Before the high school marching band, before the middle school dance, before the elementary school choir.....
there is the steady beat.
I was in my first year of teaching private voice lessons when one particular student walked into her first lesson with me holding her audition song of choice - a backing track of a Taylor Swift song.
This student was bright, eager to please, and ready to sing, so we jumped right in and I heard her sing her song.
Right away I heard the glaring problem.
This student didn't seem to be aware of the steady beat at all.
As she sang she sped up, slowed down, and sang approximations of the pitch sporadically. I was shocked. Was it because she was used to singing along with the radio and following the singer?
I sang along with her to help....
It didn't help.
Was it because she was also struggling to match the pitch of the song? Maybe we should drop singing for a few moments and just clap along to the steady beat.....
It didn't help.
Over the next several years of her lessons we worked hard at developing her internal sense of beat and she ended up making some pretty amazing progress from her first lesson.
I began teaching privately before I had my degrees and truthfully it hadn't occurred to me that a student wanting to study music could reach middle school without being able to perform a steady beat on cue.
I've always held the belief that every person is innately musical but I had taken a crucial part of the learning process for granted:
Steady beat needs to be taught.
Preparing the Steady Beat
Before students learn to label the beat, they need to learn to experience it. We'll do that three ways: aurally, physically, and visually.
There are quite literally countless songs you could use for this! (I gave some of my favorites here.) For these examples I'll use Goodnight Sleep Tight and Chop Chop Chippity Chop.
To prepare aurally we simply ask students to respond to the steady beat they hear.
They could respond through any number of activities but in this case we're swaying and chopping to the beat.
As students are comfortable with the song and responding to the steady beat we can change the motion.
For Goodnight, Sleep Tight have one student rock a stuffed animal while the rest of the class keeps a steady beat on their laps.
For Chop Chop Chippity Chop, have students make a chopping motion with their hands.
You can get the sheet music and audio for both of these here, along with my other favorite songs for teaching beat!
Use the icons below for Goodnight, Sleep Tight or Chop Chop Chippity Chop and have students point to the moon or soup pot as you sing.
At the beginning of the steady beat preparation students will use a single icon for pointing. Later, that single icon is replaced with a group of four.
Both are included here for you!
Presenting Steady Beat
Before presenting, review what students experienced in the preparation phase. You can even throw in some new ways to experience the beat!
This might include:
- Singing the song while patting the beat on the knees
- Singing the song while you keep the beat on a glockenspiel (for Goodnight, Sleep Tight) or woodblock (for Chop Chop Chippity Chop).
- Singing the song while pointing to icons
Once you feel students have enough experience, you're ready to present as you sing your chosen song!
Practicing Steady Beat
Now for the fun part!
This is a very easy way to get in some classical music in your lessons. Play a song with a steady beat and ask students if the song has a steady beat.
Sousa marches work great for this. John Feirabend has also compiled a really helpful collection of steady beat songs you can check out as well.
Asking if the students if the song has a steady beat transitions very naturally to asking students to show you a way we can keep the steady beat.
Any large stationary movement will work well, especially marching along with the the Sousa marches!
For visual practice have students point to icons while singing known songs.
You can sing one phrase of the song and ask students how many beats they counted as you sang. At this point you can introduce the groups of four icons.
More Lessons Please!
I don't know about you, but I'm always thinking, and re-thinking (and re-re-thinking!) my lessons. Sometimes it's insanely helpful to look at other teachers' lessons when I'm feeling stuck.
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