Learn rhythm the same way you learn language!
(The short video should make much more sense after you read the explanation.)
If you’d prefer to listen to this article rather than read it, please use this audio link:
THE ABC’s of 1-2-3
When did Johnny stop needing to know his ABC’s?
When was he advanced enough in his studies that he no longer needed to know the 44 phonemes — the sounds that the letters make? What? He still uses them? But he has a PhD! OK, so when did he start learning these things? Well, his learning began the first time he heard all those sounds, which was from before the time he was born! And Johnny grew up in America, so as a young child he heard the ABC song over and over and over. Eventually he got so good he could sing it all by himself — his parents bragged about how he could do that! Oh, he still spoke with the imprecision that children do. It was actually rather cute. He had difficulty with his W’s and his TH’s, but nobody tried to force him to be exact in his pronunciation — most of his difficulties would simply resolve with time and experience. He probably didn’t know that “elemenopee” was not one word. In fact, he had no idea what this cute song was even about! And nobody felt a need to explain that to him when he was three or four.
Johnny — well, actually, now Jonathan — grew up and became a linguist. He speaks with perfect diction. He knows all about etymology and graphology and orthography. And He understands what it means that with some words voiceless labiodental fricatives mutate to voiced labiodental fricatives in the plural. (Huh?) And yet, he still uses all the letters and phonemes that he learned when he was a very young boy first learning to read. He didn’t stop using them. The truth is, you actually know many of these things that our friend Jonathan understands as a linguist. And you use them regularly. That part about voiced and unvoiced labiodental fricatives? You use that every time you tell your student that the plural of STAFF is STAVES. But you don’t go into long explanations about Beowulf and Chaucer. You point and you say “This is a staff. If there are two we say STAVES. It’s kind of like LEAF and LEAVES.”
Words are hard
When Johnny was born, his father didn’t say “You know, words are hard. Let’s limit our conversations around him to words only using the letters T, N, and S, and the vowel E, since they seem to be used the most often. And by all means let’s tell him that the stuffed Zebra Aunt Susie bought him is really a tiger. Z is a hard letter, and used infrequently. No, Johnny’s parents spoke normally and taught him the real names of things. Johnny heard all the sounds as they existed in real life, not as they occur in a statistical table or in an audiologist’s office, in no particular order, over and over again, every day. It would only be years later — five, six, seven years after he had been born and listening to all these sounds! — that he’d be learning how these sounds are organized — even though he’d been working WITH that organization all along, by singing his ABC’s and having conversations and listening to stories.
When our friend Johnny was first learning what letters look like, his parents might have used a flashcard or block that had a big letter B on it and a picture of a ball. There was no explanation about glyphs and serifs. They just pointed and said “See this? B. Ball”.
Just how many words are there?
There are approximately a quarter of a million words in the English language in use at any one time. But there are only about fourty-four sounds. The longest word in the Merriam-Webster dictionary is electroencephalographically (contrary to what people think, is not is antidisestablishmentarianism, but I digress). I had never seen that word until I looked it up yesterday. Even if you’ve never seen that word before today, I bet you know how to pronounce it. Because even if you had never heard the word “phoneme” until today, if you speak English fluently, you understand the fourty-four phonemes of the English language.
So what are the phonemes of pulse?
I believe there are ten or eleven SOUNDS, grouped almost always into SIX METERS that will cover the vast majority of our musical rhythmic experiences. If we give our students experiences with all of these sounds and all of these meters from the start, we will drastically reduce the amount of problems with rhythmic comprehension that we encounter in the intermediate and early advanced years of music study. Additionally, we will be giving our students a framework by which they will be able to understand almost every measure of every piece of music they will play.
Many others have created ways of teaching rhythm that are similar to mine. In the past few years I’ve intentionally NOT pursued learning about them, so that I might simply observe what worked and what didn’t work with my own students.
