Taking Rhythm Clapping to the Next Level

I have had the privilege of speaking to many band and orchestra directors over the years. For 36 years of teaching band in Virginia’s public schools and 13 more serving as a University Supervisor for James Madison University, I have always asked almost every director I meet, “What is your ensemble’s weakest link?”. While the response to this question is not universal, the vast majority of directors respond with “Rhythm.” 

Many directors use hand clapping as a way to check for understanding of the rhythms their groups perform. The main advantage to having an ensemble clap rhythmic patterns is the director can not only audibly check that the rhythms are being executed properly, but one can visually establish the group’s ability to perform the patterns with precision. It’s easy to “see” which students are struggling with the rhythms.

Before rhythm clapping can be effective, there must be a presumption that students have developed at least a basic understanding of pulse in music. Some students have a more acute sense of pulse even before they enter your music class, while others may need to practice identifying a pulse and getting a “feel” for it. Teaching pulse to students who don’t naturally sense it can be difficult and is a topic beyond the scope of this article.

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Identifying Rhythms

When we are very young, we learn to identify objects by looking at them and then having an adult name them. We learned what a spoon was by looking at one and asking, “What’s that?”. The adult would tell us that it is a spoon, and we immediately made a connection in our brain between what we saw and heard. I call the two “wires” that connected; in this case, the “looks like” wire and the “sounds like” wire. Once those two “wires” connect mentally, we can now identify a spoon when we see it.

For students to become proficient with identifying and executing rhythms correctly, we must connect several “wires” in their brains so the patterns can be identified and recalled later. When it comes to learning rhythmic patterns, I refer to the wires as “looks like,” “sounds like,” and “counts like.” Many directors have their students count and clap rhythms, but the process can be taken further and refined with several easy steps.

Firstly, ensure the students look at the rhythm when they clap it. Otherwise, the “looks like” wire does not make the connection. The student must get a mental picture of the pattern first in the process. Secondly, ensure the students count the rhythm aloud so the “sounds like” wire makes the connection. Looking at a rhythm while saying “1 e + a 2 + 3 + a 4 +” enables the “counts like” wire to actively connect to the “looks like” wire. Thirdly, encourage the students to listen to the pattern as they clap and count aloud so the “sounds like” wire makes that final connection with the other two.

“Un-clapping” Rests

un-clapping a restSeveral other techniques have proven effective as I took students into learning more complex rhythms. Have students illustrate visually when they come to a rest by having them “un-clap” that rest by bringing their hands away from each other. We can actually see that the students are noticing and counting the rests. Many times, students tend to look past rests rather than at them.

Another helpful technique is to have students visually illustrate slurred notes. If two notes are slurred, have them clap the first note, which is articulated with the tongue, then have them slide one hand forward and the other backward to designate the slur. While the director may not be able to hear the hand slide, it should be easy to visually determine whether the students executed the slurred note. slurred clap

These techniques work well for students at all ability levels. Even advanced groups can improve rhythmic precision by putting the instruments down and concentrating only on the rhythmic aspects of a passage while not also having to concentrate on other aspects such as fingering, tone, balance, dynamics, etc. Isolating one parameter at a time often helps later when putting them all together.

It is important that all the steps outlined here occur together to assist students in being able to master rhythmic patterns and internalize them for use in other passages. Rhythmic accuracy can improve greatly if directors can take the time to ensure their students are “connecting all the wires” by observing them visually and audibly.

Gary Fagan is a Maryland native. He completed his undergraduate degree at Bridgewater College in Music Education in 1973. He attended James Madison University where he received a masters degree in music education in 1975. In 1973 he became a band instructor in Albemarle County, Virginia where he taught band for 36 years. He retired in 2009 and is currently serving as a University Supervisor at James Madison University and has served as an adjunct faculty member there teaching Arranging.
He has had over one hundred compositions for concert band and string orchestra published. Eight of these have been performed at the Mid-West Band and Orchestra Clinic in Chicago. One was performed at the White House several years ago and at the inauguration ceremony for former Governor Douglas Wilder in Richmond, VA.

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