My semester teaching at the Syracuse University’s Strasbourg center is almost over. My students played their final concert and have begun returning to the U.S., and our teenaged daughters are wrapping up their studies at their European high school. Our family's last hurrah will be a two-week vacation through Provence, northwest Italy, and Switzerland before our return to the States.
 
A few weeks ago, I led a whirlwind, eight-day music study tour to Leipzig and Berlin. Right off the bat, we heard a superb performance of Bach's Cantata No. 67 by the St. Thomas choir and soloists in the Thomaskirche—Bach's own church. In the coming days, we attended fine performances at the Gewandhaus, Deutsche Oper, Komische Oper, and in the Kammermusiksaal of the Philharmonie. But it was Simon Rattle leading the Berlin Philharmonic and the Berlin Radio Choir in Michael Tippett's A Child of our Time that I and, I believe my students, will carry with us for a very long time.



A Child of Our Time sprang forth from Tippett's horror at the Kristallnacht pogrom of the Nazis, when 177 synagogues and 7500 Jewish businesses were destroyed. Attending a world-class performance of this work in the city that was the epicenter of its inspiration was extraordinary. In the days before the concert, we had visited museums and monuments in the city and thus had been immersed in images of book burning, discrimination, torture, murder, and war. During A Child of Our Time, these impressions seemed to blend with the music. Tippett arranged five African-American spirituals as a unifying device to conclude each section. Clearly, Tippett’s concerns about injustice were not limited to Europe in the ‘30’s and ‘40’s.

The original home of the Berlin Philharmonic was destroyed during allied bombing in 1944. The striking architecture of the new Philharmonie is inspiring. Completed in 1963, the Philharmonie is famous not only for its spectacular acoustics but also for its vineyard-style seating that offers listeners excellent views of the stage from every direction, with the musicians at the center.




We sat just behind the orchestra facing Sir Simon for the whole evening. In a sense, he was conducting us. In the opening work, a contingent of eight violins, perched in a loft to our right, contributed tone clusters to the sonic landscape. Later, these musicians quietly assumed their places on the stage, only to be replaced by fifteen women from the chorus who sang complex, otherworldly clusters themselves. We reveled in the magnificent individual and ensemble playing of the orchestra, and eagerly anticipated the beginning of A Child of Our Time.

From Mr. Rattle's downbeat and the opening chorus: "The world turns on its dark side. It is winter," we embarked on a journey through despair, conflict, strife, and horrific deeds, juxtaposed against compassion, comfort, courage, and brotherhood. The last lines of the alto soloist, "The moving waters renew the earth. It is spring" and the final spiritual, "Deep River," with its message of promised freedom ("crossing over into campground") brought the oratorio to a hopeful close.

The performance reminded me of concerts I had heard by the Cleveland and Chicago Symphony Orchestras as a student, when I was on my path toward choosing music as a career. My thoughts returned to playing and teaching the piano, and giving thanks for the many gifts of both. No, we can't compete with the sheer volume and variety of timbres of an orchestra. But our instrument conveys its own power, beauty, and immediacy. (A conductor once said to me, "You're so lucky! I need to conduct other musicians to make music, but you can sit down and make it immediately, anytime!")

This memorable evening reminded me that as teachers, we do more than give our students the skills to play the piano. We also connect them to the past and to the struggles of artists to make sense of their lives and times.



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Building Awareness
of Rhythm in Piano Students

Written by Joy Morin

 
When I was an undergraduate in the music department at Hope College, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to take Eurhythmics courses with a licensed Dalcroze instructor. Eurhythmics is a method of learning and experiencing music through movement, developed by the Swiss music educator Émile Jaques-Dalcroze (1865-1950). These classes were hugely beneficial, helping me to better understand rhythm, musical expression, and formal structures.

Rhythm is the basic element of music and should be at the forefront of a teacher’s and student’s attention when approaching a new piece of music.

There are three essential components of rhythm:

1. Pulse
2. Meter
3. Rhythmic values


1. Pulse
Failure to maintain a steady pulse is the most common cause for inaccurate rhythms. In the first lesson I tell my students that pulse is the steady beat we can dance to, clap to, or tap our feet to. I invite students to tap along to a few short excerpts of music with various tempi.

2. Meter
My introduction of this component begins with the following questions. “Why do we have meter? Why isn’t music just a long string of equal beats?” The answers (correct or incorrect) provide opportunities to emphasize the importance of this elusive component. Meter does not exist for the sake of neatness or organization on the page. Meter is audible. Music has heavier beats and lighter beats, which is the essence of meter. 3/4 has a completely different feel than 4/4 time, and there are dramatic differences between simple and compound meter.  

