I enjoy working with the subject of ‘beat’, especially with non-musicians or less experienced musicians. The phenomenon itself is so fundamental it can be a challenge to define it. It’s like asking, “What is air?” We can all produce a quasi-scientific definition of the air we breathe, but our experience of it could not be more fundamental to our existence, and it is very difficult to capture this experience with words. It is the same thing with ‘beat’.
Older children or adults more oriented to popular music are likely to associate the word with drum patterns. Classical musicians who primarily learn music through notation tend to associate the word ‘beat’ with groupings of beats, i.e. time signature or meter. Jazz musicians relate the concept of beat to a player’s sense of “time”: one’s personal style might be associated with being “ahead of the beat” or “behind the beat”.
Like many fundamental motor experiences, people can’t really be taught to feel a beat in music any more than they can be taught to walk, ride a bike or skip. We can “teach” by setting up the right conditions for it to happen naturally, but I do think the we have to say “teach” in this case. With the Dalcroze approach, I feel comfortable removing the scare quotes.
This is the music I am currently using to explore this subject with students of all ages. In some selections the beat is very strong and clear, in others almost totally obscured (but still present).
Here is a page with other playlists that I am using for different subjects.
What would you put on your ‘beat’ playlist?
I’ve updated my course offerings page for the fall season. Click here.
Step and clap the patterns that you hear. At the signal “hands”, stop the hands and move only the feet. When you hear “hands” again, restart the hands. Same with “feet”. Having trouble following? Use the piano: the left hand is associated with your feet, the right hand with your hands. This is known as a game of “Inhibition”.
This is the first of a series of posts for adults interesting in practicing eurhythmics on their own. The following is a known as “Reaction Game” in Dalcroze parlance. In a reaction game, a signal (auditory (musical or non-musical), visual, verbal or tactile) tells the participants what to do to explore a given musical subject. In this case, the subject is “Changing Meter”. See the instructions below for suggestions on how to use the lo-fi home recording I recently made. Better yet, make up your own variation!
Divisions of 2 on the last beat of the measure call for duple meter (e.g. 2/4); 3 call for triple meter (e.g. 3/4); 4 call for quadruple meter (e.g. 4/4). Suggestions: gesture the measure freely; step the beat or measure and conduct; toss a scarf on 1; clap the measure and step the beat, being careful to use space to express the measure grouping.
Life caught up with me in April, so this is the first update for class activities in over a month. Here is a brief list of some of the things we have explored and games we have played over the past several weeks:
Toss the bean bag on the high note.
Kids hear melodic patterns in 4/4 time. Each pattern consists of quarter notes with a high note falling on beat 1, 2, 3 or 4. They walk and toss on the high note. Challenging for most. We spent some time in the beginning exploring things to do with a bean bag that can match specific tempo and dynamics requirements.
Lead your partner through touch.
Partners work to develop a set of signals to guide their partner around the room. Signals can include direction, starting/stopping, tempo, etc. I encouraged them to talk as little as possible. Pairs demonstrated for the group. The group attempted to discern and describe the signals they saw.
The student with a bean bag moves as she likes, the piano follows her with a single voice. When the piano plays with many voices, the entire class joins in the same movement. The children are encouraged to use a wide variety of tempo and dynamics as I attempt to mimic concerto form and style in my improvisation.
Improvisation with rhythm cards.
Partners sit across from each other. A holds up rhythm card, B plays rhythm following whenever A changes. All partners perform simultaneously.
variation: One student conducts for dynamics.
Metrical scarf toss
Quick reaction: step the beat and toss the scarf on the 2nd beat of a 4/4 measure if I call “2”, etc. (Students are hearing dotted quarters on their toss as I play.)
Dotted Quarter Quick reaction
Walk with a partner linking arms. When you hear a dotted quarter + eighth, change directions with your partner.
Walk alone. At “hop”, take one step backwards. (“hop” coincides with a dotted quarter + eighth.)
