Teaching Movement to Music

One thing that I’ve noticed over the years is that once students get to grade 7-8 level, most still do a poor job of moving to the music. Music as a performance is part visual so it’s important that one actually moves in such a way that’s representative of the music. I can only guess that for many of them, there is a lack of experience with small ensemble performance, like duets, trios etc.

Yes, many students struggle with tapping beats and other coordination issues early on, and I make sure that they develop this skill as soon as possible, but I’m talking students way beyond this stage.

Here are some examples of awkwardness.

  • Difficulty in cueing leading notes (so that an accompanist knows when to come in).
  • The body moving down during an up beat and up during a down beat.
  • Lots of random (almost twitchy) little up and down movements during a long phrase.
  • Lifting the clarinet bell up too high and at strange times.
  • Sinking the clarinet bell much lower than what has happened before.
  • Making a down beat happen on ‘important looking’ notes rather than actual beats.

On beats and off beats

At its most basic, the music comprises of on beats and off beats. The foot taps a downbeat and is up (or in transitional movement) during the offbeat. In computer gaming terms, it’s game over as soon as that foot hits the offbeat (missing an on beat is less dramatic).

Moving to the music is merely an extension of the foot tap. A performer shouldn’t be tapping their foot (this isn’t a hoe down) so it’s the motion of the clarinet bell that take its place. The hands, then arms, then body are all attached, so ultimately everything moves together to replicate the foot tap. This brings on the next point…

Move like a conductor: the invisible box

A conductor moves their arms within an invisible box. The box has a base level; the arms move down to it but never below it. The box has a top; the arms move up to it, but never beyond it. At its simplest, keeping within that same sized box creates predictability to the watcher.

The conducting equivalent of tapping the foot is reaching/tapping the bottom of the invisible box. The opposite is true for the top of the box being an offbeat.

When a student’s clarinet bell moves beyond that box, awkwardness ensues, however, there is one particular case where, even when keeping to the box, the awkwardness is still possible. That is…

Too much ‘up’

Oftentimes, the students hits the downbeat and instantly bounces their bell airborne. With the clarinet bell up too early, the awkwardly long transitional movement tempts the student to move the bell down again and bang, they’ve just gone down on an offbeat.

Usually the simplest answer is just to get the student to chill, relax, and use simple, small casual movements; not ‘oh my god, the music is so insane!’ erratic movements.

But what happens when the music is like the 2nd movement of Spohr’s Clarinet Concerto No. 2 and the slow rubato could result in 8 demi-semi quavers within a beat? Well…

‘Present’ the beats to the listener

The performer has to help the listener out. How does the listener differentiate between a 6/8 time and 3/4 time? The answer is how and what notes are emphasised. One would basically play certain notes louder than others (or ‘lean’ into them with accents or tenutos etc.). Emphasising the first and fourth quaver would signal 6/8 time and emphasis on the first, third and 5th quaver would sound like 3/4.

But as well as sounding like there’s emphasis, the performer has to look like they’re putting in some emphasis. This is where I like to teach ‘presenting’ the beat to the listener. It goes like this.

Rock-paper-scissors

Imagine rock-paper-scissors. Say you’re facing off against your opponent and you do the bounce, bounce, go, method of play.  Notice how when making the move, you flick our your hands to the required shape and just keep it there. That’s what we’re after.

So  imagine you’re playing ‘paper’ and we just remove the initial bounce, bounce part. You flick out the paper move and voila, that’s you presenting the beat to the listener with a super obvious gesture.

Actors and orators do this all the time. They’re using good, solid arm gestures to ‘present’ an important word. As a musician, we’re doing this to a beat.

Back to the Spohr Concerto. If the performer does a down beat with their clarinet bell and bounces too early, they have to somehow get through 8 (probably rubato timed) demi-semi quavers. Awkward. Instead, they should just ‘present’ that beat with their paper-like-flick, hold that pose, play through the notes, then just before the next beat arrives (and only just before, as in, with about 3 demi-semi quavers to go), move the bell up in preparation for the next paper-like-flick.

So yes, in complete contrast to a conductor, the best solution to this situation is to just hold that down beat in place for a while, get the notes out the way, then prep for the next beat just before it’s required a again.

The student will likely keep stuffing up the prep, so put the clarinet away for a moment and practise with arm gestures and counting subdivisions e.g. 1-e-&-a, 2-(get ready for the flick…)-e-&-a flick-e-&-a- 2-(prep)-e-&-a flick-e-&-a- 2-e-&-a flick …(repeat).

Moving away from the basics

Of course, this is all very prescriptive but it’s a necessity to go right back to basics in order to get students out of bad movement habits they’ve develop over time. It’s amazing how much some of them wiggle around without even knowing.