Among beginners, a lack of understanding of meter is evident when a student fails to maintain 3/4 time by extending the third beat so that she is inadvertently playing in 4/4. At more advanced levels, a student may play cut time (2/2) as common time (4/4), or feel 4/4 or 3/4 time as more like 1/4 (a common pitfall when playing Bach’s music). Losing sight of the meter is like failing to see (or feel) the big picture.

The key to feeling meter lies in proper emphasis of the strong beats of the measure (e.g. beats one and three in quadruple meters). A lifeless but completely accurate performance can be greatly enhanced by simply helping the student become more aware of this essential element.  

The best way to demonstrate a proper awareness of meter is to ask the student to clap a pulse within various time signatures, beginning with 3/4 and then 4/4 time. If done correctly, the meter should be audible on the strong and weak beats within each measure. After successfully clapping the pulse with an awareness of meter, the student should clap various rhythmic examples while maintaining the emphasis on the strong beats within a measure. This is useful when introducing a time signature or when reminding students to be aware of the meter as they perform a particular piece of repertoire.  

Another activity that helps build a sense of meter is to play short musical examples and ask the student to identify whether he heard three beats per measure or four. Initially students use trial and error by counting aloud but, with time, they identify the meter without much effort.  

3. Rhythmic values
The third component of developing a sense of rhythm involves the cognitive understanding of the various rhythmic values (i.e., quarter notes, half rests, etc.), as well as the ability to accurately execute rhythms within a steady pulse at various tempi. As suggested above, it is nearly impossible to develop a sense of rhythm without first developing a sense of pulse. Examples of rhythmic challenges include placing eighth notes within a steady pulse, executing syncopated rhythms, or playing two-against-three.

When introducing new rhythmic values to a student, the teacher should always relate the new concept to the context of the pulse and meter. For example, instead of introducing the half note as “a rhythmic value that equals two beats” (which means very little to the student and is only true in certain time signatures), the teacher can refer to a previous experience with a quarter-note pulse in 4/4 time and then ask, “What about long sounds? What if we want to create a sound that is twice as long as the quarter note pulse?” The teacher can demonstrate half notes against quarter notes (using two different keys on the piano) and then try it together with the student as a duet. Or, in the spirit of Dalcroze, students may walk around the room and clap or play a hand instrument to the steady pulse of their steps. After students hear and experience the half note, I point out the symbol and introduce the term “half note.” Finally, I ask students to clap some notated rhythms that include half notes, so they can experience how a half note feels in various meters.

Here are additional suggestions for activities that teach these three basic elements of rhythm:
  • Ask students to count aloud while you play a new piece of music. This challenges their awareness of all three components examined above – pulse, meter, and rhythmic values.
  • Always encourage students to count musically and expressively – with the proper emphasis on the strong beats of the measure.  
  • Before having the student sight-read a new piece, clap the rhythm and count aloud with the student. Encourage the student to do this at home.
  • Sight-read new pieces as a duet with the teacher playing one hand’s part and the student playing the other.
  • When you sense that a student is not playing with an awareness of pulse, stop and ask, “where’s your beat?” Ask the student to begin again, this time focusing on maintaining a pulse. (Lack of pulse awareness is not corrected overnight; many students will need reminders throughout their piano study.)
  • The metronome is a helpful tool, as is tapping/clapping along while the student plays. An alternative to the metronome is mp3 or MIDI accompaniment soundtracks.
Early mastery of the basic components of rhythmic awareness will prepare the student for other rhythm-related devices, including tempo-altering devices, such as ritardando, accelerando and rubato. And this increased awareness can also lead to more vibrant performances and a deeper understanding and appreciation of music. 
 

Joy Morin is a pianist and piano teacher in Bowling Green, Ohio. She is an active member of MTNA and is currently Co-President of the Northwest District Ohio Music Teachers Association. She maintains a blog about piano teaching, ColorInMyPiano.com


Are you a musician or music educator interested in publishing an article in Soundpoint? If so, send a synopsis of your intended essay to Richard Breyer, Editor, at Soundpoint@3-DPiano.com. You will receive a response within two weeks. Authors receive an honorarium upon publication. 


A Music Student Abroad

Studying abroad is an incredibly powerful experience. Being given the opportunity to flourish in a culture so rich in music and art has been something I will always keep with me. However, even more than on a musicianship level, studying abroad has changed me as a person—through gained confidence in my self, faith in my own independence, a newly acquired sense of American Identity, and also in many ways that I know will only slowly reveal themselves as time allows me to better understand my time abroad. It has been a truly amazing journey, and a time that I could not and would never want to forget.

– Alex Shenkman, Setnor School of Music at Syracuse University, Class of 2015
From left: Alex Shenkman, Fred Karpoff, and students from the 2013 SUAbroad Strasbourg music program in front of the Thomaskirche
in Leipzig

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