Why Rhythm is Like a Pair of Curtains (or 'How Clapping Helps Rhythmic Fluency')

A Problem

In all the time I've taught music, clapping and counting have been useful activities for teaching about rhythm. I used to train my students to diligently count the beat and work out how to tap or clap a rhythm in relation to the counting. It doesn't sound like a bad approach, does it? Maybe you've tried it yourself? But there's a problem:

Counting.... In theory: the student counts an equal '1, 2, 3, 4' for music in 4/4. The pulse stays regular, and rhythms can be played, danced, clapped or tapped within the framework of this steady beat. Right? Wrong!

Counting... in practice: so many students slow down for the difficult parts, and speed up for the easy parts. They don't even know they're doing it. Or, they manage to play the notes at the right time, but everything is robotic and lacks fluency. This is the same with dancing. People can step, play or sing on the right beat, but for some reason it just doesn't flow. Surprisingly, in music, this can happen even at a very high standard of playing.

The Physicality of Clapping

It was only after experiencing Dalcroze Eurhythmics that I realised that clapping can be a simple way for a teacher to understand what the student perceives. And, changing the physical quality of that clapping can help people achieve a sense of fluency.

I ask my students to show the duration when they clap. Here's how:

1. They clap on the beat and continue the motion of their hands, to make a circle.

2. They use the momentum of their clap to gauge exactly how much energy is needed to get their hands back together for the next clap.

3. They try to maintain a continuous flow without stalling or rushing. Longer notes require longer, larger gestures, while shorter/quicker notes require smaller gestures. 

This can be done without counting. No analytical thinking or intellectualisation. Just feeling, noticing and making tiny adjustments in the body.

Engaging the senses

I ask students to notice if a certain type of movement feels more relaxed than another. I like to draw their attention to the shapes they 'paint' in the air as they clap. It is important to engage the visual and kinaesthetic senses while working on auditory tasks.

This approach has had a instant and long-lasting effect on my students. I noticed that many of those who had struggled with rhythm used to clap with rigid hands that 'stuck' together for each clap. In trying to make one continuous circle for each beat, their gestures kept stopping and starting: they found it hard to judge how much energy to give their hands and took lots of repetitions for their bodies to remember how 'big' were crotchet claps, or the quaver claps, for example. Larger durations require larger claps.

When they played, it was like the music itself was gathering together in clumps, the way fabric bunches together when sewn.

I often use these kind of pictures to help people think about musical concepts in a new way. Here, I've overlaid a simple melody over a picture of some curtains. And, I've bunched together the notes, where the material bunches up. Indulge my metaphor for a moment: try singing this, ignoring the crotchet and minim values. If the notes are close together, sing them fast, and if they're spread out, sing them slowly:

When music doesn't feel right, it is often because notes are bunching together or being spaced out in the wrong places... like a pair of curtains!

It doesn't quite sound right, does it?! But, if you're someone who struggles with rhythm (or perhaps your student is), this is often how you might start to learn a piece. And, actually, there are much better ways to start a piece!

In order to play fluently and evenly, the 'curtains' need to be stretched flat. Translated to clapping, we need to make the movements equal and steady. The skill of being able to divide time into equal spaces (i.e. to clap. step, sing or play a steady pulse), is not the same as the skill of being able to count 1, 2, 3, 4. I do believe that some people confuse these two skills!

"Music is the space between the notes", said Debussy

And so, if we consider these simple clapping exercises, and how to iron out our music, it will help our understanding of this concept, and contribute towards more rhythmic, fluent playing. Don't let the energy start and stop. Keep it continuous, and everything will flow!