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How do you teach the rhythm challenges in Debussy's Clair de lune?

In this department over the past thirteen years, many authors and myself have alluded to two different meanings of the term "rhythm." Prosaic rhythm (also called counting rhythm) is the mere timing of events decoded from the printed page using counting or other methods. Poetic rhythm is much broader, encompassing virtually everything musical and physical that occurs between, around, and through the beats - curves of energy that ebb and flow in cycles. Thus, "rhythm" sometimes refers to one aspect or the other, or both. 

A fact of life for teachers is that students do need to learn how to produce an accurate rendering of a composer's prosaic notated rhythms, even though that is only a first step and an approximate portrayal of the rhythms as they will be when the student learns to bring forth an expressive poetic performance. I cannot think of another piece in the standard piano repertoire that challenges students more in the interplay between both aspects of rhythm than Debussy's Clair de lune. On one side of the spectrum are well-meaning students who pay such religious attention to the timing of the notes-and seemingly not much else-that they can't get past a robotic performance. For example, triplet and duplet eighth notes do not necessarily need to sound like "oil and water" when close together. On the other extreme are students who blissfully ignore most of Debussy's notated rhythms, and whole-heartedly produce what they think is a dreamy rendition that actually has very little to do with what Debussy intended, and that is in fact arrhythmic. (I am certain I fit into this category as a youngster.) Although learning how to faithfully trans late notated rhythms into musical ones is an art that takes years to develop, grappling with this problem in Clair de lune inevitably helps a student to mature musically. Just as important, it can be highly pleasurable for both student and teacher.

After my students have mastered the prosaic rhythms, I love asking them the following kinds of questions as spring-boards for subsequent musical exploration: 

• There are many silent downbeats that are tied or have rests- what does that do to the feeling of the music? Why might the composer have done that so much in this piece?

• Debussy sometimes wrote rubato explicitly into his notated rhythms-where do you see examples of that? What additional "performer rubato" is needed in such passages to make them sound truly alive?

• Where are there longer groups of fast melodic notes? Where do sustained notes impede forward motion? How can you help the listener perceive these groupings?

• Where are the harmonies not in root position, or even in some cases rootless? How does that color the feeling of the rhythm? How does it impact the rhythm when the roots are prominently stated in the bass? 

These kinds of questions are meant to help students learn how to produce pliable floating performances that don't necessarily sound "rhythmic" on the surface, yet are pulsing and breathing in accord with Debussy's meticulous notations. To achieve that, it is impossible to separate shaping, balance, dynamics, and pedaling from rhythm.

Two marvelous teachers and writers, Amy Greer and Steve Betts, now share with you their insights into teaching the prosaic and poetic aspects of rhythm in this beloved classic. . 

Small notes

by Amy Greer

The answers reside in the small notes.

I am convinced that any honest look at rhythm always starts there. It is the small notes that mandate how you can stretch and pull rhythms, how you can rob some measures of time and make it up in others, how you can persuasively argue for some rhythmic interpretations: if you take care of the small notes, the big beats are usually just fine.

But here is where things get a bit dicey. While most musicians would agree with these statements, there is little agreement as to how we teach this rhythmic management, or how we knit it into our own playing. Counting is part of it but not the whole story. The metronome can certainly fix tempo problems, but it does little to teach us to organically own the pulse. Managing musical time with authority and artistry is an entirely different thing from just playing the right .rhythms at the right time, important as that is. So the question remains: how do we get there? 

The power of movement

The answer for me, both in my teaching and my playing, has been to let the body figure it out away from the piano, through movement. One such exercise is to keep the pulse in one part of the body by conducting beat patterns or stepping or clapping the pulse, and then to add the rhythm of the music in question by tapping, clapping, or counting the rhythm out loud. I have learned entire recitals this way, and I teach my students to do the same. 

