Music Teacher's Helper Blog

Do you tap your toes?

teaching classical music

No matter how beautiful the notes, it’s timing that’s at the heart of the music, so it’s no wonder many players tap their toes. Notes played badly but with good timing still present a recognizable piece of music, whereas notes played beautifully but with careless or unanchored timing can be confusing to listen to, or even unidentifiable.  (See my blog of 10/10.)

How do we make certain of good timing?

There are many angles to that question but for the moment, I’d just like to comment on how musicians reinforce the beat with physical movements, such as tapping feet.

I’ve often noticed that those who play with the clearest sense of timing move physically in some way, as they play. Those who have trouble with timing almost invariably sit or stand nearly motionless.  It seems that even a little motion in time to the music can bring a player down to earth, away from constant worries about how to do everything, and into the realm of feeling the music.

Probably the most important way to reinforce timing is by being more aware of the rhythms we use in physically playing the instrument.  For example, for string players, the bowhand is like a conductor keeping the beat.  This is one key reason the direction and speed of the bow are so important.

But I think it’s important that, in addition to just playing the instrument rhythmically, we have some kind of physical backup system. We can’t afford to rely totally on counting in our head.  This way, if confusion or distraction arises–someone sneezing nearby, or someone walking through the room–the beat can go on.

Typically, musicians tap their toes or heels, or move at the waist, or with the head.

In classical music, it’s frowned upon to make noise while keeping time, so many musicians move their instrument noiselessly in time to the music, or mark phrases with exaggerated breathing.  You can sometimes hear in recordings when the musicians in an ensemble all take a loud breath before playing.  In some musical traditions, making noise isn’t an issue. For example, in French Canadian fiddling, it’s common for musicians to actually step dance in time to their music, while sitting down.  Other players go all out and stomp their feet when the music gets rolling.

Moving to the beat not only helps the player feel the pulse of the music, but also conveys that player’s sense of the beat to others, including listeners and fellow musicians.  Musicians playing in ensembles, from duet on up to large group, do best when they can see or sense the movement of others in the group, especially if some of the players are far away on a large stage.

It’s interesting to note that different movements convey different kinds of beats.  Marching gives a strong beat, since the foot comes down right on the pulse.  But walking or swaying can be ambiguous because the foot comes down first and body weight follows afterward–it may not be clear which part of the movement is the beat.

I like students to tap the toes or heels–or move in any way they choose, as long as it helps them intensify their feel for the pulse of the music.

Some students have trouble with this idea because they mistakenly feel that moving to the beat is yet another movement to coordinate, on top of all their efforts to play their instrument.  In fact, the movement has to come from inside, from a desire to emphasize and communicate the beat.  That’s why no one can dictate which movement will work for any individual; players have to find out what works for themselves.

If a player can’t move to the beat, it may well mean he or she is not sure where the beat actually is.  This is one big reason I think it’s important to see them tap a toe or heel or move in some other way.

How people choose to move to the music doesn’t really matter, as long as the movements help focus and reinforce the musical pulse.

As always, I’m curious as to how you think about tapping toes, moving heels, nodding, swaying, using breath…what do you like to do, and do you teach such movements?  Use the “Add Comment” link below to let us know your thoughts!

About the Author

Ed Pearlman
Ed Pearlman has focused on performing, teaching, and judging fiddle music for over 30 years, offering performances and workshops throughout the USA and in Canada and Scotland. His original training was with members of the Chicago and Boston Symphonies, and he played with orchestras and chamber groups at Yale and in Boston. He currently teaches privately in Maine and at workshops around the countr... [Read more]

9 Comments

  1. Joseph

    simple foot stomping works well in the old guitar Blues tradition – like John Lee Hooker’s music…wow, what a sense of rhythm and pulse!

  2. Anonymous

    I agree with you, but only slightly. Music with beautiful notes and bad timing can still be pleasant or even calming to listen to. It is just like listening to rain; it has bad timing, yet it is still very musical and pleasant.

  3. Anonymous

    In comment 2, I am referring to the first paragraph.

  4. Ed Pearlman

    @ Anonymous: Unmetered music can be beautiful and calming, and white noise like rain is pleasant and even feels sometimes like it has rhythms: crescendoes and decrescendoes, stops and starts. But BAD timing is different–this involves music that was intended to have timing but is played with little regard for it. Even unmetered music carries an implied timing even though it may be elastic.

  5. John H. Smead

    IThis isn’t about MY being a musician, though I had 5 years playing trumpet when I was a boy.
    I now have a dysfunctional immune system, and am pretty much sidelined for life. I love gospel and country music. I have an elaborate headphone system so I can just “be inside” the music. Whenevr I attend concerts with huge speakers I just REALLY want to crawl right into one of the speakers despite he decibel level. My body is falling apart day by day, and I disregard loudness of my earphones. As long as my arphones aren’t “cracking up” I just blast the music into my ears. I have no other way to relate to my environment, to BE PART OF as in running, swinmming, biking and lifting. I find myself tapping in rhythm right on top the earphone bar which runs across from phone to phone.I’ve been terribly curious why this simple rhythmic movement brings such very pleasing, FLOODING emotions through my whole body. It’s like every single endorphin in mny body wells up into me and just about “drowns” me with intense involvement in pleasure, DEEP emotion intense focus, and great, great great powerful, poignant abstract beauty within every body cell. I kind of NOW know what the rhythm of my runs, bikings, swimmings and liftings PULLED me with such force into my verry, very powerful athletic passions which I can no longer do. I recall rocking up-down-up-down a a little boy supposedly taking a nap; the rocking brought a change of consciousness as if I had taken a drug of some sort; the fact that I even noted a consciousness change at the age of 4 is incomprehensibleto me. I KNEW that to stay sane I needed VERY much that rocking movement. Didn’t recognize rhythm though when I ran, swam, biked, and lifted. It took having to “quit living” to recognize that movement and rhythm kept my immune system symptoms away for so MANY years. I taught 4th grade for 35 years; have taken many ed courses, of course, and I even hav a Masters in Psych-Ed. , and yet I was totally unaware of my obsessive need to be that athlete. Am I saying ANYthing YOU don’t already know? Just wondering. Thanks for letting me sond off! Is the need for stimulation in all humans so intense, do you think? My Mother told me when I was 10years-old, that if I quit music that I’d be sorry because I would have to quit sports some day. Didn’t believe her. If I could tell her NOW that she was so right in what she said to me./ It has been fun writing to you. Thanks! John Smead

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