Teaching of “Time”

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    Neville Forsythe

    Forum members are invited to contribute to a debate on strategies for teaching time, rhythm, counting etc. In my experience as an instrumental teacher for more than 40 years, this single aspect is the worst taught, most problematic area for many performers.

    The history of notation indicates that the symbology was developed in a “linear” fashion (i.e. durations were more at the centre – to wit the late addition of barlines to the system). This was sufficient to the musical style then being notated – church music of contrapuntal rather than metrical harmonic “vertical” structure of subsequent periods.

    However since the introduction of barlines and the growing metrication of much music, the need for an strong “time” basis is obvious.

    No longer can we get a way with the mixed measurements of “This is hot but that is tall”

    i.e. too many musicians bring their own observations of the musical world to their processing without ever being challenged to bring consistency to their reading.

    Common perceptions are that quarter-notes have speed – eighth-notes and sixteenth notes are fast but half-notes and whole notes are long.

    A dot after a note makes it longer by half the value of the note to which it is attached – have you ever asked a student (let alone yourself) what resultant effect does a dot have on the FOLLOWING note. A tie poses the same problem with the same errors.

    I use analogies of a school timetable with periods of (normally) one hour = quarter-notes, which may be varied by aggregating into larger durations half-note = double period, whole note = four periods. A meaure = a daily programme ( of 3 or 4 or? hours’ duration)

    Taking 4/4 as an example I explain the in the following way:

    Quarternotes = normal 1 hour periods
    Eighth notes = half-hour activities (within the normal one hour period structure).
    Sixteenth notes likewise = quarter hour activities.

    A quarter note with a dot = 1 hour + 1/2 of the next hour (result …. the next note or rest must begin on the second half of the next period. (Cooking teacher negotiates 1.5 hours for major project by taking, by negotiation, half of the next period, which in turn has only half left starting at the half hour.

    All activities while having nominal speed and duration factors, nevertheless are more importantly located IN TIME. Thus a bar of music no matter how complex can be analysed as if a timetable and performed as if according to clock-time.

    I even analyse bar using clock terminology 1 o’clock, 2 o’clock 3 o’clock, 4 o’clock with subdivisions: quarter-past, half-past, three-quarters past.

    To get correct thinking and right answers I say,”What time does the first note start? What duration is it? When will it finish? (and the next activity occur).

    Rests are treated in the same way as notes, and dots and ties similarly.

    What other strategies do teachers use? (I never play a piece first up as I know the aural skills of most of students far exceed the analytical). You only get one chance (the very first sightreading) to access your students skills and thought processes. THe quickest of them will often be listening to their own first reading and subsequently rely more and more on the aural cues at the expense of reading / analysing/ playing IN TIME!

    Regards Neville

    Claire Binkley

    I have unsteady triplets when playing by myself. My teacher is having me just count against a metronome set at sixty to solve the issue. (With each comma separating the beat) “One, one two, one-two-three, onetwothreefour, one-two-three, one two, one.” It’s a way to practice but I’m still having trouble dividing the three equally. Saying “strawberry” puts a lot of emphasis on the first beat, which is what I was taught to think in orchestra to keep everyone together… hmm.
    My student is still learning basic rhythms. He has a very marked speed up/slow down problem when a piece gets easier or harder. I recommended a metronome and haven’t seen him back yet. Foot tapping helped him a little.
    It’s sooo easy to get caught up in the other parts of the music and forget about your tempo or about precisely dividing rhythms.

    Neville Forsythe

    Using names of people or places can also work for the different subdivisions.
    Here in New Zealand the Maori language has provided a neutral inflection for multi-syllabic words. Maori is ery close to Hawaiian and other Polynesian languages

    e.g. Motu = 2, Wanaka = 3, Wakatipu = 4, Tirikatane = 5.

    as long as the syllabic inflection is neutral almost any name will do:

    e.g. Michael, Angela, watermelon, University.

    As Claire noted you need to use a metronome or practise keeping a steady reference beat going.

    Incidentally this techique is also very useful in developing a free and flexible vibrato.


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