Monday, November 21, 2016

We Got the Beat! How are Rhythm and Beat Different?

"Wow, I love this new song! It has a really great beat."  What does it really mean when a song has a great beat?

Today I'll break down the difference between some useful music words like beat, meter, rhythm, and tempo. We are always talking about how important it is to give students lots of experience with finding beat, matching beat, and keeping steady beat, so today I'll make sure readers know what we mean and give you some ideas of how to get the beat at home.

Steady Beat Quiz

A beat is nothing more than a steady pulse. Voila. Boring? Maybe. But really important. Everything else in music will be centered around, and defined by that pulse

Young musicians practice listening to music and identifying the beat, then trying to move with it and keep that beat going. All babies and children inherently play and dance to matching beat. This little cutie is the daughter of Let's Play Music teacher, Darlayne Coughlin, in Wisconsin. When your Mom leads the drum corps for the Green Bay Packers, you get plenty of chances to match the beat. She can't help but let her body move when she hears it. All babies and toddlers benefit from an environment filled with music and rhythm: they will naturally look for a steady pulse and try to move to it.


Now that you and your child are in Let's Play Music, you can consciously work on getting even better at matching a beat. Interested to see how well you can already keep a steady beat?  Take this quick test (and maybe post your results in the comments). When someone can maintain a steady beat, we say they've "got rhythm."

can you keep a steady beat test?

You tried to keep all of your taps spaced evenly and precisely in time. That means you can maintain a steady beat after hearing it tapped out for you. Great job! If some beats were too early and some too late, it means you're human and have room for improvement.

A more natural example of beat-finding would be listening to real music and clapping along to the beat. Because the tempo (speed of music) is different for many styles of music, this is definitely worth practicing. 

In the first 3:00 minutes of this video from Hoffman Piano Academy, you'll be challenged to clap along to some piano pieces of different tempi.  Can you do it?

How is Rhythm Different from Beat?

The beat is the steady underlying pulse of the music. Importantly, the beat continues steadily even when no instruments or voice sound on the beat. Conversely, there can be lots of sounds happening all in a single beat of time. of the sound and silence organized in time is rhythm. Rhythm is a pattern of durations, organized on top of the beat. To understand and perform rhythms, the student must first interpret the steady beat supporting them.

In Sound Beginnings class, a heart map (beat map) helps students tap along to the beat of a song. I love using the heart symbol because it reminds us that the heartbeat is a natural steady beat children are familiar with. Here's a worksheet used by piano teacher, Susan Paradis.

Rhythms create silence on some beats (rests or notes that carry over for more than one heart) and multiple sounds within other beats (eighth notes, sixteenth notes, and combinations of them). In the rhythm worksheet, students can insert notes or rests for each beat of the music to create their own rhythm.  Watch the Hoffman video again (starting at 3:20) to see an example of how to use the heart beat map.

As we sing a song, we could tap each heart steadily in progression: this is keeping the beat. Or we can clap along with the quick and slow pauses that are played by the instruments or sung with lyrics: this is playing the rhythm. 

Rhythm is exciting and fun! Read about our Blue Bugs for an inside look at how rhythm syllables will help your student learn to perform them easily and correctly.

Also check out the Theta Music Trainer website for games that help you combine notes to create rhythms.
What's the Meter?
Meter is one more important piece to rhythmic understanding. Meter is the recurring pattern of stronger and weaker beats. It is what gives music its ebb and flow and determines the time signature of a piece. Notice in the worksheet above, each line says 4/4 (time signature), denoting the meter.

Here is your handy dandy time signature decoder: the top note tells you how many beats are in a measure. The bottom note tells you what type of note is going to get one beat. So there are four beats per measure and a quarter note would be one beat in 4/4 time.

A measure is simply a 'chunk' of beats. Importantly, the first beat of each measure, the downbeat, is felt with more emphasis. After listening to a few measures of music, you'll start to feel that every fourth beat is a downbeat (4/4 time). Or perhaps every third beat has the emphasis (3/4 time). Try it: this video plays a cute piano tune with both 3/4 and 4/4 time. I especially like the part where you (and your student) can follow along with the notation as the notes play- can you read what you are hearing?


