Even the most avant-garde of composers will tell you that their noisiest musical pieces have a sense of rhythmic purpose. You may think that musicians such as Glenn Branca or Laurie Anderson did not have time to inject a beat into their compositions, but you would be wrong. The ambient sounds that Brian Eno creates for his compositions are weaved through beats and rhythmic patterns; we can hear them despite being difficult to comprehend. Notes and melodies can only get us so far with music, which is why we need to grasp the importance of rhythm in terms of composition and performance.
The Greek root of the word “rhythm” conveys the meaning of a flowing stream. When we listen to the sounds made by river water or ocean surf, we discover rhythms produced by nature. When we listen to hit songs such as “Money” by Pink Floyd, we do not question the choice of cash register sounds being woven into the backing rhythm; we just appreciate the cleverness and enjoy it. Our earliest stages of development, which take place in the womb, are serenaded by heartbeats that we come to interpret as rhythmic patterns. It is safe to say that the rhythm is within all of us, so we do not need to learn it as much as we need to practice it.
Rhythm and Steady Beat as Music Concepts
The Prodigies Music program focuses on music theory, and this is why special attention is given to rhythm on quite a few lessons. Rhythm is not very difficult to teach; however, it does require practice, repetition, and reinforcement. We cannot reasonably expect that all early learners will become proficient in terms of rhythm. If you sign up a thousand girls to attend a basketball clinic for beginners, less than a hundred will be able to reasonably dribble the ball in the beginning, and only a few will be talented enough to join collegiate teams later in life; however, any of those girls can become highly skilled in dribbling if they practice on a regular basis. Mastery of rhythm is similar, but early learners have a clear advantage because virtually all of them will enjoy playing steady beat games.
Keeping a steady beat is not only helpful to music learning; it is an excellent tool for overall development. With steady beat activities, you can create experiences that are:
If you encourage music students to explore and practice rhythm, you are essentially giving them a chance to become better musicians in the future.
Creating Beat Patterns
Before we go further into steady beat activities, let’s get some of the terminology out of the way. Beats are units of sound; to this effect, we can think of the hands of a clock marking a sound every second. The rhythm includes time value of beats and notes in order to form patterns. We can think of beats as numbers and rhythms as formulas. Hip-hop producers like to say that they create beats, but in reality they take beats and craft them into rhythms.
Percussion is an excellent way to teach rhythm because it gets students moving and allows them to create music with their bodies as natural instruments. The actions include:
- Clapping of hands
- Stomping of feet
- Snapping of fingers
- Patting of knees
The youngest students should be able to easily handle two-beat patterns before they move on to four beats. You can definitely try three-beat patterns, but it is better to do so after mastering two and four-beat patterns. When you have two or more learners in a class, you can incorporate eight-beat patterns for increased complexity and coordination; on every fourth beat, students can clap each other’s hands as they try to stay within the assigned tempo. If the students are able to sit next to each other, they can also try to pat each other’s knees.
For the ultimate in coordination, you can use online tools such as Splice.com and string together beats that feature four instruments; the idea is to assign each instrument to patting, snapping, clapping, and stomping. If you want to make the lesson more fun, you can have a friendly competition and reward students who are able to keep up with the most complex beats.
Percussion Instrument Activities
As the instructor, you will want to introduce the instrument and explain how it musically enhances body motions such as clapping and stomping. Make sure students thoroughly understand that each sound unit made by the instrument corresponds to a beat; once they have grasped this concept, you can hand the instrument over.
In a homeschooling classroom of just one student, percussion activities are better when there are two instruments; one for the instructor and another for the learner. The whole point of percussion activities is for students to keep the beat, and you can do this by playing any musical piece. Underscore the beat that will be kept by voicing or clapping before using the instrument; the student should do this as well.
Isolating beats and rhythms is important for early learners. In most cases, keeping the beat will not be easy in the beginning, which is why it should be practiced without the rest of the song. Be sure to encourage students to vocalize the beat before they play instruments; this can become a great habit when they choose to compose or improvise later in life. Legendary jazz musician Louis Armstrong, for example, used to scat for hours before picking up the trumpet while composing new songs. German percussionist George Kranz vocalizes his compositions so much that he just ended up recording call-and-response routines such as “Din Daa Daa,” which was an international hit in 1984.
The Touchdown Game
Acoustics is a subject matter within physics, which means that music and mathematics will always go together. When students learn about rhythm, they have an opportunity to incorporate some math concepts through games such as Touchdown. All you need to play this game is one percussion instrument, ideally a drum, and students who are ready to tackle first grade lessons.
Playing Touchdown requires students marching to the beat, hence the need for a drum or an improvised percussion instrument. Tell the students that you will be playing beats that they may or may not be able to march to; if you play random beats, explain that they are not steady and thus unsuitable for marching. Once you start playing steady beats, explain that they are part of a rhythm pattern.
Since this game is better played at different tempos, you may want to take this opportunity to teach about beats per minute, but you can also keep things simple by explaining that sometimes you will play faster and other times slower. Once the students get the hang of marching to steady beats, they will be ready to touch down with body parts in order to solve math problems.
One round of Touchdown consists or marching for about a dozen beats before students are given a simple math problem such as “what is two plus four?” Students are welcome to vocalize their answer, but the idea is for them to provide answers by touching the floor; for example, two stomps of the feet plus four claps of the hands.
Keeping the Beat and Singing
This simple game is ideal for students who are in the preschool and kindergarten ages. Instruments will be nice to have for this game, but you can also have students clap as they sing. Choose a couple of favorite songs such as “Good Morning” and “Criss Cross Apple Sauce.” After singing the song once, explain how they can sound differently when they are sung faster or slower.
Isolate the beat in each of the songs and encourage the students to hum, clap, or play the beat on the instrument. With just one student, the instructor will have to sing while the student plays the rhythm. When the roles are switched around, the instructor will have an opportunity to vary the tempo using the instrument so that the student can match with his or her voice. To make things more challenging, you can add half a measure to each note in addition to speeding or slowing down the tempo.