Foot Tapping

There is a love hate relationship with musicians and tapping. I think it’s because of ensemble situations where, if many people are tapping their feet, you get this percussive stomp, stomp, stomp as they play. It also looks totally ridiculous. Somehow everyone is in different places, which makes no sense because surely everyone is following the conductor and thus playing to the same beat!

This post is about foot tapping and why I believe it is an absolutely critical skill for a musician to have.

Learn Coordination by Foot Tapping

For students that have an issue with rythmn, I typically ask them to tap their foot while they play. One student complained that she played more mistakes because she had to tap her foot. I could tell it was irritating her immensely and that she didn’t think she should have to be able to do it (her sister warned me of this attitude. Is it some kind of teenage girl thing?)

“I’m going to say something which I really hope is not the case,” I began.

“I’m getting the impression that you don’t think you need to tap your foot, that it’s just some useless complication that is getting in the way of you just playing the piece.”

“Yes, it’s harder and yes, it’s going to require more brain power, but I can safely say that if someone can’t tap their foot and play at the same time, there is a good chance their rhythm is all over the place and what’s worse, they won’t even be aware of it.”

I’ll admit that this is probably a variation to the actual conversation.

I then played the middle section of Paul Harvey’s I’ve Got Rhythm (from Three Etudes On Themes of Gershwin) that is full of semi quaver subdivisions and drives at a methodically strict tempo (well, I do. There’s plenty of time for rubato elsewhere in the piece and it’s here that one finally hears the actual Gershwin). I made my foot tap quite obvious, almost percussive, as if I was the kick drum to what is essentially a jazz piece.

“I have a student who’s playing this for Grade 8,” I said to her. “I can tell when he’s playing it that something’s not quite right. It’s the rhythm. His notes are not perfect subdivisions of the pulse; some notes are slightly too long and some are slightly too short. Sometimes it’s just because the natural accent of the music is not being applied.”

“It’s all very subtle.”

Through that Gershwin piece I attempted to show that the foot that she borderline refuses to use, is the essential rhythmic foundation to which everything is built on.

The rhythm fits on and around the beat. The beat is not just some arbitrary physical complication that is slapped onto the rhythm as one plays.

Coordination

Musicians have to be coordinated. A pianist requires moving two hands independently and use the pedal with their feet. A drummer is using two hands and two feet. Surely a wind player, who is only using two hands to play their instrument, can use one foot to do a tap.

Sometimes it’s necessary to take a student right back to the beginning and get them to tap their foot at the same time as a hand clap. Then, gradually subdividing the claps into quavers, then semi quavers; eventually speeding up.

Playing music adds an extra challenge, but all the rhythms just fit on and around those beats.

Dance to your own music. Be your own conductor

Tapping the foot is like dancing to your own music. Bobbing and swaying the bell (bottom) of the clarinet is like being your own conductor.

My grade 8 student not quite nailing the rhythm of the Gershwin is really obvious visually; he doesn’t move to the music. By that I mean the movement of his upper body, but more specifically his clarinet is not moving respective to the beat.

Conducting 101: The arms move within a box whereby the beats (via a downward arc of the arms) will always touch the bottom of the box.

That means the downward arc of the clarinet and the subsequent ‘impact point at the bottom of the virtual box’ can’t happen on an offbeat!

It generally gets a lot worse than that. A student sounds okay, but as soon as you start watching, one can tell that they’ve got the general groove of the music all messed up. My solution? Hold onto the bottom of the clarinet and move it for them.

As rough as this sounds I generally do the following…

  • Get them to put the clarinet in their mouth as if they’re going to play. They won’t actually be playing anything though.
  • Point out where in the music where we’re going to start from.
  • At this point I’ll sing the music and move the bottom of the clarinet, making it really obvious where the ‘impact points’ of the beat are. Sometimes I’ll get the student to tap their foot.

Through their embouchure they’ll feel what it is I’m trying to explain.

Word of caution though. Just make sure the students are cool with this approach. I haven’t had any issues with it, but one can’t be too sure.

Once that’s sussed, I repeat it process the process but instead of putting my vocals on the line, I’ll get them to play.

Don’t give up

Rhythm is so fundamental, in fact, it’s probably primal and a safe bet that music existed with rhythm long before pitch became involved (although, does vocalisation count?).

Anyway, the point is that a drummer doesn’t need pitch to be a musician, but pitch without rhythm just sounds totally weird (yeah, I know those pieces exist). Persevere and feel that beat.

If that doesn’t work, get the student to take up dancing.

[Update]

It was great to see that my student came to her next lesson having practised her syncopated piece with a foot tap. You could tell she had a better grasp of what was happening rhythmically, but the best part was her telling me that she felt herself making progress… which is why that piece got practised and the Mozart not so. I’ll still consider that a win.

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