Audiation and Rhythm

While a child may be able to perform a steady beat, we also want him to feel a steady beat. 

Did you catch that subtlety? One step is performing (clapping/tapping) the beat along with a song or even all alone to keep a steady beat. The next level is being able to audiate that beat and keep it going during parts of the song when sustained notes require counting several beats.  

Audiation is the mental/ internal hearing of music or beat when there is no external instrumentation. In other words, can you keep a steady beat going in your mind even when you're not tapping it out on a drum? Rhythm cannot be audiated without a metric context; therefore, never rely on rhythm syllables to generate the rhythm without an established beat and meter first.

You Got the Beat at Home!
So when I say, "I love this song! It has a great beat!" that's technically silly: every song has a great beat. What we all know I mean is it has a strong bass line (an instrument is clearly tapping out the beat, as a base layer, like in pop music). That makes it easy for me to identify the beat, and if the tempo is peppy, I probably want to dance! 

Many activities in Sound Beginnings and Let’s Play Music are centered on developing this capacity to match a beat, then eventually feel and 'hear' a steady beat where there is no beat actually being sounded. Here are some fun ways you can strengthen these skills at home:

  • Show Him the Beat: Take your child in your lap and rock him to the beat of the lullaby you listen to. Even better, as you rock to the beat, also pat his back. You're helping him see that he can move and tap to match what he hears. When driving in the car with a fussy child, I reached my hand back and squeezed her foot to the beat of the music we were listening to. She got very quiet and focused on trying to wiggle her ankle to the beat to respond to me.
  • Heart Maps: Use your heart beat map from Sound Beginnings, or just draw 8 hearts on paper and help your preschooler tap along as you sing a song. Make it a fun game by pulling strips from a jar with song titles so the next song is a surprise.
  • Family Dance Time: Don't be shy at home! Encourage youngsters to move and dance to music. Bouncing, marching, and clapping to the beat are critical developmental skills and super fun. Make it a tradition (after dinner?) or just anytime: pump up the sound and start dancing. 
  • Easy Percussion: You don't have to spend a lot on percussion instruments (but musical gifts are delightful). Grab a couple wooden spoons or a pot to bang on and let your kids tap to the music. The BEST gift you can give them is if YOU play, too. Model how it goes to have fun in a homemade band.
  • Transitions: Kids want to play with music and rhythm if it's silly. Try marching (to the bus stop, to the dinner table, to the bath tub) and chanting on beat. "Let's march, to the bus, here we go, we do not fuss. You will go to school today. You will get to read and play." Invented silly lyrics are a bonus. Your kids will giggle, march, and chant along.
  • Make it Pop: 99% of pop music is structured with a vocal line over layers of repeating rhythmic patterns. Focus on those underlying rhythms as you clap along. And don't fret; the world has tons of great kid's pop artists that won't drive parents batty. Check out Ralph's World, Stevesongs, Laurie Berkner, and add your favorites in the comments! 
  • Song Cubes: For this fun game you make two big dice. One has names of songs on it, the other has ways to express the rhythm. Roll the dice and play/sing with your toddler! 
  • Musical Environment: Experiment with ways to add more music to the environment. Does your child respond well to peppy tunes while dressing in the morning? Lullabies at bedtime?  When I see my little ones engaged in puzzles or imaginary play, I often turn on some quiet classical music as background music. They don't even notice, but a few minutes later they are humming along. Exposure, even if it doesn't count as deliberate practice, will still help kids internalize the feels and sounds of music.
  • Deliberate Listening in the Car: On the other hand, take time to listen when nothing else is distracting. Buckled in the car is one great time. Talk to your child about what you hear. "Let's see if we can dance to this song with just our heads nodding. Can you clap along to this song? Say bum-bum-bum with the drum in this song?"

