Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Subdividing Beats with Active Games

The last post looked at beat and how it is the foundation for rhythm (read it here). Today, we look at another fundamental beat/rhythm skill your child will be practicing in Let's Play Music class: Subdividing Beats.

After a student has gained the ability to maintain a steady pulse, the next developmental step is learning to subdivide the beat.  

I like to think of subdividing time like playing with wooden unit blocks.  The blocks come in shapes that are precisely cut to have exact ratios 1:2, 1:3, and 1:4.  My children spent many happy hours stacking and arranging the blocks to create imaginative structures.  It seems that no matter how they stack and move them, the buildings always work.

That was UNTIL the day a friend gave me a bag of wooden scraps that were cut to be almost unit blocks. There were columns and cubes and rectangles, but none were in exact ratios to the others. It made it frustrating to stack a lintel on pillars. Everything was slanting and falling over. 

Having a predetermined unit measure for blocks is as important as establishing a consistent beat before layering on rhythm. In music or in blocks, divisions need to be in perfect 1:2, 1:3, or 1:4 ratios or things will start to sound messy.   

Let's take a look at choosing a pulse and dividing into perfect subdivisions.

Circular Rhythm
The beat serves as a reference point around which other rhythms can dance. A steady pulse suddenly seems very musical when we start to alternate a downbeat with a back beat. 

Meter is the pattern of strong and weak beats in music. It gives music and ebb and flow and determines the time signature. In class we teach 4/4 (each measure has 4 counts) and 3/4 (each measure has 3 counts).

Although music is written out linearly on staff paper (so we can print it out), the concept of beat and subdivision is intuitive to understand if you think of it as a hand spinning around a clock- rhythm traced out in a circle- as explained in this delightful 5-minute TED talk.  

When I imagine a hand rotating around a circle, it seems natural to internalize the constant speed (rotation) of the hand. When we read rhythm linearly, it's also critical (but perhaps less intuitive) to keep moving left-to-right at a constant speed.


Jungle Drums Chant

So, the simplest beat is represented circularly as a dot at the top of our 'clock'. Each time the hand rotates past the spot, you play one beat.  

We teach our Let's Play Music students this as an elephant's slow footsteps in our Jungle Chant. Our bass drum plays a nice elephant-sounding footstep, and with voice we say "Booooom!"

The first sub-division is to add a second sound, or back-beat, at the bottom of our 'clock'. We use alternating hands to play the top and the bottom sounds while patting our lap. These are our lion's walking footsteps. A snare drum or bongo set gives this division a distinctive sound, and with voice we say "Pat Pat."

This game is an example of teaching by doing. Students have a hands-on chance to internalize how subdividing works correctly before getting into the nitty-gritty of writing and counting it. We're moving our whole body, vocalizing, and getting a little silly.

Students will, of course, notice that the lion takes two steps for every elephant step. Of course! Lion legs are shorter than elephant legs. If they walk together, lion needs to take exactly twice the steps in order to keep up.

The next sub-division, dividing the time in half again, is our monkey chatter. Imagine another concentric circle with more marks on it, and each time the clock hand passes, our tambourines sound out the monkey's footsteps or we tap our shoulders with fingers. With our voice, we say "Chik chick chick chick."  Monkey's legs are so short, he has to take four steps for every elephant.  

Our final division, at a ratio of 1:8, is the cicada chirping. Eight chirps, played by tapping a maraca or tapping castanet-like fingers, are voiced with "ts ts ts ts ts ts ts ts."  It sounds like a room full of cicadas!

Internal Rhythm
On paper, it's much easier to represent musical notation linearly. The same animals could be laid out something like this:

If the elephant represents a whole note, the lion is a half note, the monkey is a quarter note, and the cicada is an eighth note. 

Learning to subdivide and accurately play simple beats will be super useful, especially down the road when tricky rhythms show up in the music your child will play. 

Rhythmic accuracy is improved when students can feel the beat and subdivisions internally, even when they're not playing every subdivision. For example, a student should be feeling all of the sixteenth notes, but only playing what is written in this example.

Fun At Home
Here are some full-body ideas for games to play at home to help your child feel the beat and practice subdividing.

Walk and Jog: Make sure you have space to move around for this Dalcroze-based exerciseThe parent is the walker. Take large, slow, steps.  Vocalizing something simple or funny with two syllables, "Left.....Right...."  The child (and other family members) are the joggers, trying to take exactly two steps for every one of the walkers. Choose something fun to chant with four syllables, "Jog-ging, jog-ging."  If everyone gets good at this, add in a runner, trying to take four steps. "Running Quickly Running Quickly."  Trade parts and practice some more.  If you have extra people, someone can stand aside and play a drum to the beat of the walker. Although we are not worrying about pitch when we focus on rhythm, you may notice that the walking person might want to speak with a low voice, the jogger might use a higher voice, and the runner might chant with a very high voice. Contrasting voices make it easier to hear/distinguish the parts.

Rhythm Instrument Fun: Don't worry if you lack expensive instruments. Find some kitchen items you can bang on or shake (wooden spoons, pots, dry beans in containers.)  Have one person establish a slow beat with their instrument, and the next person come in twice as fast with a contrasting sound.  This practice of exactly subdividing is really going to pay off at the piano! If you're feeling confident, try to play four beats for every one of your slow partner.  Or three.

Jungle Drum Guessing: Here is another Dalcroze listen-and-guess exercse: Beat on a drum slowly to establish a tempo for whole notes while your child listens. Then change your subdivisions for your child to identify. If the rhythm is whole notes, the child guesses correctly by patting both hands on his lap to the beat.  If he hears half notes, he alternates patting left/right legs. If he hears quarter notes, he pats his shoulders alternately. If he hears eighth notes, he alternates left/right hands tapping fingers like castanets.

Hand-Clapping Games: Here are links to 16 hand-clapping games you can play with your child and here are some more.  While reinforcing practice of steady beat and subdivision, these games also fill movement, emotional, and sociological needs for growing kids.

Extra Challening: This one is tricky. Put one drumstick (or shaker, or other rhythm instrument) in each hand. Begin by having both hands pat/play slowly. Then, have the dominant hand play two beats for every beat of the non-dominant hand. Your child is sure to feel confident if she masters this! Then try again with the hands switched. These challenges are excellent practice for playing steady accompaniment with left hand while right plays melody on piano.

Play with Blocks: If you have building blocks, look at them with your child to discover ratios of 1:2, 1:3, or 1:4. Lay out a rhythm of blocks and read it as you clap the rhythm. Use the voicings from LPM class (boom, pat-pat, chick-chick-chick-chick) for different combos of blocks. And then build an awesome castle!

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




1 comment:

  1. Hi Gina, Such a great article - thank you! And thanks so much for sharing a link to my clapping games post!