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Questions & Answers

Q. I understand that you believe in swinging, clapping, and tapping as methods for developing rhythmic security in young students. Please suggest the ways in which you use each modality in your own teaching.

A. All three methods are invaluable ways in which to develop rhythmic security in young students. All are equally important, but each has its own special value and purpose. 

Swinging is a sure-fire way to develop students' awareness of steady pulse. When students allow their arms to become pendulums, swinging with what we call a "free-arm swing" from as high as they can reach on the right side of the body to as far as they can reach on the left side of the body, they are experiencing pulse with their entire bodies. As this arm-pendulum becomes free and steady, you will notice that students unconsciously begin to move with their whole bodies, shifting weight from foot to foot as they swing. Later we change to "swing and count," swinging the pulse while counting the rhythm. 

Aside from walking, running or dancing to rhythm, swinging is the largest physical activity students can have, and we always go back to it when a new note value or rhythmic pattern is introduced. In all swinging, the arm keeps track of the metric pulse, not of note values or rhythm patterns. 

In clapping, the pulse is felt while the note values or rhythmic patterns are clapped. Clapping, therefore, is the next step in rhythmic refinement; because students feel the rhythmic patterns with their hands, it is muscularly one step closer to playing. 

Clapping is always done while standing up, so the pulse can be felt in the whole body—arms hanging loosely, elbows free, motions large. When clapping a rest, students separate their hands with a rhythm gesture of opening, while they whisper the counts. 

Tapping is very much like clapping but is yet another step closer to actually playing. Again the pulse is felt, while the notes or rhythmic patterns are tapped. Tapping can be done on a table, keyboard cover, or piano bench. The hand and arm should be free, and the tapping is done with a light bounce of the fingertips. 

Right-hand notes are tapped with the right hand, left-hand notes with the left hand; staccato notes are tapped as short as possible, legato notes as smoothly as possible; accents are tapped with extra stress; moves up or down the keyboard are actually tapped on a higher or lower part of the table or keyboard cover; and dynamic levels are expressed with greater or lesser pressure. 

Whereas clapping is an important preparatory step in learning new rhythms, tapping is a basic practice tool in working out new music. Tapping is one of the best aids I know for developing coordination between the hands, and I consider it one of the most essential rhythm practice steps. 

Q. One of my students is an intelligent boy who understands rhythmic notation, yet he seems unable to play his music with real rhythmic security. I never assign a piece until he has proved he can point and count the rhythm, both accurately and with a feeling of strong rhythmic pulse. Can you tell me what step I am missing? 

A. Without knowing your student, it is impossible to speak with real certainty about this difficulty. But here are four ideas, which may help you find the answer to his problem. 

  1. Understanding an element doesn't necessarily mean being able to perform it. 
  2. The first playing of a new piece is the most important step in the learning process. 
  3. It is easier to feel the rhythm of a piece at a moderately fast tempo than at the slow, secure tempo required for a first reading. 
  4. Rhythmic control is closely related both to reading and to technique. 

To apply these four ideas to your student's problem, I suggest that when you assign new music, you not only hear him count the rhythm out loud, but also ask him to play and count (at least part of the piece) so slowly that there can't be any errors. 

In this first very slow reading, you may make one or more very important discoveries about your student. He may be unable to feel the rhythmic relationships at a slow tempo. You may find that the music you have assigned is too difficult for him to read with real rhythmic security, even at a slow tempo. Or, you may learn that he can read the notes and rhythms, but he lacks the necessary technique to play the piece. In this case, what seem to be rhythmic problems may actually be technical problems. 

The only way to be sure which of these issues is your student's problem is to work out new pieces with him at the lesson so that you can observe what goes wrong in the first reading. Perhaps the solution will lie in selecting easier music, or in emphasizing some skill you may have been neglecting. 

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Piano Magazine is the leading resource for pianists, piano teachers, and piano enthusiasts. We bring you informative, interesting, and inspiring ideas on all aspects of piano teaching, learning, and performing. The official name of Clavier Companion magazine was changed to Piano Magazine in 2019.

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