Our second class was devoted to the basics of rhythm and meter. It was fun! Most of the students had no idea what measures, bar lines, quarter notes, etc, are (although they'd grown up hearing and making music), so we were really starting from scratch.
After presenting a frontal lecture on the basic concepts and notations, I did what a lot of teachers do: sight-clapping.
But this time, I did it differently.
Usually, what I would do (and what many of my colleagues do) is either write a rhythm on the board or pass out a handout, ask the class to clap it, and then do another one, and another, and another. Sometimes, I've asked my students to write their own rhythms on the board for everyone else to clap, or I've given them handouts with polyphonic rhythms that they can clap together in groups.
But this time, I did it differently.
"Bernadette Teaches Music"
So, there's this fabulous YouTube channel called "Bernadette Teaches Music." Bernadette is a Japan-based ukulele player with a master's degree in education, and most of her videos deal with playing the ukulele. But she also made a series of rhythmic clapping videos which I found to be incredibly useful in my music theory classroom.
The videos are marked "Level 1," "Level 2," and "Level 3."
Level 1 deals only with quarter notes and quarter rests.
Level 2 introduces eighth notes.
Level 3 introduces half notes.
As you can see in the videos above and below (and do watch them; they're less than 2 minutes each...) the videos take us through a series of rhythmic clapping exercises, with constant drumming in the background. Each measure flows straight into the next, and an arrow moves along to each beat, directing our attention and helping us to not fall behind.
So basically, I just played these videos in class and had the students clap along.
The result was pretty cool.
First of all, it was really engaging. The constancy of it, the pulse of it, the moving arrow, the captivating background drumming, the way that it just flowed from one measure to the next, along with the occasional breaks to catch our breath made the whole thing go by in a jiffy.
Second, the background drum beat was confusing... but in a good way! Rather than just banging out "1 2 3 4, 1 2 3 4" the background drumming is actually complex, and it usually accents beats 2 and 4 rather than 1 and 3. Occasionally, it even switches suddenly to only accenting beat 2, or only accenting beat 4. The students pointed out that this made it even more difficult for them. But you know what? That's a good thing! In real life, when we're making and listening to real music, how often do we just have a straight "boom boom boom boom, 1 2 3 4, boom boom boom boom" going on in the background? Rarely - so why do we do that in the classroom? Usually, in the real world, we have multiple rhythms going on in the background, and often they will accent more than just beats 1 and 3. Part of learning to keep a sense of rhythm is learning how to do so when there's lots of other stuff going on in the background.
Third, gamifying these videos made them super addictive! As you can see when you watch the videos yourself, each video is broken up into six sections, labeled A through F. I laughed along with the students as things got harder and harder, and we joked about "losing life" when they made mistakes. We braced ourselves for "the boss" (section F) in each video, and breathed a sigh of relief when we beat it (no pun intended). But here's the best part: my students were so engaged that they ultimately insisted on doing more than I had planned. Although I had only planned to do Levels 1 and 2, one of my groups INSISTED on doing Level 3, as well. Be honest, how often do your students insist on doing more than you assign? Mine just did!
Fourth, because these videos are on YouTube, the students can revisit them from home. In fact, for homework, I asked them to practice all three videos so that they'd feel comfortable doing them again in our next class.
Fifth, because these videos are on YouTube, it was much easier for me as a teacher. I didn't have to prepare my own examples, nor did I need to take time to write everything on the board, nor did I need to waste paper and ink with the photocopier.
Not a Secret Sauce
To be clear, this is not the "secret sauce" method for teaching rhythm. It's only one of many tools that can be used in combination. I do still believe in the power of asking students to write and clap their own rhythms for each other, as this engages their sense of creativity and ensures that they're mastering the conventions of rhythmic notation. I do still believe in the power of creating my own rhythmic exercises for the students, as this allows me to tailor our assignments to the needs of the students.
And, in any case, this series of YouTube videos has only three levels, and does not go beyond half notes, quarter notes, and eighth notes in quadruple meter.
Nevertheless, I found it to be a wonderful (and wonderfully engaging) tool in my music theory classroom, and would encourage others to give it a shot!
To that end, I'd also be curious to know:
If you've tried this in your classroom, how did it go?
And if you haven't tried it yet, but aren't sure you'll actually do it, what's holding you back?