Pattern + soloist, improvisation
Group plays a pattern, one soloist is free to play as she likes. (All have percussion instruments.) We experimented with the form of this one, and really practiced listening for dynamics and responsiveness to the soloist.
Those are a few of our greatest hits. I’ll give you one more update at the end of the year, which is coming up fast. Happy Memorial Day! Always interested in your thoughts and comments.
We first reviewed the notation and language for some basic rhythms for compound (ternary) meter: dotted quarters, 3 eighth notes, quarter-eighth. I put the symbols on the board, and asked one student to stand in front of the one he/she wanted to hear and see moved. After this quick reaction game, I gestured a pattern. In our rhythm language, it was, “Running and skip and beat beat.” I asked them to speak it in as many different ways as they could (using the same words). It took some time but we eventually got a variety of dynamics and tempos. I then asked them to move freely to the music, but stop and show the pattern if as soon as they heard it. After this, we practiced simply moving the pattern. The starts with three running steps, which lead to a single skip, followed by two slow steps. It was challenging for them to get off the ground and immediately stop. There were varying degrees of success, but as a group we managed to get a gestalt of the pattern.
They wanted to be seen moving it one at a time, so I asked them to design the space. They lined up and each moved the rhythm twice across the diagonal of the room. I decided to spend some time making what we call a ‘plastique’ out of the rhythm. In this case, this means that we choreograph how to move, who is moving when, the shape and organization of movement in the room. I did a fair amount of prompting by giving them a series of choices (e.g. “Should we move it twice or once? “Should partners move at the same time, or one after the other?”). In this way I helped them to make the many small decisions necessary to create organized movement. We tried it several times and I accompanied them on the piano.
We ended with a quick experience/game with three rubber spots, which I placed on the ground and associated 1, 3 and 5 of the major scale with. First I moved and sang myself. Then I moved and asked them to sing. Finally, I sang while they moved. We improvised short phrases for a while, and then said goodbye. I will return to this game in the future.
Tempo and dynamics Follow ( 2 dotted quarters, 3 eighths, 1 dotted quarter)
In this classic Dalcroze exercise, the class moves a pattern through a variety of tempo and dynamics changes. The three eighths required us to develop some technique, as the students found it difficult to run for three and stop suddenly.
Drums around the room; move freely until you hear the pattern, then stop and play it on the nearest drum.
This required some sharp listening and more movement technique. I was able to test their abilities to discern between variations of the pattern a couple of times. They seemed to enjoy this game.
Improvisation: 2 groups; one plays a 3 bars of a pattern, alternating with a one bar soloist by someone from the other group.
This was an arrangement that I came up with, in hopes that they would suggest alternatives after a few times through. We came up with a few interesting variations.
This was the most interesting part of the class for me. As students were suggesting ways to change the above improvisation, they ran into inevitable disagreements. I began to suggest that music could accommodate everyone’s wishes if they decided that was ok. We tried this successfully within a strict structure as above, and then I suggested that we all try to play together without discussing anything first. Our intention would be to play what we wanted while listening to what other’s played. There was, maybe predictably, a lot of loud playing, and I did wish for more attentiveness to others as they were doing it. However, all seemed very pleased with the results, and someone surprised that this was even possible. There is nothing particularly Dalcrozian about this concept (it comes more from the free jazz tradition), but it certainly does not go against the grain of our work. Perhaps we will be able to build on this idea in future classes.
The question is quite open, but the kids took it in the spirit intended (uses were restricted to ways to arrange and move through them). Here are some of the ways they discovered, and questions they explored:
arrange in square, step only on the spots
what’s the difference between a square and a diamond in this case? (answer was inconclusive, but seemed to have to do with visual perspective)
take one step in between each spot
place them far a part
place them close together
I played a pattern (quarter quarter half) and asked them to arrange the spots any way they liked, and to move through them to show this pattern.
