By Stuart Hunt
“Rhythm is the art of beautiful movement” – Augustine of Hippo
Putting the horse in front of the cart when discussing rhythm, let’s take a moment to examine the “why” of rhythm, followed by the “how to,” as both teach and learn. The “why” can guide our path to excellence and the joy of performance.
As conductors, we know that counting and rhythm, at its core, is just math. But, as humans, we actually experience and learn pulse before we are born, in vitro. Mom’s heartbeat is always present, a life-giving metronome. At a certain point, we then also become aware of our own, metric pulse. The word “rhythm” is derived from the Greek rhythmos, meaning “measured flow, movement or motion.”1 Plato’s definition was “Rhythm is order in movement.”2 Barred / metric rhythm, it is worth noting, only began to appear in the seventeenth century as a result of the need of dancers to know where a “downbeat” was. As choral writing with more parts and greater complexity rose after circa 1600, there was obvious need for more precise notation to “hold things together.”
Considering rhythm in the singing and choral art, rhythm exists in the form of groups or patterns: small, medium, and large. It is true that rhythm can exist without melody (percussion), but melody can not exist without rhythm. In order for singers (alone or in groups) to interpret text, melody, tension/release, artistic expression, and other aspects of vocal communication, we eventually choose how we “group” rhythmic patterns. The challenge for choristers (and conductors) is that we must agree how to group and interpret.
The easiest and least time-consuming method to accomplish this is to be able to independently “count” rhythm. However, this is often over-thought, over-worked and does not actually produce the intrinsic accuracy and motivation we hope for.
Addressing and solving this challenge, one of the most influential choral conductors of the twentieth century, Dr. Robert Shaw, promoted “count-singing” that gave both substance and form to rhythmic precision by teaching that “count-singing is a procedure that teaches pitches and rhythms simultaneously and trains the singers to share a common pulse.”3 Count-singing works, Shaw insisted, because of the following:
- It removes all doubt when sounds should begin and end.
- It clarifies exactly which pitches should be sung and how long they should be sustained.
- It ensures vertical alignment for all voice parts, regardless of the pitch or duration of the individual notes in each part.
- Because it clarifies vertical alignment, it reveals harmonic progressions and facilitates clarity in polyphonic passages.
- It offers a means by which crescendo and diminuendo may be paced over time.
- Choirs will find it easier to control the placement of final consonants and the pronunciation of diphthongs.4
Agreement on Terms
Perhaps we’d better state the obvious:
- Tempo is the speed at which music “moves.”
- Rhythm is sound placed in time, in an organized pattern.
As applied to poetry, speech, or music, rhythm (and expression) give interpretation and understanding to words and text. How we stress or do not stress syllables can completely change understanding or meaning. Consider the following:
Are you going to choir?
Are you going to choir?
Are you going to choir?
Are you going to choir?
Are you going to choir?
Likewise, rhythmic interpretation can and does affect the way we “feel” about musical phrases, whether or not text is present. Two excellent examples of rhythmic variation and mood influence are Karl Orff’s “Carmina Burana” and Bedrich Smetana’s “The Moldau,” both evocative of the theme for which they were written.
Learning to Learn
It is worth considering that our instrumental colleagues and their approach. Instrumentalists make constant use of “concept repetition”, or drill, which involves:
- quickly and correctly identifying and counting notes
- grouping them into rhythmic patterns
- interpreting the patterns into musical phrases
They do, in fact, drill patterns of many types, which leads to improved abilities to “see” larger amounts of notes, quickly recognize and group them into recognized patterns, and play artistically with decreasing amounts of rehearsal time—what we all wish to do.
How Is This Trained?
Consider how we all learned to read in the first place:
- We learned the sounds of letters (note identification).
- We combined them to make words and rhythmic patterns.
- We linked words to make phrases & sentences (musical phrases).
What is often overlooked or missing in choral education is rhythmic pedagogy. We teach rhythmic identification but do not train the eyes to look ahead and combine notes into phrases. To save rehearsal time and detail more advanced music, we must train our vocal students to:
As professionals, we do that, but our students do not yet have that depth of experience.
Gary Corcoran wrote in The Addition System for Teaching and Learning Rhythm: “Achieving an automatic response to reading rhythmic patterns . . . is the result of much necessary drill and repetition. It is impossible to develop a reflexive and accurate response to rhythm patterns without drill(emphasis mine).”5 (Download Dr. Corchoran’s book by clicking here.)