Debussy's Clair de lune has plenty of potential rhythmic problems. The piece is so familiar that it threatens to be one that students play in the "karaoke" style of rhythmic faking: that is, playing it mostly by ear instead of really learning how the rhythms are built. If one approaches the rhythm using this kind of movement, however, it breaks down quite simply. Written in 9/8 meter, the pulse is always a dotted quarter note-this underlying beat can be stepped by the feet. The next level is the eighth notes, grouped in twos or threes. This rhythm works nicely tapping in the hand. Beginning in measure 27, the smallest subdivisions are sixteenth notes, and that rhythm is most easily managed by counting out loud. 

While using movement and counting to organize these rhythmic layers is a good start, we aren't quite to rhythmic mastery yet-it is still too easy to phone this in. Aside from the basic level of coordination needed to pull this off, stopping our rhythmic work here can lead to very accurate but very boring interpretations; and in the case of the Debussy, to rigid and deadly performances. 


My husband is a choral conductor and has been heavily schooled in the art of count-singing, most often attributed to the late Robert Shaw. Using this rehearsal method, choristers ignore the text and sing on pitch every subdivision of every beat. (One and Two and Three and Four and...) I watched Matt do this for years without thinking much about it, but then one day I decided to incorporate it into my move-ment work and see what happened.

And that's when I realized it's all about the small notes. The smallest subdivision is what gives us "permission" to play with rhythm in an artistic and organic way. This erases the danger of tempo changes being erratic and confusing to the listener, and it forces one to make physical sense ofwhat is really happening underneath the pulse. What I discovered in working with the two ideas together-count-singing in conjunction with rhythmic movement-is that the sum of the two is much more effective than either practice technique on its own. Count-singing forces one to organize the subdivisions, but it doesn't necessarily follow that one owns the pulse underneath. Likewise, movement work gives authority over the pulse, but it doesn't mean the subdivisions are being accounted for honestly. Using the two together works beautifully in the Debussy. Although there is no one way to do this, one approach is to step the dotted quarter notes and tap the eighth notes while count-singing evoy subdivision of the music- eighth notes from mm. 1-26 or sixteenths from m. 27 to the recapitulation. Doing this simultaneously means that the ownership of both the rhythm and the pulse is much more organic.

Getting to the next level


Even with all this good rhythmic attention, however, students won't necessarily manipulate rhythm in an artistic manner. It takes deliberate work to get to the next leveL Regardless of the piece or the style, I often start with just the score-moving and count-singing the rhythms with students, perhaps even without much knowledge of how the piece actually sounds. Later, all this movement and counting can be used in conjunction with listening to recordings, and it is a wonderful way to teach students to evaluate whether an interpretation works from a rhythmic point of view. In addition, I regularly demonstrate by playing their music, asking students dents to move and count-sing with me. Later I do the same while they play: stepping beats, tapping small notes, singing rhythms and subdivisions to help guide their musical interpretation. This work takes time, but it is well worth the investment. If the body can organize the layers of beats, tempo changes, and rubato without having a physical breakdown, the music will almost always work. Any hitch in the body's ability to do this indicates that there is a problem musically. From experience, r have learned that if I skip this step then my playing suffers, and if I don't demand this work from my students, their performances lack rhythmic integrity as well. It is important that this process never becomes stagnant–it changes with every recording we listen to, and with every practice session and every lesson. This keeps the playing and musical ideas fresh while also teaching that the range of possibilities is varied (but not limitless) and exists along a beautiful artistic spectrum. 

The truth is, regardless of the piece or musical style, the small notes are always the canary in the mineshaft. If they are moving naturally, the music has a chance to sing. 

Amy Greer is a pianist, teacher, and writer living in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Recognized for her creative approach to traditional piano teaching, she holds a bachelors degree in piano performance from the University of Missouri-Columbia and a masters degree from the University of Missouri-Kansas City. She has published numerous articles in various music publications, and her column Marking Time: Notes from a Musician's Journal appears in American Music Teacher. Convinced she was a dancer in a previous life, Amy uses any excuse to incorporate movement and bodywork into workshops and music lessons. 

