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Can young students learn rhythmic flexibility?

It has been said by many that in music, rhythm is what happens between the beats. That is true, yet those words don't sufficiently communicate what we actually experience in rhythm. Much of what we teach is from notation, an inherently artificial and scant symbolic representation of music. These two facts conspire to create a problem: you can't faithfully turn notation back into living breathing music until you have had many musical experiences. Our current educational music landscape acknowledges this: for our very youngest students, we have various kinds of early childhood music classes (some with their families) consisting of listening, moving, singing, and dancing. After that, some studios and schools offer pre-piano classes in which movement and singing predominate, along with some functional use of the piano. Then when private piano lessons start, we include off-the-bench and group lesson activities to prepare and reinforce rhythm concepts. But since current mainstream teaching has the primary goal of translating music notation into performance, at some point a clash occurs between the pedagogy of achieving accurate renditions versus that of continuing to naturally develop musical sensitivity and growth. Inevitably, the latter is forced to contort to the needs of the former.

This clash seems almost inescapable. In most past societies (and many current ones throughout the world that have not yet been shaped heavily by western media), children first experienced music through communal singing and dancing, not through passive listening to reproductions by mechanical (although highly compelling) devices. Converting notation into vibrant, flexible music requires a combination of sophisticated skills. It can happen in a meaningful way only after many first-hand musical experiences, in the same way that a poem or play can be convincingly interpreted and performed only after learning to understand and speak one's native language. When students incorporate Dalcroze, Orff, Kodály, or Suzuki experiences into their musical education, this clash is minimized but it does not disappear. 

Below is an essay from a teacher, Nancy Garniez, who I believe is committed to confronting this problem head on. After I read her article a few times, I was reminded that in our most honest moments of self-reflection, we know that current "tried and true" approaches to teaching can take us only so far—any approach has the seeds of its own limitations. Therefore, one of the blessings and challenges of being a teacher is knowing that there is a lifetime need to constantly question, re-explore, and re-test what we do and what we think is effective, and to be willing to make changes when something new or different seems to work better, even if it contradicts what may be viewed as "fact" at that time. You might find some of the ideas and activities in Nancy's article to be outside of the mainstream of current teaching, yet I am convinced that she makes many significant points that those of us who teach children need to ponder. p

Music's power to organize and fascinate

by Nancy Garniez

Play in time!" It never occurred to me while playing the piano that more was involved than counting to four. I did not perceive myself to be playing out of rhythm, yet it seemed elusively difficult to satisfy others' expectations.

What does "play in time" mean? Considering the matter from a developmental between innate body rhythm and the metered beat typically associated with music study. The notion of two-way intelligibility, though far from simple, is the key to this developmental approach. Playing in time sustains musical motion intelligible to both the child who is playing and the person listening. 

I have developedan activity that promotes reliable, well-coordinated rhythm: 

"Coloring a Song" 

  • Two children sit opposite one another before a large piece of paper (20" x 24"). 
  • Each takes a different colored pencil in each hand. 
  • The children and I sing together a well-known song, like "The Farmer in the Dell." 
  • While singing they draw an agreedupon shape with both hands moving in rhythm in mirror motion. 
  • All the while they maintain eye contact, their attention focused on the spirit of the singing. 
Example 1

Example 1 gives an idea of these rough tracings, in this case taken from a page created by a seven-year-old and an eightyear- old, both right-handed, working opposite one another. The arrows indicate the starting point of the shapes (see Example 1).

If the shape is a circle, then each pronounced rhythmic unit represents one full turn, determined by "feel" or "pulse." With each successive verse, adjustments are made: switching colors, altering tempo, volume, articulations, mood, and so on. If the shape is changed, each side of the square or triangle receives the same impulse as one turn around the circle. The shapes need not match the meter; children soon realize that triangles are hard to sustain against a strong duple rhythm. 

The cognitive value of this activity was clarified by an example in Jeanne Bamberger's book The Mind Behind the Musical Ear. On page forty-six she shows roughly circular "rhythmic scribbles," one type of drawing produced by four- and five-year-olds when asked to depict a clapped rhythm: long, long, short, short, long [repeat].2 Bamberger discerns in the scribbles "the children's serious attempt to picture what for them was 'memorable.'"3 She observes: "Thus, through considering. . .that the children's focus might be different from mine, and in searching for what it might be, an aspect of rhythms was 'liberated' that previously escaped my attention: the continuousness of actions in actually performing rhythms, which also mirrors the rhythm's continuous unfolding in time . . .[.] This is in contrast to the discrete sounds—the external, public, acoustic results of these motions—that are represented by S[tandard] R[hythm] N[otation], that constitute what we usually think of as simply 'the rhythm' itself."4 

Because piano keys do not vibrate, a child learning music at the piano needs to retain awareness of rhythm's "continuousness." For this reason I continue to "color songs" even after a child has learned to represent features of a specific rhythm— pattern, duration, attack, release, etc. Once rhythm's "discrete sounds" are exclusively associated with symbols, it is hard to relate those symbols to perceived flow. The "scribbles" develop and reinforce a continuous attentiveness5 that unifies inner body rhythm with audible beats.

