“Eric’s got no sense of rhythm”, sighs his mother, as she drops him off for his lesson one day. “I guess it runs in the family. I never could play in time, and I can’t dance at all.”
“Come on, Eric,” I say, encouragingly, looking down at the anxious nine year old, fiddling with his music case. “Let’s go have some fun.” Later, after we march around the room keeping time with the music and take turns to play rhythmic patterns on the drums, it seems far more likely to me that he’s just been disconnected from his natural sense of pulse and rhythm.
So how can we assist our students in getting back in touch with that natural connection?
Firstly, step away from the instrument. Put down that violin. The 19th century teacher Emile Jaques-Dalcroze invented one of the most effective methods I’ve come across: Dalcroze Eurhythmics. He discovered that students absorb musical concepts best by involving their whole body in their musical education. The method uses many exercises which could be easily adopted by any music teacher, for example, walking around the room to a quarter-note beat, whilst clapping alternate beats, then on command, changing to every third, fourth, and finally fifth beat. Or walking to a quarter-note-beat whilst clapping eighth notes and then switching to running in eighth notes whilst clapping quarter notes.
Other exercises involve bouncing balls in time with the music, alone or with a partner, circle dances, and responding expressively to music using different ways of walking, body and arm movements. Feeling kinesthetically connected to the music can also enhance the students’ emotional and expressive response to it, and it’s hugely enjoyable too. If you’re interested in seeing examples, youtube is a good resource.
Secondly, use your voice. Singing games abound, many of which involve moving rhythmically to the music, for example, for children, old favorites such as Lucy Locket, There’s a Penny in my Hand, The Farmer in the Dell, and so on. The original derivation of the word rhythm meant rhyming or rhymed verse, and using songs certainly can assist students to feel a steady pulse. When I was working with a group of five-year-olds recently, they begged for “Lucy Locket” every single week.
Thirdly, loosen up. Body rhythm or body percussion can be enormous fun— creating rhythmic patterns using parts of the body for example, clapping, stamping, finger-snapping, chest slapping, tongue-clicking and other vocal sounds. It can be very effective both in solos and duos (counterpoint, anyone?), or in a large group and works equally well with children and adults. Some fantastic examples can be found at http://www.percusion-corporal.com/
Activities like these bring greater confidence and control, both musically and personally, helping to develop healthy and balanced individuals. In fact, having spent some time investigating resources for this article, I’m fired up to develop my rhythmic skills to a higher level— after all, the sky’s the limit.