The Plan I Follow
Here’s how I lay a foundation for a lifetime of rhythmic literacy. For this description I’m going to assume Johnny is a young pre-reader. I use this system with all my students, but with slightly modified materials for older beginners and adults. From the first lesson Johnny does the Pulse Picnic Patter with me. I’ve recreated this in the video (above). Every lesson, usually first thing, we listen to the patter, point to the Rhythmic Foods and say the food names. That’s all we do. For the littlest students, we might do this for the first year, with no commentary except “Yuck — bacon pickle pie. That doesn’t sound good!” I make a CD for Johnny and give him a print out of the Pulse Picnic foods, and ask him to begin his daily practice saying and clapping the foods along with the recording.
After many, many, many weeks of this — perhaps even not until the second year of lessons — I’m in no hurry, and I want to make sure he is comfortable with the sounds — we being to clap and count the sounds in various patterns and meters. All eleven sounds, all six meters, the entire rhythmic vocabulary he will be using for the rest of his musical career, be it two years or two decades or for the rest of his life. Sometimes I give him a pattern to clap and speak, sometimes I have him create his own patterns using flashcards I’ve made for this purpose. We make “Yankee Doodle” patterns in groups of 2, or 3, or 4. And we make Hickory Dickory patterns in groups of 2, 3, or 4. And what we’re doing, unbeknownst to Johnny, is learning about simple and compound time, and about duple, triple and quadruple meter. Johnny may end up playing piano his entire life and never know what compound quadruple means, any more than I expect that when you say “STAVES” you know that you’re using a voiced labiodental fricative. But you are. And you know the important thing — that one of them is a STAFF and two or more of them are STAVES. And when Johnny encounters 12/8 time, (sadly, not likely until he is playing advanced repertoire, but that’s a story for another day) he will have had a foundation of clapping Hickory Dickorys grouped in fours. If I have my way, he will play a piece in 12/8 as well as one in 9/8 and in 6/8 while he’s still a pre-reader (yes, I’ve written them for him) and I will explain to him that it’s the Hickory Dickory sounds, grouped in fours or threes or twos. Perhaps I’ll clap the rhythm for him first, and ask him to tell me if he’s hearing Yankee Doodles or Hickory Dickorys, and if he can tell how they’re grouped. Next year, or perhaps the year after that, after he’s started to see what “coconut” looks like in notation, we’ll begin to transition to counting, using one-and-two-and, or Kodaly, or whatever counting method seems to work best. But when he gets confused about certain rhythms, chances are very high that I’ll just need to say, “You know that rhythm. It’s Coconut Pumpkin, Coconut Pumpkin.” (Coconut Pumpkin is the rhythm to one of Mozart’s most beautiful sonata themes. But once again, I digress.)
Where do babies come from?
One more aspect of this. I don’t want my students to think that a quarter note is always worth one beat any more than I would tell my five year old child that babies come from storks, and then maintain that charade until he’s about to enter puberty. If for four or five years I tell a student that a quarter note is worth one beat and a dotted quarter note is worth one and a half beats (can someone please tell me what a half a beat sounds like, exactly?), and then suddenly try to explain that in 6/8 time the dotted quarter note now gets one beat and a dotted half note is worth two beats, it’s going to be rough going. There are ways to be truthful to a five year old about where babies come from while still only giving him the information he can assimilate at that age. That same five year old child can understand that most of the time bedtime is at 7:30, but if it’s a weekend or special occasion then bedtime can be later. Why do we think he can’t understand that if a quarter gets one beat, which it will most of the time, that the music will sound like Yankee Doodle, but if the quarter note that has a freckle is worth one beat, then the music will sound like Hickory Dickory, because notes with freckles usually divide into three?
Well, watch the video, download the PDF. Try it out. See if you think it would be useful. If you think it might be, try it with your kids. Watch the video or simply listen to the audio as you point to the foods with your student. You have my permission to reproduce these materials as many times as you wish for your studio. You may put a link to this page on your own website. However, what you may not do is 1) post these materials on your own site, 2) charge a fee for these materials 3) Use any of these graphics. They were personally drawn for me by a friend, and therefore belong to me. They are not clipart.
I’m in the process of creating flash cards and composing music that I use along with my method of rhythmic training. If you want to stay in touch with me or be notified when I post things on my website about this topic, shoot me an email and let me know.
I welcome your questions and comments!
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