A child best experiences integrated rhythm in the company of other children. A teacher's obvious rhythmic mastery may intimidate a child struggling to connect intention to action. For this reason I see students twice weekly—once alone and once together with another child.

Examples 2 & 3: Additional tracings by elementary-aged students.

Physical activities beyond drawing

From coloring, the children proceed to one-on-a-hand duets,6 typically from Ruth Crawford Seeger's American Folk Songs for Children7 (though not the same song we have just sung). One child plays melody, the other accompaniment (usually comprising a bass plus a chord—thus sometimes requiring two hands). Both children realize that the "easy" melody becomes the harder part, as it requires continuous adaptation to the more demanding accompaniment. To my surprise, the children stay together effortlessly and consistently, no matter what their ages or levels of experience. 

Their flexibility follows easily from the combined release of spirited singing and the flow that engenders their drawing. In the light of such focused energy, superficial details that might derail their playing become irrelevant. Having seen two versions of the rhythm—right hand, left hand—each child is open to yet another version, that of the partner. 
By playing together in this manner, children act upon what Bamberger calls "multiple hearing." Each hears the music her own way while at the same time hearing what the partner is doing. This essential musical skill is difficult to impart once children are overly concerned with metronomic attacks. Strictly measured playing leaves little room for listening and even less for responding.8 As one eight-year-old put it: "It is very difficult to count and play at the same time." 
Children who learn integrated sound in this unpressured climate frequently transform a duet into a solo piece—long notes, dissonances, and all—completely on their own. Pieces thus learned do not become mechanical since the bilateral coordination is motivated by love of the sound.

In another activity the children place bells, drums, and other percussion instruments around the room. As I play a constantly varying repertoire of moody pieces by Grieg or Dvoˇrák, for example, they move about improvising. Responding to nuances of timing and character as if they know in advance what the music is going to do, they become partners in a mutually satisfying ensemble experience.

A game as a powerful springboard

"Simon Says" teaches rhythmic control. The designated Simon claps a simple fourbeat pattern which the others imitate, keeping a steady beat. Simon then tries to trick the others into clapping at the wrong time by introducing variations—clapping on "one" only, for example; or clapping on "one" and not moving before clapping again on "four." (We do not use numbers to indicate beats, simply the feel of the time spanned by each variation.) This game invites playful transitions to rhythmic notation; rests, dotted notes and ties can be read as Simon saying "Not yet!" or "Wait!" or "When?" or "Now!" 

Sometimes the children use colors on a grid to visualize the longs and shorts of time units. Colors are useful also to distinguish consonance from dissonance: children often find it hard to believe that dissonance can occur on a strong impulse of the measure. 

Instrumental resonance adds to the complexity of perceived rhythm. Children can be fussy about the sound of intervals and chords. They need to be persuaded to sustain those they do not instantly like— their reactions remind me of infants spitting out carrots! Actual sound often severely challenges objectivity about time. This may explain why routine emphasis on only the attack values of rhythm causes many students to ignore duration or release.

Addressing students' gross-motor needs

This approach is based on the findings of Jean Piaget9 and others relating physical development to psychological development. The specific techniques were inspired by work with Melvene Dyer-Bennet, a pioneer in helping adults with unrecognized developmental gaps—in my case affecting gross-motor coordination; and with Dr. Richard Kavner, an optometrist who works with eye/hand coordination. Dyer- Bennet's work paralleled the principles of tone awareness set forth in Sound and Symbol by Viktor Zuckerkandl,10 which I was reading at the time. The coincidence of these powerful influences prompted my quest to pursue developmentally sound ways of teaching the piano based on validating the child's responses. 

Treating a child, no matter how young, as if he or she lacks spontaneous reactions to the elements of music is clearly destructive. As a parent, educator, and artist, I am particularly aware of children whose intellects develop out of sync with their bodies. Their gross-motor needs seem to cry out for attention unaccompanied by pressure. This calls for a teacher's playful resourcefulness in the spirit of mutual exploration, never losing sight of music's power to organize and fascinate. Physical regimentation for such children is counterproductive. 

When musical skills develop in an unforced way, young people show increased commitment to music as integral to their physical, emotional, and intellectual maturation. They take pleasure in sight-reading, despite not being facile readers. Their touch is subtle and distinctive. Their work, clearly meaningful to them, commands attention. 

Parties (not recitals) reinforce this highly individualized learning. The children contribute whatever they wish, often a piece they have learned entirely on their own. No one expects to hear finished work.Whether playing an original piece, a Mozart sonata movement, or improvising, they stimulate one another by sharing their personal involvement with music. Even those who initially fear they will "mess up" cannot resist the urge to participate. 

Many years of coaching adult amateurs in chamber music have shown me further evidence of the sense of this approach. These amateurs, mostly Type-A personalities, include many adolescent music dropouts. They find it almost impossible to imagine a responsive beat. As children who were required to "get it right," they seem to have assumed that reliable counting would magically materialize when they grew up.