- Gina Weibel, M.S.
Let's Play Music teacher 


Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Are Music Lessons Holding Me BACK?

I was recently talking with a fellow Let's Play Music teacher about piano lesson choices and at one point she said, "well, try to avoid the dangers you get with traditional piano lessons." 

Danger!? Oh my!  I left the conversation wondering: are there really things taught in traditional-style piano lessons that actually cause harm? That actually hold us back from learning music? Can taking lessons somehow make us worse musicians?

Took Lessons, But Can't Play

I didn't think much about it again until a student named Ellie registered in my Red Balloons class. Her mom, Amy, told me she was excited to have her daughter learn to play piano, and that she really wanted to learn to play, too.  She told me, "I don't know how to read music but I really want to learn."

Imagine my surprise a few weeks later when I happened to hear Amy play a delightful recital piece on the piano! I said, "I thought you didn't know how to play!?!"  

Amy responded, "But I don't know anything! I only know that one song. I took lessons as a kid, I have that one song memorized, and that's all I can play. I don't actually know anything about music." 
Amy's story surprised me, but then I remembered that my mother and my sister are in the exact same boat: they both know how to play exactly one song,  'Greensleeves', after their childhood lessons. I asked around to other parents and adults, and it turns out a LOT have taken piano lessons, but identify themselves as not knowing how to play or read music.

So I decided I better take another look at this idea: what goes on in piano lessons, and why are too many adults from my era saying they don't know any music beyond their one recital song? Why do they feel nervous about making music, even though they took years of lessons?

The Big 5 Skills of Musicianship

I fumbled trying to put into words what defined lessons that could output a musician instead of a one-song-wonder. Luckily I found this great interview at with Dr. Chad West. 

Dr. West is a leading expert and author of a recent article defining FIVE core skills that define musicianship. They are:
  • Executive
  • Notation
  • Rhythmic
  • Tonal
  • Creativity 
Executive skills are the obvious ones: how to make your fingers actually technically play the instrument. Notation is also pretty straightforward: how to understand written notes and music theory in order to play what was intended. These two skills are the external skills of musicianship; progress in these skills is easy to evaluate because the results are external (the student's output is measured.)

Executive and Notation skills are the main focus of many school and private music lessons, often at the expense of other skills.  That's what my LPM colleague was referring to as the danger of some lessons. Students take lessons for years, but they just don't feel confident that they can make music.  Actually, after lots of practice with executive and notation skills, they may be pretty good and reading and playing music, but still not feel like they can create music.

After a childhood experience like that, adults conclude that they just can't get it. They have a negative view of themselves as musicians. The deeper mysteries of music seem beyond their grasp. So they give up on music, and often decide against sending their children (and then grandchildren) to music lessons. 

Or MAYBE, they are lucky enough to find something better for their children.

Internal Skills

The other three skill sets: having a good sense of rhythm, understanding melodies and harmonies, and being creative with your music, are often overlooked in music teaching. Dr. West refers to these skills as internal. All five skills need to be nurtured to help a youngster become a well-rounded musician. 

Current practices often focuses on executive skills and notation at the expense of teaching internal musicianship skills because notation and technique are easier to teach and quantifiable to assess. It is easy to immediately determine if students are performing the notes correctly. It is, however, very difficult to know if they are audiating correctly. (Read about how we use singing for feedback.)

As a music teacher, I feel pressure to show parents (and their wallets) that music lessons have paid off. It is quick and rewarding (and tempting) to teach students to play a few amazing piano pieces. It's slower and less showy to spend time doing ear-training and composing games. I can understand why teachers and parents might fall into a trap of focusing just on executive skills because they have quick and impressive returns on investment.

Pushing Buttons or Making Music?

Dr. West happily points out that not all educators today are neglecting students' development. In classes where a focus is on movement, singing, chanting, listening, and creating, students are developing 'readiness' for music that pays off in the long run. Audiating, matching pitch, and keeping steady time are skills that don't have flashy, quantifiable outcomes to measure right away, but parents and teachers who value these skills see that in the long run, students with these skills bring more meaning to the notation. These students understand and create music, not just read and play music. 