Sequenced preparation

by Steve Betts

Claude Debussy's Clair de lune is a favorite piano piece of both piano students and the general public. A recent search of the iTunes store revealed hundreds of choices, including versions for full orchestra, guitar ensemble, violin, harp, clarinet, and euphonium. A YouTube search returned thousands of hits; among them were a video of a lady playing the piece on a theremin and a recording featuring a harmonica. There are versions by the Swingle Singers and the Glenn Miller Orchestra, and the original piano version is even part of the album Kitten Smart - Classical Music for Kittens.

Some of my students have requested to play the piece, eagerly showing me their copy of the score. Their enthusiasm often wanes when we discover the rhythmic challenges of the first section. The piece is more difficult than it looks, sometimes catching students off-guard. For rhythmically-challenged students, the first twenty-six measures and the return of the opening section near the end of the piece create a major hurdle. Below are some ways I try to equip students to successfully learn the rhythms of this masterpiece. 

Preparation is key

One of the first considerations is how comfortably the student can read and play in the key of n Major. Some preliminary work in this key might be advantageous, such as playing some easier pieces in five flats, working on the scale, and practicing arpeggios and cadence patterns. I'm a big fan of having students harmonize and play familiar tunes by ear in the keys of their repertoire pieces. If I have trouble finding easier pieces in, five flats, I might choose some pieces in D Major and have the student transpose them to Major.

In order to successfully play the first section of the piece, the student must be able to move instantly from dividing the beat in thirds to dividing it in half. If this is a new concept to the student, I might start by having the student conduct a pattern for a measure with three beats while verbalizing subdivisions of the beat. For instance, while the student is conducting, he says aloud the following rhythm (see Example 1).

Example 1: A basic rhythm exercise

Following this, it is helpful to switch the meter to 9/8, so that the connection to Clair de lune will be strengthened (see Example 2). 

Example 2: Rhythmic drill in 9/8 meter

Next, we will apply this rhythmic concept to drills using scales or Hanan exercises, moving the student one step closer to the piece (see Example 3). 

Example 3: Scale or Hanon-type drills reinforcing the rhythmic pattern

The next step involves a worksheet designed to gradually lead a student to the opening rhythm of Clair de lune. Each system moves incrementally closer to the hand distribution of the first four measures of the piece (see Example 4).

Example 4: A worksheet for learning the rhythms in Clair de lune

Once the student is able to accurately tap this worksheet on the fallboard of the piano, he is then ready to apply it to the actual pitches of the first four measures. This usually ensures the student can successfully execute the rhythms. 

Beyond the notated rhythms


Successfully completing the above steps does not, however, guarantee a musically- sensitive performance. Once I am convinced the student understands the rhythm and can play it comfortably with the metronome, then the student can begin to work on playing with more expression and freedom. I am a big fan of using recordings to help the student hear artistic subtleties of the piece, once he has proven he can successfully play the rhythm. Just as a child learns his native tongue by listening, so must a student learn the nuances of rhythmic artistry. iTunes can be a great resource for this. For about a dollar a track, many performances by well-known artists are available. A recent search returned performances by Walter Gieseking, Van Cliburn, Claudio Arrau, Earl Wild, William Kappell, Leon Fleisher, Peter Frankl, and others. It is an educational treasure to purchase performances by three or four different artists and then sit with your students and discuss the similarities and differences among the interpretations. It helps students realize that different artists approach the same piece in varied ways, it sensitizes their ears to artistic playing, and it can lead them to begin to make their own interpretative choices. In a world where nuance is not celebrated, this can be a lesson that can literally change students' lives. Even the orchestrated versions can provide new insights that may help with dynamics, phrasings, and articulation.

Played well, Clair de lune is a joy to experience for performer and listeners. With careful preparation and attention to musical ideals, we can all strive to play and teach this piece with the artistry it deserves. 

Steve Betts is Professor and Chair of the School ofMusic at Southern Nazarene University. He has presented research and appeared as panelist and presenter at national conventions of the Music Teachers National Association and Music Educators National Conference. His articles have appeared in The American Music Teacher, Bulletin of the Council for Research in Music Education, The Journal of Research in Music Education, Keyboard Companion, and Keys. He has recorded for Summit Records and Crimson Heart Records and is a contributing author to The Music Tree piano course, published by Alfred Publishing Co., Inc. 

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