Bridging the gap to reading a printed page

Rather than teach meter in the abstract I teach the children to distinguish between: 

  • Dance rhythm: regular and patterned 
  • Song rhythm: impulsive and not repetitive 
  • Puzzle rhythm: free to move however it will 

Because eighteenth-century music all too often leads to imagination-stifling right-note/wrong-note thinking, I use a combination of folk songs and twentiethcentury piano music. We sing together, sharing the accompaniment, stressing the song's story elements to avoid predictability. Because contemporary teaching materials use sounds with which children are familiar from today's media, they invite story-telling and other sources of musical imagery. The best of these, Kurtág's Játékok, uses imaginative notation to access the sound of the whole piano. 

An effective way to teach reading is to emphasize comprehension rather than correct execution—this, too, works well in a shared lesson. The child picks a piece out of an unfamiliar book. Without announcing either the title or the composer, the child plays so that we can tell whether it is a song, a dance, or a puzzle; and perhaps details about tempo, mood, and so on. I sit where I cannot see the score so that I listen without bias. Reactions to this initial reading suggest what might clarify the listeners' impressions. Following a second round of playing and feedback, the student studies the score, closes the book, and reconstructs the music in a quasi-improvisation. The exercise concludes with my playing the piece—not to correct the child's reading, but to compare the composer's treatment of the material to the child's, which often proves more interesting. 

Reading metered rhythm in time is primarily a matter of eye-hand coordination.

Here is an exercise I teach:11

  • Holding a pencil as if it were a baton, conduct the meter and mood of the piece you wish to play. 
  • Still conducting, with the feel of the meter in your body, touch the pencil point lightly to the first note of each measure. Keep your eye inside of that measure until it is time to move to the next. 
  • Adding one beat at a time, touch additional beats in each bar until you can see how time is rendered in standard notation. 

Rather than count beats in each bar we count measures in a phrase, the number of successive measures with a common tone, the number of successive beats in which a given note value is repeated. All learners are empowered by large-scale rhythmic awareness. 

This grounding takes time. But children thus prepared read music of the past with heightened sensitivity to such details as accidentals, inversions, voicings, and rhythmic variation. Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven are their reward, and mine.

Going from large to small is best

A rich supply of contemporary music is available to encourage both student and teacher to approach learning at the piano in an exploratory frame of mind.12 We could avoid much discomfort, both present and future, by taking time at the outset to reinforce gross motor responses to music. 

As Bamberger points out: "One such assumption [hidden in what we rather loosely call 'the curriculum'] was that counting is simply a neutral and 'objective' act."13 Teaching fine-motor skills in relation to an illusory objective beat may be suitable for automaton training, but it has little musical or personal value. 

Playing in time with a friend is without doubt one of life's most rewarding pleasures. Teaching music at the piano becomes inspiring when rhythmic flexibility is a priority for even the youngest learners. 

1 Inspired by an eye-hand exercise of Dr. Richard Kavner, a Behavioral Optometrist in New York City. See Kavner, Richard S. & Dusky, Lorraine (1978). Total Vision. New York: A&W Publishers, p. 25. 

2 Bamberger, Jeanne (1991). The Mind Behind the Musical Ear. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, p. 46. 

3 Ibid., p. 47. 

4 Ibid., p. 48. 

5 Ellen J. Langer writes: "As early as 1898 William James noted that something attended to appears to change even as one attends to it." (Langer, Ellen J. (1997). The Power of Mindful Learning. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, p. 39.) 

6 I was encouraged to try this by Arthur Rubinstein's autobiographical account of playing Beethoven Sonatas together with Josef Hoffman, each taking one hand. It was, as he points out, "a lot easier." (Rubinstein, Arthur (1962). My Young Years. New York: Knopf.) 

7 Seeger, Ruth Crawford (2002). American Folk Songs for Children. New York: Oak Publications. 

8 Teacher/student duets provide excellent opportunities to engage the child in flexible rhythmic interplay, provided there is no trace of simplification on the teacher's part. 

9 I found Piaget's A Child's Conception of Number (1956. London: Routledge & Paul.) particularly helpful in considering rhythm notation. 

10 Zuckerkandl, Viktor (1956). Sound and Symbol: Vol. I: Music and the External World; Vol. II: Man, the Musician (Willard Trask, Trans.). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. 

11 Inspired by an exercise of Dr. Kavner, see note 1. 

12 Sources include: Bartók, Bela (1940). Mikrokosmos. New York: Boosey & Hawkes. Kurtág, Gryörgy (1979). Játékok (multiple volumes). Budapest: Editio Musica Budapest. Finney, Ross Lee (1969). 32 Piano Games. New York: C.F. Peters. Applebaum, Stan (2004 and 2006). Soundworld I and II. Fort Lauderdale, FJH Music Publishers. Several volumes by Steven Covello and the many fine collections by Ruth Crawford Seeger. Stan Applebaum's Creative Rhythmic Reading at the Piano (1972), Schroeder & Gunther, now out of print, was an inspiration in developing this pedagogical approach. 

13 Bamberger, p. 273.

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