This morning I gave a student a short canon to learn, and began by suggesting that he clapped the rhythm first, before trying to sing it. His attempt was pretty unsuccessful, and so I set about trying to work out what was going wrong. He could cope with crotchets and minims, but as soon as things moved to dotted notes and quavers it quickly fell apart – he appeared to be considering each note as an individual unit, rather than looking at the whole bar in the context of the pulse. In other words, counting 2 for a minim and 1 for a crotchet is fine, but how do you count 1 and a half for a dotted crotchet, or half for a quaver? I think the simple answer here was with difficulty, evidently!
However, once I suggested that he tried counting the pulse aloud – 1, 2, 3, 4 – and then clapping the rhythm within the context of that pulse, his attempts were significantly better, and he went on to sight-clap (is that a term?) several other rhythms almost perfectly. Instant results! It seems that he has just been missing a tiny but vital hint which has now put all of his knowledge into a much more workable method.
Intrigued, I ran the same test on another pupil later on the same day, and with exactly the same results; she too counted the length of each note in turn rather than in the context of the pulse, and as soon as dotted crotchets and quavers appeared she went to pieces. I asked her how the counting went in her head:
“1-2, 1-2, 1, 1-2, 1, 1 er ….?”
As ever, the same question looms in my mind when I discover pupils with such glaring holes in their skill set – alarmingly both of these pupils are beyond Grade 5. How have they got this far without someone having fixed such an elementary issue?
I’d like to offer two answers to this question. The first might be this: because they disguise their weaknesses, either knowingly or otherwise, learning to navigate their way around difficulties by other means. In my experience, children can show all the outward signs of understanding something when in reality their understanding is far from secure! For instance, if the pupil has a quick ear, and the teacher is kind enough to play the piece first, the rhythm might not be read at all, just remembered. Handy for the student, but unwittingly we might actually not have helped them very much with that initial play through. To learn that piece maybe, but not to develop the skills to learn any piece.
The second answer might be that nobody has taken the trouble to fix it. How often do we ask our pupils to clap the rhythm of a piece before playing it? And much more importantly, if it’s not spot on, do we just ‘put it right’ – “it goes like this, now you try” – or do we actually dig a little deeper and work out how to help them to put it right for themselves. Telling is not teaching, but so often it’s a quick and easy way to get results.
Once again I find that Two-part hearing development, a collection of two-part canons selected by David Vinden, is a truly wonderful teaching resource. If a pupil can clap their way through this volume then I can be sure that I can count on their rhythmic security.