As noted in points 1, 2, and 3 above, Dr. Corchoran points out: “Believe it or not, our eventual goal is not having to count while performing! (Unless one chooses to.) While insisting that our students “Count! Count! Count!,” we seem hesitant to tell them that advanced musicians do not count every rhythm they encounter—although they could if asked. Instead, they have developed over time a sizable repertoire of instantly recognizable rhythm patterns which they can consistently perform with precision and accuracy at all tempos and in all styles without having to consciously concentrate on counting.”6
With good material, in order to truly progress toward mastering a skill, or, at least, becoming independently competent, we must adopt a regular and reasonably rigorous routine of
The website Stages of Skill Acquisition (http://stagesofskillacquisition.blogspot.com/) offers information and suggestions on 3 types of deliberate practice and breaks down deliberate practice into three stages:
- The Cognitive Stage. This is the first step when learning a new skill. You’re practicing and making mistakes.
- The Associative Stage. You’ve had enough practice to see where you are making mistakes and to correct them. It’s at this stage that getting the quality feedback we spoke about earlier is important if you want your skill level to progress.
- The Autonomous Stage. When you reach this stage, you can almost perform the skill on auto-pilot. You aren’t a master yet and maybe you never will be, but you have become competent in a relatively short amount of time thanks to deliberate practice.
It is very important to just be patient with yourself. If you don’t fear mistakes or be too critical, you can move from okay to excellent. Take some risks, make mistakes but learn from them. Time is your friend.
Did You Ever Wonder?
For those really serious about growing high-performing individuals and choirs, here is a link to a Psychological Review article entitled “The Role of Deliberative Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance,” by K. Anderson Ericsson, Ralph Th. Krampe, and Clemens Tesch-Römer. The article is well worth reading as a guide to what, how, and if deliberate practice leads to maximal performance, among other topics. You can read or download to ruminate on best-practices and expected outcomes.
Additionally, here are 75 rhythmic practice exercises that I have prepared and that are available for free download: www.toolsforconductors.com.
A last consideration is how to best evaluate progress. To guide you and your students, Dr. Geoffrey Boers, Choral Chair at the University of Washington, has developed the Choral Literacy and Skills (CLaS) Rubric, just posted by NAfME on their website as the first-ever national choral standard by NAfME: click here to download and learn exactly what students should be able to achieve in 12 areas at 6 levels of experience. It is the culmination of 3 years of work, also being adopted by Choral Canada as their national standard.
[Note from ACDA: Dr. Boers is currently working on a series of videos, funded in part by ACDA’s Fund for Tomorrow, that will educate and train conductors, students, adjudicators, and administrators on the application and potential of the rubric. The videos will be available in 2020 and free for public access.]
Finish with Assessment
After months, or perhaps years of hard work, is it paying off?
- Choirs are reading more accurately and faster.
- They can teach the “newbies” without your help.
- You can choose literature they would love to perform, but could not handle before skill improvement.
- You know in your heart they are heuristic learners.
But, can you prove it?
There are, finally, lots of resources available to music educators. In the past, we have had to rely on “assessing” (subjectively) our students one-on-one or in small ensembles, which is very time-consuming and begs the question “What are the other students doing in the meantime?”
The option not to consider is doing nothing. While our colleagues who teach math, science, history, English, etc., are evaluated by state “norms,” mandated music evaluations have been sporadic or nonexistent. But that is changing and we must make the decision to prepare and be ahead of the curve, taking our detailed evaluations to administrators before they ask or mandate.
A first assessment in the autumn, a mid-year assessment, and final evaluation in the spring (more if you wish) will provide growth markers for students and program-effectiveness evaluations for the educator.
Plan on it, research it, ACT! There are many benefits.
Putting rhythmic mastery front and center,
- saves large amounts of rehearsal time
- solves many discipline challenges because students are constantly engaged in “problem solving” and artistry
- helps singers become aware of their own competence and ability to help others
- moves artistry to a higher level
- elevates choice of literature
By focusing attention on solid grounding and mastery of rhythmic skills, the acquisition of all other skills is simplified. Consider making it of prime importance for all of your choirs.
- Anon. Rhythm. Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved from https://www.etymonline.com/word/rhythm
- Crossley-Holland, P. (2017, Aug. 31). Rhythm. Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/art/rhythm-music
- Elrod Huffman, P. (2013, Feb.) The rehearsal techniques of Robert Shaw. Southwestern Musician, p. 41.
- Bloker, R. (Ed.). (2004). The Robert Shaw Reader. New Haven, CT: Yale Univ. Press.
- Corcoran, G. (n.d.). The Addition System for Teaching and Learning Rhythm.New Hampshire Band Directors Association, p. iv. Retrieved from http://www.nhbda.org/corcoran-addition-system-for-counting-rhythm.html