Article by Kathleen Ann Theisen, NCTM
ow do I teach dance rhythms to early-level students? I don't! At least not directly. Please read on.
Several years ago, I quit teaching counting per se. Instead, I began to teach pulse and function of beats and rhythms. The results have been dramatic, whether I am working with a piano student, voice student, or a chorus of any experience level. My main tool has been to have students feeling the large beat by making a purposeful full-arm or full-body motion; this helps them establish a sense of pulse as well as meter. Students' tendency to rush or drag the beat disappears when they do this activity and move in a purposeful motion as they speak the rhythm. It also seems to help students tap or pat the beat more purposefully than when I simply use the directive words "tap" or "pat." I have heard this activity informally referred to as patsching. The word itself, patsch, is pronounced pahch, and might be derived from the Yiddish words "patshen" or "patchl" which mean "smack or slap."
In The Ways Children Learn Music (1995), Eric Bluestine wrote, ". . .when most people think of rhythm, they usually don't think of continuous movement; they think of counting beats. True, beats are an important part of rhythm. But one of the first things I teach my students is that beats mean nothing to a person who cannot move with a relaxed, artistic sense of flow."1 Bluestine later writes, " . . .it's not enough that we teach students 'to keep the beat.' First we should teach them to move as the music moves-continuously."2
Children learn rhythm by experiencing pulse and by feeling the space in between the beats. It is important that students begin to internalize the sense of pulse as early as possible in their musical lives. With that in mind, I introduce nearly every piece through the use of rhythmic patterns. As we patsch the big beat, I say various rhythms using rhythmic solfege (syllables). Usually I use rhythmic patterns from pieces that I plan to introduce in upcoming weeks. Finding the pulse with full-body motion while speaking the rhythm establishes a much stronger sense of rhythm than simply clapping the beats. There are times when clapping is helpful, but it does not help children understand or internalize the rhythmic function of the pattern that they just clapped. Speaking a rhythm while patsching the big beat firmly entrenches a sense of rhythm in most students. For the past four years, I have chosen to use rhythmic solfege (or I could call it a rhythmic language) which is often called the Gordon syllable system.3 Simply put, this rhythmic language puts the syllable "du" on every downbeat.4
There are many other rhythm languages in widespread usage today, but "the problem with all these systems is that they are inconsistent with how we audiate."5 Since we audiate the function of beats and not the duration of beats, rhythm syllables should be based on beat function rather that on the time values of notes.6 I have found that the Gordon language works exceptionally well (better, in fact, than all the other rhythm languages I used in my first eight years of teaching) in allowing students to truly be able to sense, experience and perform rhythm.
So how do I apply the Gordon language and all of this movement when I am teaching a piano lesson? In the first few years of study, I have my students sing and play many songs by rote. All singing is done without accompaniment because young students tend to be distracted by the sound of the instrument-they cease to listen to their own voice or their inner sense of pitch. I rely heavily upon multi-cultural folksongs to ensure that students are exposed to a variety of modes and meters. We approach the songs in several ways. First, we sing the melody or individual phrases using a neutral syllable (such as "ah") while we patsch the beat. Then we sing with words while we patsch the big beat. We also say the rhythms with solfege (du, du-de) while we patsch the big beat.
I also encourage rhythmic improvisation within the confines of the meter of the composition. I often speak a rhythmic pattern that is one or two measures long and have the student answer me with a few measures of a different rhythm (in the same meter, of course!). Sometimes I give parameters such as, "I will say a pattern using only du and du-de, but I would like you to use patterns that also incorporate du-ta-de-ta." I have also noticed that students are easily able to take rhythmic dictation after they become adept at the Gordon syllables, because they have developed a strong sense of the relationship between the note values. In addition to singing and improvisation, I sometimes encourage students to create their own written compositions, often as an introduction to the meter of a new performance piece or review of the meter of a previous piece.
One of the results (and advantages!) of working on rhythm in this way is that students become much more sensitive to the melodic and rhythmic shape of phrases. They become aware of larger rhythmic groupings-strong beats and weak beats-as they move and chant. Then, as they shift their attention away from beat structure to phrase structure, their focus is not on upbeats and downbeats but on emphasis and de-emphasis . . . the elasticity, if you will, that is required in performance to give life to musical phrases.7
I have found the use of Gordon syllables and music learning theory to be a revelation. I have radically changed my approach to teaching throughout the past four years, and not only have my students developed a stronger kinesthetic understanding of music-so have I!
For a practical guide that explains how children learn, please read The Ways Children Learn Music: An Introduction and Practical Guide to Music Leaning Theory, by Eric Bluestine, (1995), published by GIA. (The 2nd Edition was recently released.) This is one of the most practical books about learning theory in print today. You may also find it useful to visit the official Gordon/Music Learning Theory website, which contains a wealth of information about how children learn music: www.unm.edu/~audiate/home.html.
By the time most of my piano students reach the dance rhythms of intermediate level repertoire, their understanding of pulse and meter is quite well developed. At that point, we can dance and sing the pieces they are working on. It is pretty typical to see a second or third-year student dance a minuet or waltz all around the room while we both chant the rhythmic solfege or sing the melody (or the bass!) of the composition. If students have difficulty maintaining a steady pulse while performing at the piano, we return to dancing and singing so that they can truly feel the space in between the beats. I encourage students to spend some of their practice time away from the keyboard doing things like patsching the beat while speaking the rhythms or dancing while singing. This time often yields more musical results than their time at the keyboard because they have spent time internalizing the music.
1 Bluestine, Eric. 1995. The Ways Children Learn Music: An Introduction and Practical Guide to Music Learning Theory. Chicago: GIA. Page 39.
2 Ibid. page 40.
3 While the system is often named after Edwin Gordon, 'James Froseth and Albert Blaser also contributed to its construction.' For more information about the Gordon rhythm language, please refer to The Ways Children Learn Music or to Edwin Gordon's Learning Sequences in Music: Skill, Content, and Patterns, (1989). Chicago: GIA.
4 The syllables are pronounced phonetically. Therefore, 'du' is pronounced 'doo,' 'de' is pronounced 'day,' 'ta' is pronounced 'tah,' 'da' is pronounced 'dah,' and 'di' is pronounced 'dee.'
5 The term 'audiation' was coined by Edwin Gordon to refer to the 'sense of music that tells [a person] when to sing what.' It's the sense of inner hearing-the sense of being able to know what will happen next.
6 Bluestine. Page 96.
7 From an email correspondence with Eric Bluestine, September 2000.
KATHLEEN THEISEN, NCTM, is Director of Choral Activities at the Dana Hall School in Wellesley, Massachusetts, where she directs eight choirs involving more than 220 young women, and is responsible for over fifteen major productions a year. She has been an active private voice and piano instructor for eleven years. This season, she will perform in both Gondoliers and Un ballo in maschera with the Boston Academy of Music.