Dr. West just described Let's Play Music and Sound Beginnings classes!

Why is audiation so so critical? West says, "when students aurally recognize missed notes, feel when they are rushing or dragging, and have musical ideas apart from that which is dictated to them, they are functioning as musicians. Without audiation, students are simply pushing buttons as they decode dots on a page."

What You can Do Now

Now that you are aware of the big picture, and want your family to become more musical, here are some actions you can take:

*Sing and Play rhythm and musical games with your baby or toddler. Create a musical environment at home with lots of clapping, banging, dancing, singing, and call-and-response songs. These simple skills don't feel like impressive recital material, but they lay a foundation of internal musical skills.

*Take your Baby or toddler to Sound Beginnings classes. Parents can find great value in going to class to learn new ideas for songs and games to play at home. Learn how to "play music" with your child. Coming to class is another way to ensure that you really follow through and do this type of play together.

*Find a Let's Play Music class near you for your 4 or 5 year old. The three years of this class are carefully crafted to balance all musical skills so students will be complete musicians. (What is a complete musician?)

*Get the Two-for-One deal. Amy is going to love learning all of the ear-training and music theory that Ellie learns along the way. As we get into year 2 and 3, parents can keep up, but they will need to practice a little bit to learn the repertoire. It's worth it! Take advantage of the chance to come to class with your child, learn everything she learns, and become the musician you wished you'd been the first time around. 

*Connect with Piano Teachers who have gone through Connections, our referral program for sending graduates to private teachers. We try to help you find teachers who understand the big picture of musicianship and are willing to work on creativity and ear-training along with notation and execution. Interview teachers and find out what skills they find important, and how they help your child strengthen them. Excellent teachers are out there! They know that audiating and composing can be taught. Let them know that you understand the importance. Please tell us who your excellent teachers are so we can send them even more of our grads.

*Fill Your Gaps in musicianship. If your childhood music teacher neglected some internal musicianship skills, you can give yourself the gift of time and attention to those skills.  Check out programs online like Easy Ear Training (online and with apps) and Musical U, or practice games like Theta Music Trainer. It's never too late to learn a new song or join a music class. I love sending adults to group piano classes; they are so much fun! 

One More Skill

I am relived that parents today are not giving up completely on music lessons for their children, even if they didn't have an amazing go at it.  I hope they don't give up on themselves, either.

I asked Amy what type of music she wants to be able to play. For now, she decided to play fun children's songs that are familiar to her girls, so they can sing and dance along with her when she plays piano. 

Our little children motivate us to learn lots of new things, so it's no surprise that we may want to improve piano skills when they are young and can enjoy fun family music time. I'm helping Amy learn new songs and start to make piano time part of her life, along with the other musicianship skills from LPM class. I love that she's willing to show her daughters what it is to sit at the piano and practice.  

Actually, I think there is ONE MORE music skill that Dr. West didn't list that always ends up on my list. I have to give a shout-out to my piano teacher, here, too. It's true that my teacher also focused on external skills with me; I never played by ear or composed or improvised or sang.  But something really right happened during my lessons: I learned how to love making music. I learned that sitting at the piano was my relaxing, calm, escape time. Piano was a happy place, and my teacher's gentle love was critical for helping me gain it.

So that's the final skill I want to add to the list, and yes, it's another internal skill: enjoyment. Children become lifelong musicians when they have all of the skills to be complete musicians and they've learned that music is uplifting, inspiring and joyful.

Amy is off to a great start with her children. She wants to play and sing with them, and she's willing to be a role model to show them that sitting at the piano to work (yes, it's work) on a new song is enjoyable. Parents who play music model this for their families.  Don't worry if you don't play piano. Come to music class, learn along with your child, and then be the role model at home.   

Have Fun!

-Gina Weibel, M.S.
Let's Play Music Teacher