Category Archives: Rhythm

Magic Numbers

Synchronicity can be the glue that binds ideas together. Alan Armstrong points out that all teachers (including instructors) need to become teachers of numeracy (along with literacy and well-being). I hear that that classroom colleagues in MGS are meeting in groups to discuss how this will be done*. I probe the theory knowledge of a gifted, multi-instrumental pupil and find some cloudiness in the numbers area. This is not due to lack of ability on the pupil, who is in a top Maths set, but due to the multi-modality which music imposes on numbers. With exceptions the numbers involved rarely rise above 7 and therefore we require these few, overworked digits to perform a multiplicity of functions (accidental pun). The big hitters in one area, are Z List celebrities in the next; numbers which seem like immediately family members in one context are, at best, distant cousins in another. Even the most mathematically gifted pupils will feel, at times, that they are drowning in a whirlpool of, polygamous, shape-shifting integers.

Confused? Join the club. That’s why I intend to produce some kind of table to help pupils (and any other interested parties) see at a glance the many faces and functions of these digits. Adapting the Kipling process, I’ll compile a prototype, run it past some pupils & colleagues, make necessary adjustments and additions and post it here – most probably on a new Lesson Support Page.

In the meantime, let me mention just a numerical oddity which struck me the other day while listening to an old mp3 download of Radio 4’s In Our Time. The conversation concerned the Fibonacci series, golden sections etc. and their prevalence in nature, architecture, art and music. It occurred to me for the first time that the Fibonacci series does not feature the number most prevalent in Western music – 4. Strange.

* unfortunately instructors rehearse ensemble at this time and can’t join in.

Festival de Cuerdas de América

Porteño internet chess amigo and fellow guitarist, Horacio Villa sent me a link with the recommendation that I watch a couple of videos of the charango player Oscar Miranda. There is some very elegant playing here by a big man on a small instrument – particularly in the final minute of the first video. At one point the cliché “his hands are moving too fast to see” is literally true.

Also of interest to me is the posture of Horacio Castillo in the very first video of this sizeable collection. I have found myself intuitively using this posture – which contravenes classical orthodoxy – over the last few years. However, I do not pass it on as standard to pupils for the simple reason that I’d already been playing for more than 30 years before falling into it and I remain unconvinced that it would offer enough stability to allow a beginner truly to relax the shoulders, arms and hands. Is this simply an untenable case of do as I say, not as I do?

Right at the bottom of the page you can hear a cheerful audio file of the puzzingly entitled milonga, Y no entendieron nada (And they didn’t understand anything) by Eduardo “Toto” Mendez (interestingly put together, trilingual website). If you’ve ever wondered what a Uruguayan accent sounds like, there is a short video of him enthusing about the first ever Festival de Cuerdas de América. I’d never come across Eduardo Mendez before and a little research on YouTube threw up this short, comical video of a recording session with some pals. I tried embedding the video twice and while it had all the appearances of success, pressing Play elicited the message “Sorry, this video is no longer available.”

Treachery & Isolation

Imagine you’d been allocated one of the four inner-harmony parts in this six-part arrangement. Would the sea of syncopations, rests and fussy articulation seem daunting? one-note-samba-all-in

How about if you could play along to just those parts in class? one-note-samba-harmony-only

…before trying it against the contrasting – and therefore off-putting – bass line one-note-samba-harmony-bass

…and then trying it with the treacherous tune present – I say treacherous as its rhythms are similar to those of the harmonies but not identical – and therefore untrustworthy: one-note-samba-all-in

One of the things I love about Sibelius is that you can mute some lines, allowing pupils to hear others in isolation – before re-introducing rival lines, when familiarity and confidence build. If there are lessons in life to be extrapolated from musical situations, might one be that problems can be as much about context as substance?



Do I have any evidence of emerging technologies improving ensemble skills? Nobody has ever asked me this but I found myself reflecting upon the topic recently as a result of gradual changes in practice. In days gone by, I always began secondary school guitar ensemble rehearsals in Week 1. Increasingly, the result of this was that pieces peaked too soon and so, more recently, I’ve tended to start in week 3 or 4.

The single biggest factor has been pupils being able to access play-along midi files on this blog, facilitating more meaningful home practice. This year I hope to experiment by producing mp3s which pupils can import into their mp3 players. I don’t imagine that they’ll listen for pleasure, but they’ll probably drive their families not quite so far up the wall in households where the family computer is in the living room.

Freed from the rush to begin rehearsals, we have spent a little lesson time trying out a few ensemble pieces for size – playing along with Sibelius scores on a laptop with external speakers attached. This allows pupils to try out not only varied pieces, but different parts within the same piece – with some surprising results. Some pupils have bid for parts more difficult than they would have been allocated – the appeal of the part sweetening the extra practice required. Another surprise is that arrangements, shelved a few years ago as too ambitious for school use, are beginning to seem possible. Pieces with syncopations* and cross rhythms** intended to wrong-foot the listener can have a frighteningly similar effect on some players if sufficient familiarity does not materialise. As most instructors spend only one day in each secondary school, today’s technologies create a space where that familiarisation can take place.

* Int 1 concept                       ** Int 2 concept

Timing is everything

I recently read something in Steven Mithen‘s excellently written and thought provoking book The Singing Neanderthals which stopped me in my tracks. The passage concerned the research, by Professor Willi Steinke of Queens University in Kingston, Canada, into the melodic recall of a subject with amusia, following a stroke at the age of 64. The subject was unable to identify many well-known instrumental themes. However, when themes with lyrics were played, recall was normal – even although the lyrics were not present! Steinke and his colleagues concluded that melody and lyrics were stored in different parts of the brain – the prosody of the lyrics helping to summon up the tune, and the rhythms of the tune aiding the reverse.

