Rhythm: Overthought And Under Taught Part 1 – “1 to 6” -The Missing Link

Mike Lawson • • July 13, 2016

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The more I teach and do clinics the more I realize that rhythm is the key musical element “not sticking” with our students.

One reason is that when we prepare a piece of music we explain the rhythms just enough for them to be performed. After that, we have other things to address and the somewhat accurate portrayal of the rhythms is left alone. Rhythm becomes even more elusive when wind instrumentalists and vocalists think horizontally while trying to express melodies that have to be “shaped”. However, even the percussionists who are taught to think of rhythms vertically often struggle with the most basic rhythms.



Why does this happen and what can we do about it?

Let’s start by identifying the knowledge that our students already possess (this article will assume that the students know the basic notation and values for quarter notes, eighth notes, triplets and sixteenth notes). Our students already know how to count from 1 to 6 and they can do it with much fluidity. And, they have usually had a general music class where they acted out the music, e.g., marched to a song. They have also listened to their favorite music to which they have tapped, bobbed, and danced etc.

The problem occurs when we, as teachers, don’t connect what students know to what we are trying to teach them.

This is where my “1 to 6” concept, or as I call it, “The Missing Link” comes into play. As an experiment – use the exercise “1 to 6” as written at the beginning of this article; tap your foot and/or strike your leg at mm=74 (we will assume that each tap is one beat/one quarter note) and say the following:

One/ One/ One/ One/

Onetwo/ Onetwo/ Onetwo/ Onetwo/

Onetwothree/ Onetwothree/ Onetwothree/ Onetwothree/

Onetwothreefour/ Onetwothreefour/ Onetwothreefour/ Onetwothreefour/

Philadelphia/ Philadelphia/ Philadelphia/ Philadelphia/ FollowtheYellowBrick/FollowtheYellowBrick/FollowtheYellowBrick/FollowtheYellowBrick/ Road

Wow! At this point you are probably thinking that as an experienced performer and educator this should have been easier! All we have really done is to identify the basic beat and put a certain amount of notes evenly between each beat. Just think of how the difficulty level will increase when we start to add the verbiage of counting systems, the look of the notated music, notes and melodies, stickings, fingerings, as well as multiple rhythms against ours!

Sometimes we have to get rid of the excess content so that the learning process starts from the most basic point.

For fun, let’s apply mix and match (remember to tap your foot and/or your leg) Onetwo/ Onetwo/

Onetwothree/ Onetwothree/

Onetwothreefour/ Onetwothreefour/

Philadelphia/ Onetwothree/ Onetwothreefour/ FollowtheYellowBrick/ Road

WOW again!

Because the students are so familiar with numbers and basic pulses most will be able do this after a few tries but they won’t understand that what they have actually accomplished is pretty amazing: fluidly moving between quarter notes, eighth notes, triplets, sixteenth notes, quintuplets and sextuplets!

That’s why “1 to 6” is called The Missing Link.

Now, they can start to hear how their rhythms and subdivisions work against the basic beat while continuing to utilize the knowledge that they already possess.

In order to teach effectively we need to know the levels of difficulty for a particular concept. Establishing a process allows a teacher/student to take into account these levels and what order they need to appear. Here is my big picture rhythm process:

a. Know and play the basic beat (downbeats/pulse)

b. Identify the note grouping (subdivision) for each rhythm

c. Tap the basic beat and say the grouping/subdivision (use “1 to 6”)

d. Tap the beat while saying the rhythm (use any system you like)

e. Play the rhythm while tapping your foot

f. Sing the melody while tapping your foot

g. Play the melody while tapping your foot

h. March and play the rhythm

i. March and play the melody

Consider how many coordination problems could be avoided during marching band if every student knew where their rhythms fit against the beat/pulse.

Rhythm needs to be reinforced.

The concept of rhythm is easy but the application takes a long time to solidify. Don’t underestimate how much time and effort it will take for a person to develop their rhythmic accuracy. Using every device from grooving multiple rhythms, flash cards, rhythm dictation, playing two-handed rhythms etc., will allow the teacher/student to “chip away” at the fleeting nature of rhythmic accuracy. Our goal is to have every student be able to figure out and perform rhythms on their own.

Let’s expand the “1 to 6” concept: Solution: items in parenthesis are implied

One(two)/ Onetwothree/ (One)two/ Onetwothree(four)/ (Followthe)yellowbrick/ Onetwo/ Onetwothree/ One(twothree)four/ Onetwothreefour/ Onetwothreefour/ Onetwothreefour/ Onetwothreefour/ Philadelphia/ Onetwothreefour/ Followtheyel(lowbrick)/ One(two)/

In case you are wondering, I use the verbiage “Opportunity I have” for groups of seven.

“1 to 6” – The Missing Link will allow the teacher and/or student to solidify the basic beat and have a starting point for the transfer of knowledge/concepts and it shouldn’t interfere with the counting system that you currently utilize.

Kevin Lepper is the retired Director of Applied Studies and Professor of Percussion at VanderCook College of Music in Chicago, Illinois. He is an active free-lance percussionist and educator in the Chicago area. A wide range of experiences, including El Paso Symphony, Cavaliers Drum and Bugle Corps, The Chautauqua Ensemble (world music), That Memorial Ragtime Marimba Band, and many commercial recording sessions, allow Mr. Lepper to be classified as a “total percussionist”. He is a member of Phi Mu Alpha fraternity and has numerous published works in the marching band medium. Through his company (Advantage Network) he has published a series of educationally-based percussion ensembles and three volumes of Boomwhackers ensembles written specifically for the junior high school and beginning high school performer. Kevin Lepper is a Yamaha Performing Artist.



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