Once this is mastered, it’s just a matter of trying to add back in the more conductor like movements but again, conductor-like is still a simplification, it’s more like someone working a thick elastic band around both hands, stretching it out and then gradually letting the band pull back. The look of effort creates a strong looking, slow, rubato.

Oh, but then there’s fast… Gosh, I could go on forever about visual tricks.

 

A Matter of Timing

When to use a metronome

I often get asked by my students, “should I buy a metronome?”

I really shouldn’t discourage them from doing so, but my first reaction is to always say, “no, not yet. First you have to actually feel where the beat is for yourself.”

Don’t get me wrong, metronomes are absolutely essential for ensuring absolutely perfect timing, but when a bars worth of semiquavers show up, I’m not going to expect the student to storm through it, and I certainly don’t expect them to slow the entire piece down on account of some quick notes.

The key thing here is pulse, and pulse changes. It’s rubato, flexible tempo, and the real skill to be learnt is the ability to be flexible with pulse, know where it is, and adjust the rhythms accordingly. If the music says Andante, they should start tapping out a steady walking pace, slow down when the music gets difficult, then gradually speed back up to andante again.

Coordination

The most important musical skill to learn before all others, is coordination. Without a doubt, those who struggle with pulse are those that just can’t tap their foot along with the music that they’re listening to or playing. Sometimes their foot just has a mind of its own, whether it be because the foot is trying to tap the rhythm, or its just floating around. What’s worse, is that the student doesn’t even realise they’re doing it.

This is where the teacher comes in. They’re duty bound (within reason) to prevent the student practicing incorrectly (because perfect practice makes perfect).

At this point, I’ll acknowledge that tapping in time with the music is actually a few steps beyond the absolute basics, so here are the steps from nothing to something.

Building Rhythmic Competency

Clapping crotchet beats

At a nice slow speed, get the student to clap their leg/thigh (I use this rather than clapping hands together because it frees up the other hand). Even this can prove a challenge for some students, evident by a fluctuating speed. They won’t believe you, so this is where the metronome comes in.

Introduce a foot tap

Get the student to clap their thigh and tap their foot at the same time. Perfect unison and at a steady speed.

Subdivide

Subdivision is so important it probably deserves its own post. With the foot continuing to beat crotchets, get the hand to now tap out quavers. Sometimes this will totally blow a student’s mind. If this happens, start really slow and by slow I mean…

  • Tap both the foot and hand at the same time. Stop. Stop!
  • Tap just the hand by itself with the foot staying where it is. “No, not the foot. Leeeeaaave it. Good. Just the hand” **tap**
  • Tap both the foot and the hand at the same time again
  • Now just the hand
  • repeat

At this point I’d recommend getting the hand to clap semi-quavers. If the student just can’t get the foot+hand combo going, perhaps one hand doing crochets and the other hand doing quavers.

Foot taps to music

Yes, tapping while performing should be avoided (and who hasn’t seen musicians in a concert band tapping to completely different timings. How does that even happen?), but tapping the foot while practicing is an important skill to have. Doing this, I believe, is one of the most important skills of any musician. It doesn’t have to be ‘in time’, the foot just has to land where the strong beat is. In 4/4, this is a foot tap at the beginning of every crotchet.

Think of it like this. The crotchet pulses are the pillars to which all the notes fit on or around. If notes are not on one of those pillars, then you a just passing through them; they’re inconsequential. They’re not important, the pulse is what matters.

The foot must land on those pillars. It’s imperative.

Now, I’m going to drastically simplify this next steps, but essentially the student, as they play, has to aim for each pillar. Because they have foot taps and can now physically sense when the next pillar is supposed to arrive, they will have a better chance of reading the corrects lengths (ratios) of the notes that take them from one pulse/beat/pillar to the next.

Subdivide, Subdivide, Subdivide

I like to use the following to help students with their spacings.
crotchets: 1, 2, 3, 4.
quavers: 1 & 2 & 3 & 4 &
semiquavers: 1 e & a 2 e & a 3 e & a 4 e & a (or cat-a-pil-la)
triplets: 1 & a 2 & a 3 & a 4 & a (or el-e-phant)

Usually the speed of the semiquavers comes as a bit of a surprise.

Final Thoughts

Yes, the metronome is useful, especially if you’re playing the 4th movement of Saint Saens’ Clarinet Sonata in E flat major where one has to get those semiquavers perfectly uniform, but for a student that needs to know what (not just where) a beat is, the pressure of using a metronome while they play is not going to help. There is greater benefit in getting them to set their own pulse and be able to speed up and slow down appropriately. The coordination they develop by getting their foot to tap on those pulses will greatly improve their ability to read and feel the music that they’re playing.

These observations aren’t just for the beginner student either. Recently I’ve had clarinet/piano students with 4+ years experience (where I’m their 3rd or so teacher) and we’ve had to go right to the basics of pulse to get things working right again. The above are just some of the tricks I’ve had to use to help them on their musical journey.