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.


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.


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.


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.


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.