).

Therefore, I don’t like to bring to much attention to the issue of ensemble when it arises, because I don’t want anyone to get tense or worry about it, or think of themselves as failing somehow. But I do want them to be aware, and to develop more sophisticated understanding of how to play together. There were a few things that happened this term at the Language School that seemed to work, so I’ll list them here.

Pulse and Togetherness

Early on, I brought my metronome into class, and got the students to practice playing their instruments exactly in time with the metronome. I wanted them to feel what it felt like to have to hold themselves back sometimes, to ‘keep their eye on the ball the whole time’, as it were. How sometimes, our bodies want us to surge forward with our beats, but we need to watch out for this, and hold ourselves back.

Next, we kept the metronome going, and played a simple rhythm instead of the pulse. I tried to show them (with my hands, and then by drawing symbols on the board) which beats in the rhythm coincided with the pulse. I think this was really hard for them to make sense of, and we didn’t dwell on it, but I gave it in a shot, in the hope that one or two might understand, and find it useful.

(Around this time I also discovered the myriad ways that the students could interpret the word ‘together’. “I want you to be together,” I might remind them, and they would place their rhythm sticks neatly side-by-side, or shuffle along so that they were sitting flush against their neighbour. “No, no!” I’d call. “At the same time. ‘Together’ in music means ‘at the same time’.”)

Eyes and Ears

Next I noticed that whenever they had a new rhythm to play, or were given free rein to improvise, they (especially the boys) would, very quickly, get very loud. And they would get faster as they got louder, until no-one could hear anything at all. Except all the noise!

I decided to appeal to their innate sense of music.

“How was that? How did that sound?” I asked.

“Great!” they yelled, still filled with adrenalin from the playing. But then they’d think about it. “No. Maybe not so good,” they admitted.

“Was it together?” I asked. (They knew this word now).


“What do we need to do to keep the music together?”

One boy thrust his hand in the air and said earnestly, “We need to be listening, and we need to be looking at the teacher, and doing just what the teacher says.”

Hmmm. Good to know that the indoctrination mantras do make an impression somehow. However, I wanted us to find a solution that was more concrete than that.

I asked them to look as well as listen. The person they were to look at was the quiet Sudanese girl who had invented this rhythm. She was playing quietly, on a quieter drum than the djembes that all they others had.

They tried again. Again it fell apart.

“We can’t hear her!” they told me indignantly. “She too quiet!”

Aha…. then maybe you are playing too loudly! This time, make your ears listen for her drum. And your eyes can be watching her as well.

This time we kept the riff going for about 16 cycles or more. And I think they started to understand the pleasure of playing all together, as well as the feasibility of it.

Intense listening – ears on stalks

This was a bit of a crazy term. The school is having lots of building work done, and there is banging, drilling, sawing and hammering (and stomping, and entering and exiting rooms) going on all the time. It’s hard to ask the students to listen to each other when there is such extreme distraction going on outside.

Therefore, for my sanity as well as theirs (and as a bit of a nod towards my recent yoga retreat) I got into the habit of starting lessons with some intense listening. The students find a comfortable place to sit or lie on the floor (not touching anyone – a lot of poking tends to happen during these times), they then close their eyes, and I guide them through a meditative listening process.

Start by listening to all the sounds that you can hear in this room. Don’t tell me what they are, just notice them. Notice all the different things that you can hear….. Now stretch your ears a bit further. What sounds can you hear that are coming from the rooms next door to us. What about the rooms above us? Notice all of these.

Next, stretch your ears so that you are listening for any sounds coming from anywhere in the school. What is the most far-away sound that you can hear? Can you stretch your ears even further? Can you hear the traffic? The traffic lights? People talking?

I then guide them back into the room, through each of these stages in reverse order, until we are back in our own classroom, and at this point I ask them to listen for the quietest sound in the room. Maybe it is the clock ticking. Maybe it is their heart beating. Maybe it is their blood pulsing.

This intense listening seemed to be something they really enjoyed. Once we got started, and they were familiar with the task, there was very little resistance. I think that it gave them the chance to separate themselves somewhat from all the noise going on in the school. It also meant that we started our music lessons from a place of calmness and focus.

Soft tummies, soft shoulders

My last tactic was to try to build their awareness of their posture while they were playing. This followed on well from the intense listening we were doing at the start of the lesson. I have observed in myself that when I am tense, my stomach and shoulders will carry much of that tension. I notice in these students (who tend to try very hard in music) that when they get anxious about something we are working on (like playing in time, or improving their mallet or hand-drumming technique) that they get tense. So I started asking them to imagine they have heavy tummies, or to feel their sitting bones sitting firmly into the floor. I wanted to try to get the weight of effort out of their shoulders by bringing it lower down. I tried words like heavy and soft and down.

It’s hard to say if this tactic was effective or not (I think it is hard to help students find more relxed posture when they are playing, and drawing attention to tension can often make it worse! Physical awareness is a developmental thing). We were doing so many other things as well, all designed to develop their ensemble-skills; perhaps in the end it was a combination of all of these. Because in the end, they did play together – beautifully so. And they jammed, listening to each other and not ‘racing’ or trying to be the fastest, or the loudest…

And now the term, and the school year is finished. We did our concert for the parents and other students today and I felt pretty proud of them all! I had told myself that this was my term to just cruise a little bit, but even with this as my intention (for my own well-being), we still created three interesting, slick pieces, with all the hallmarks of ensemble, focus, and original material that I love, and that I aim for. A good term’s music was had by all, I’d say!

1 comment so far

  1. music teacher on

    It seems that your website has a lot of tips and resources for music teachers and students. I will surely follow your future posts. Thanks for sharing!

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