Syncopation without explanation

I’m a big believer in implicit learning environments – where a musically-rich and consistent environment enables students to build all sorts of understandings about the language of music and how it functions, without dependence on explanations or theory. This is the main characteristic that underpins my teaching at the English Language School I work in once a week as a music workshop artist.

However, challenges do arise when the only person in the room able to maintain the musically-consistent environment is you. And when you can’t give verbal explanations (you can, but the majority of students won’t understand and will either tune out, or get stressed or confused) it can be hard to establish a critical mass of understanding of certain concepts.

Here’s a challenge I am grappling with – the Upper Primary students are learning the song People Get Ready. We’re accompanying it on xylophone with a 2-part riff that has a slightly syncopated rhythm. The notes are simple and easy to memorise, but the students struggle to imitate the counting. They tend to speed up and lose the syncopation.

Tony (my boyfriend – also a musician) suggested I do some work with all the quavers in a bar of 4/4 and try and establish a bit more understanding of the hidden beats. “Get them to clap on certain numbers of a cycle of 8 beats,” was his thought. I’ve used this kind of tactic before, but felt unsure it would work in the ESL setting, because it would introduce a new rhythmic idea, and the students might then be confused about which rhythm was to be used. How could I establish that this was just a teaching tool, rather than a new part of our musical arrangement?

However, I had no other solution, and I was also curious. I could see that for some students it might cause confusion, but that for others, it could offer some clarity about how the synocpated rhythm worked. They might figure out the relationship between the two all by themselves.

Here’s what we did:

  1. I wrote the numbers 1 to 8 on the whiteboard, and asked the students to count them out loud, 4 times.
  2. I put a red square around number one, and asked them to clap on the 1, as they counted all the numbers aloud.
  3. I put a red square around number 2, so that they were now clapping 1 and 2 in the cycle of 8.
  4. I gave out untuned percussion instruments and got them to play on those numbers now (as a way of repeating the exercise a few more times but adding an additional element, as well as creating new interest).
  5. I then added some more squares, around numbers 3, 4, and 7. This clapped numbers now became our syncopated rhythm. Beat no. 5 was the one they had to get used to waiting for in their heads.
  6. We clapped this new rhythm, counting all the numbers aloud, and giving a wave of the hands on beats 5 and 7.
  7. I asked individuals to clap or play the rhythm on their own (another tactic to encourage listening and attention – they like to perform on their own – and add new interest to the task).
  8. I brought out the bass xylophone. Under the different squared numbers I wrote the notes of the syncopated riff we had learned the previous 2 weeks. One by one they took it in turns to play (or try to play) the riff, with this new awareness of silence on beats 5 and 8.

This last step was more confusing than I’d expected. We had previously learned the notes by counting aloud how many times each note was played before changing notes:

C C C F_ FF | F F G C_ CC

(Hopefully my spacing between letters, and use of underscore,  shows some reference to the notation here!) Now we had new numbers to count aloud – that’s a lot of similar numbers, meaning different things – and the feel of the pitch contour and rhythm together suddenly felt more awkward.

For some students, it was easier to play the riff (and blur the syncopation, as before) and ignore the numbers from the cycle of 8 beats we had been using in the previous task. When they tried to count the 8-beat cycle while playing, and keep track of the note changes, they got confused. Others, however, had little moments of understanding the relationship. You could hear it in the way they started adjusting the riff, paying more attention to beats 5 and 8, and sitting on the middle or back of the beat, rather than right at the front.

So the strategy worked for some students, definitely. But perhaps I am still missing something. Can I make this even simpler, in an implicit, rather than explicit way? I’m sure I can. I’d love any of your thoughts.


3 comments so far

  1. T on

    Interesting to see whether that confusion exists in any new rhythms you introduce. It may just be that they have a preconception of the old rhythm. And introduce them eventually to the “and” between the numbers ie. “1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and”. I find the “and” has a different emphasis to the numbers so marks the half beat more clearly and defines its difference to the on beats.

  2. Mandy Carver on

    I am a great believer in the importance of the FEEL of the beat – that it should be in the body. It we count it, – it is one process, but it seems to me that the counting part of the brain is miles away from the bit that makes it music. So we count madly trying to get the rhythm, but it involves another whole process to get that counted-out rhythm to start to groove and sound like (feel like?) music. So if we take kids through steps to feel the beat and the way the syncopated rhythms feel against it, it feels to me like a more musical way to learn.

  3. Gillian Howell on

    Mandy, I totally agree! We need to teach music in musical ways. It’s a long time since I wrote this post so I can’t remember how things progressed from here. I do remember searching, searching, searching for a recording of People Get Ready that had a really clear backbeat to it, that we could dance to, or clap the off-beats to, in order to understand the feel of the groove a bit more. But I couldn’t find one. The other challenge was that we needed to keep the song in a certain key (C major) and none of the recordings I found (slow, moody, soulful recordings with lots of melismatic gospel embellishments) were in C, so we didn’t have the option of playing along with a recording and getting more sense of the feel that way. Hmmm.. and if I were a better guitarist, with a bigger range of strums to choose from, we might have been able to get the groove going that way too. These days, I’d be tempted to use The Amazing Slow-Downer software to bring an appropriate recording into the right key signature.

    We tried establishing feel in the classroom, but one of the issues that can often come up in these ESL classes can be coordination – some children have done very little moving in their young lives, so trying to encourage a more embodied experience of the music sometimes brings up a whole new set of challenges. In the end, we got there. The critical mass of understanding did develop, and once that was in place, the feel was there, and the other children who were struggling could be carried along by that.

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