There were two solutions. In one the kids stopped on the spot for the long note, in the other they kept moving, arriving at the spot during the second beat of the longest note. The spot represented a rest in one version, and the end of the pattern in the other. Both true, and highlighting different perspectives. I accompanied both versions, and one student felt certain that I was changing the way I played on the second version. I wasn’t, but her feeling changed by changing her movement. A very Dalcrozian experience!
Chalk Talk Exploration
They asked to draw on the chalk board. Ok: one student drew, and I followed their movement on the piano. After everybody had a turn, we switched: I played and they drew to match. This was an introduction to a dictation technique that we will return to later.
We ended by listening for the call and response of trumpet and voice in a classic recording of the blues we have been playing and singing for the past few weeks. Here’s the link if you’d like to hear it.
This was another very unusual class. The story from the previous week was very strong in their minds, and they desperately wanted to continue it. That kind of intense student engagement is very hard for me to resist, so I relented, not having the least idea about where it would turn out. To further complicate matters, one student who was absent last week was present this week, so he had to be brought up to speed. Instead of my usual list of activities, here is a straight narrative of the day:
We began with a quick reaction game: if you hear music, move with the feet; no music move with the hands. I long even phrases at first (8 beats of music, 8 beats of silence) and gradually worked it down to shorter patterns. My goal was to introduce some basic rhythm patterns in 4 that contain 1 beat rest. They were moderately successful at this, so I went to the board and notated them to see if they could distinguish between them. They are not quite ready for this, but they can reproduce them if I point in time to the rhythms.
They suffered through all of this rather pedestrian teaching so they could get to what they really wanted to do: continue the story. We ended up spending most of our time trying to remember everything: which rhythms went with which characters; what the rhythms were, who was playing what.
Each group was supposed to play as the others moved, and here I probably pushed a little too hard to get them to act like a sensitive orchestra. Give anybody an instrument and the first thing they want to do is explore it: make sound, see what it does, try this, try that… The last thing a kid wants to do is hold it silently and wait for something to start. I can get kids there, but I need to allow them time to discover first, and I did do that.
All in all, our creative rhythms did not fall into place this time. But artistic creation is certainly like that. If nothing else they got to experience that knowing that we could try again another day.
This was an unusual class in many ways. The girls’ love for dramatic story telling prompted almost an entire class devoted to the development, rehearsal and enactment of one story. The class loosely followed some goals I had already set up, which was to work with 3 different rhythm patterns that are found in the slow movement of Mahler’s 1st Symphony. This movement is a basically a minor reworking of the tune Frere Jacques. But here is roughly the sequence of events:
I asked the girls to create characters for each of the 3 rhythm patterns I had written on the board, and which I played on the drum. They came up with a king, a queen and a kangaroo.
I let them choose whichever character they wanted to be. There were many kangaroos, a few queens and no kings – so I took on that role.
We explored how each group would move according to their specific rhythm pattern.
By asking them a series of questions, they created the following scenario: there is a king who likes turning people into statues, and one day he froze the entire kingdom. When the queen saw this she tried to save the statues, but was unsuccessful. A bunch of kangaroos came along and worked their magic spells to release the people. The queen was delighted.
Each group had percussion instruments. The kangaroos were to play for each other, and all played for me. We practiced this.
We enacted the story, attempting to talk as little as possible. This was easier the second time.
I told them that after the statues were released, the king was sorry he had done that. The entire kingdom came together and moved each other’s rhythms in different patterns. At this point I played the Mahler and asked them to listen for each rhythm and move freely however they liked. Some chose to move as a character, others choose to pretend to play instruments. After one time through, we talked about what they heard. We played it one more time, and pointed out the various rhythms we heard as it went along.
By this point, the time was almost up. We gathered for a quick round or two of the St. Louis Blues, and had to say goodbye. This was a class I might be able to repeat with a different group, but only one as imaginative and interested in story as this one.