Rethinking My Approach, Part 2: Rhythm/Pulse

In another post, I wrote about how one of my schools performed a particularly poor Winter Concert. That experience has forced me to reflect on my teaching techniques and rethink some of my basic approaches to working with those students. In my previous post, I shared some thoughts about how I’ll address classroom management. In this post, I’ll write about a more musical issue: rhythm and pulse.

j0315697During the final rehearsals before the Winter Concert, my Concert Band at one school was having serious rhythmic problems. Maybe I assumed that once the students had a better handle on their individual parts, the ensemble’s rhythm would begin to gel together. Unfortunately, it didn’t happen, at least to my satisfaction. So here’s what I plan to do about it:

1. Rhythm studies. These have been a consistent part of my teaching for years now, but I think I’ve focused more on students’ abilities to count rhythms independently than I have focused on the ensemble’s ability to maintain a consistent pulse together. In other words, just because Johnny and Susie can each count dotted quarter notes, that doesn’t mean they will play them well collectively.

2. Metronome. I’ve written elsewhere about using a metronome in private lessons. But I think it’s time I experiment with using one in class, at least while working on rhythm studies. I want to teach my students that part of ensemble playing is listening in addition to playing one’s own part. Perhaps using a metronome will help them learn to do so, or at least help them to acknowledge the problems they’re having.

3. Conducting Exercises. Another reason for these students’ rhythmic problems could be that they are not watching me enough. At several points during the concert, I thought, “If only these kids would look up, they could find beat 1, and we’d be back on track!” I plan to teach my students the basic conducting patterns, a few basic left hand gestures (no puns, please!), and do some exercises which force them to watch the conductor while they play.

If any of you have experience with helping an ensemble overcome some serious rhythm problems, by all means share them here!


8 thoughts on “Rethinking My Approach, Part 2: Rhythm/Pulse

  1. I have successfully used a metronome in rehearsal quite a bit. I simply hook it up to some kind of external speaker, usually a long-ranger or guitar amp. It gets the students to all focus on playing precisely in time. At first, it was particularly frustrating for students, because they couldn’t stay with it. I think you have to be careful not to just leave it on all the time, but instead to work on small sections with the metronome at first. This helps eliminate the frustration factor. Hope this helps! Good luck!

  2. Yes! I use the metronome frequently in rehearsal. When I was teaching beginners, I would use it all the time. Even to the point where we had after school “section concerts” in the fall and even used it then. I didn’t use it for the Christmas Concert or Spring concert, but I even had one there during rehearsals up to the day of the concert.

    Now that I have moved up to the middle school, I go away from it more and more, but I even find myself tapping on my podium, or a music stand, or a misbehaving stud….ummm, or whatever else I can find that works. The kids hate it, but they play together and don’t fall apart as often!

    We just have a McAdams and don’t hook it up to a system or anything. I also have a couple of metronomes on my iPhone that work really well for individual work.

  3. Two games I like to play : one is while playing, if people sense things start to rush or drag, stop playing and raise their hands; I choose someone or ask the ensemble where the rushing or dragging was coming from. Great for fine-tuning discrete listening skills, too.

    The second game helps remind the ensemble to watch : while conducting, I hold up so many fingers in my left hand. When I stop, I ask who saw how many fingers I was holding up.

    Finally, I haven’t tried this one yet, but I’m brainstorming ways to use beatboxing to help teach pulse and rhythm. Let me know if you have any ideas on this front.


  4. I play a chorale and fluctuate the tempo a whole lot. I’m spending about 25-30 minutes in rehearsal on warming up right now, which includes about 10-15 minutes on chorale work.

    Work on things such as dynamics, style, note length, tempo. Make sure they are watching. Make HUGE changes as well as gradual ones.

    Something else that helps solidify togeterness is bopping — playing the beginning of the note without the middle or end. The attack without the sustain or release.

  5. Wow. Great ideas, guys. I am definitely going to try Greg’s idea of holding up fingers, and Joel’s technique of making changes to dynamics and tempo.

    Like Doug, I have been experimenting with using an amplified metronome, and have had some success. At this point, I use it more as an exercise and not as a constant element of rehearsing our music. My beginning groups often play along with the accompaniment CDs that come with the Essential Elements method books, which serve as a metronome of sorts.

    I’ve heard some recent improvement from ensembles which have the biggest tempo problems. I’m making a big deal of tempo in general throughout rehearsals, so hopefully those students are getting the idea of how important this issue is, and how much room for improvement we have.

    I’ll do a follow-up post later.

    Again, thanks for your comments and suggestions. Keep ’em coming!

  6. Personally, I feel like the EE accompaniment CDs are too fast for every day playing with 6th grade beginners. I might use them as a weekly treat or if there’s a sub or if I have other things that need to occupy my time, but I like to start out way slow (50-55) and gradually increase tempo up to around 80. I keep beginners below 80 most of the year.

    Why? Because foot tap, posture, hand position, tone, and air are FAR more important than technique. Technique is easy to add later (just increase tempo), but those basic habits are much more difficult to add after the bad habits have been established.

  7. Pingback: Music Education Blog Carnival, 1st March 2009 « Tanbur Music Education Blogspot

  8. Pingback: Metronome CD « Music Ed Lounge

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