Suddenly my mind jumped back 42 years to my first piano tutor book, in which every melody featured lyrics – added after the event by the author, John W. Schaum. At the time I regarded them as a slightly annoying irrelevance because I was six years old and knew everything. Now the aspiration behind them seems clear. I began to think that, although the beginners’ materials I use have no lyrics, there may be an argument for adding some – more particularly for asking the pupils to add their own.

By an amazing coincidence of timing, this topic was brought up at our in service on Thursday, by one of my colleagues who was keen to discover similarities and differences in our approaches to teaching rhythm. Recommendations and reservations were expressed – the latter concerning examples where words had been forced to fit rhythms in an unnatural way, and possible confusion arising from the differing prosody of varying accents and dialects.

Still – it’s something interesting to think about. Any experiences, views, recommendations to offer?


Falling between the beats

Today’s lunchtime Guitar Group rehearsal featured a short, slow introduction followed by a longer and much more upbeat section. Pupils had been encouraged to relax in the holidays and to refrain from practice in the hope of returning refreshed. So I wasn’t too disappointed to hear that the intro was a little rough round the edges (and in the middle to be honest). However, when the more rhythmic section kicked in, it sounded as though the group had tripled in size, confidence and joie de vivre. Put simply, teenagers appear not to be fond of slow music. The gaps make them uneasy and the reduced tempo, rather than relaxing them, can put them on edge. What to do? Should one, through increased hands-on exposure to slower tempi, cultivate their ability to rely on an internal, as opposed to audible, beat? Or, realising that they are giving up half of their lunch break*, choose items to which they will respond more readily – thereby increasing the chances of a spirited, successful concert item? Answers on a First Class postcard……

* for multi-instrumentalists, not the only time this will happen in the course of a week

Locale Association

Pressed for geographical associations conjured up by the guitar, most people would cite Spain or perhaps Latin America when thinking of the nylon-strung guitar; Britain & U.S.A when thinking of rock, and perhaps the Celtic nations and U.S.A when imagining traditional or country music. Do you ever wonder what people, whose culture is not related to any of these, get up to on the guitar? Have a look at the work of Enver Ismailov from Ukraine:[kml_flashembed movie="" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /]

Keeping it real

Today’s In Service featured a session on preparing for Associated Board exams – including a mock exam. A very courageous clarinet pupil called Emma – very well taught by Alison Loneski – stepped into the lion’s den and was put through her paces by our visiting speaker Margaret Murray McLeod. This live element enlivened the subsequent discussions, providing us with real rather than abstract considerations. A seasoned examiner both here and overseas, Ms Murray McLeod furnished many tips on preparation and presentation which resonated with the assembled staff.

The wisdom of insecurity

In 1994 I went on a trip to Sweden with the Lothian Regional Orchestra and Jazz Band. Our host, a man with the resoundingly Nordic name of Gerry Morrisey, took us out for a tour in his car and and pointed out a patch of spare ground covered in oil where learner drivers would practise dealing with skids. Immediately I wondered why we don’t do that here. Why defer your first skid until you are either in traffic or in danger?

This flashed through my mind today when I was thinking about the dangers which acceleration* can present in an ensemble situation**. Many people’s first experience of minimal control occurs in a concert. They may have limited experience of:

  • the factors causing it – adrenalin – allowing a tempo in excess of the norm to feel normal
  • acoustical/aural novelties – not sitting next to (as as near to) the people you normally follow
  • how to be part of the remedy*** – increase your volume and slowing down while your section is in command of the most frequent notes i.e. make people wait for you
  • how to notice that another section (or individual) is offering a remedy i.e. being so at home with the own part that you have spare attention for the other parts

So, can you practise these skills? Here is a midi file of a Bach Air with wandering tempo. The tempo changes every bar. For the first minute the changes, while noticeable, are mild. Thereafter, they are more drastic – even humorous. Why not try the following tasks?

  • See if you can keep track of the beat by tapping your finger on your leg (this way you’ll feel it in addition to hearing it).
  • See if you can hear the best part to follow – the one with the most frequent notes
  • Try to play along if you know it (this version is in G as opposed to the original key of D – consider it an extra challenge 🙂

* deceleration is rare – curiously a wandering tempo usually goes up, whereas wandering pitch usually goes down

** this is less of a problem in a solo situation and, if it does occur, is more quickly fixed – the nature of the situation being more like a speedy dictatorship than a time-consuming democracy

*** I’m referring here solely to ensembles without a conductor – otherwise you’d simply follow the beat (easier said than done).

The Immortal Memory

Repetition in education, rather than being considered the result of memory failure or poverty of expressive means, goes by the name of reinforcement. So, let me reinforce what I’ve said before about the NBHS PTA Burns Supper, which took place last night. As our transatlantic cousins would say, “what’s not to like?” Piping, highland dance demonstration, recitation, speeches, singing, guitar playing and waiting on tables all performed with great savoir faire by pupils. The members of the PTA organised the catering, raffle, bar and general domestic care. Dancing was fuelled by the finest ceilidh band around – The Robert Black Ceilidh Band – featuring award winning brothers Duncan and Robert Black on accordion and piano respectively and our very own Dave Swanson on drums. Rhythmic playfulness, inventive harmonisation and juxtaposition of tunes, together with fiery, virtuosic playing ensured a full dance floor throughout the evening. Of course, no dance floor can be filled without enthusiastic, capable dancers – something which is a forte of NBHS.