“You’re rushing the triplets!”
“Don’t drag the sixteenth notes!”
“Keep everything in time!”
How often in a rehearsal are phrases like this heard? One of the biggest challenges of working with any large ensemble is helping all students feel one steady beat and play as one cohesive unit. It does not matter how accurate the conductor’s pattern is or how intensely the students watch the conductor and listen across the ensemble. If the group does not know how to perceive and internalize rhythmic time division, passages will rush, drag, and be rhythmically inaccurate. With high school bands and orchestras getting better and better and new music for these ensembles becoming increasingly complex, ensuring that students have a solid rhythmic understanding is imperative. This is especially true for ensembles that perform new music and compete at state, regional, or national contests, and for any serious high school students who may wish to study music in college.
One tool to help students understand and internalize divisions within the beat is rhythmic solfege. There are many methods of verbalizing rhythms. For instance, some people may prefer the one-e-and-a two-and method. Other options include the Gordon Method (du-ta-de-ta du-de), the Kodály syllables (ti-ka-ti-ka ti-ti), or common words like Mississippi hotdog.
I am a firm believer in the Takadimi system of rhythmic solfege (ta-ka-di-mi ta-di), which I learned as part of my undergraduate aural skills and music theory curriculum. The Takadimi system assigns specific vocal syllables to each division within one beat and thus is considered to be a beat-oriented system, with the syllable ta always signifying the start of a new beat and di consistently the middle division of the beat. There are two sets of syllables, one for meters with simple beat divisions and one for meters with compound beat divisions.
Division syllables: Ta-di
Subdivision syllables: Ta-ka-di-mi
Division syllables: Ta-ki-da
Subdivision syllables: Ta-va-ki-di-da-ma
The unique syllables for each part of the beat and the consistent location of ta and di makes Takadimi useful for complex operations, such as vocalizing asymmetric meters and gracefully switching between simple and compound beat divisions. Further, rhythms that are most typically inaccurate can be performed and understood with a greater level of precision.
Compound Divisions in Simple Meter and Simple Divisions in Compound Meter
Commonly Inaccurate Rhythms
Below is a collection of rhythms that commonly cause young musicians and developing ensembles difficulty in accurately dividing the beat and performing or sightreading with a high level of accuracy. The rhythms are shown with their corresponding Takadimi syllables to aid in instruction.
It is especially important to prevent this rhythm from becoming a triplet by students attacking the last sixteenth note too early, giving a swing feel to the rhythm. Using Takadimi will make this particular rhythm pop with clarity as the students have to think about using four words (Ta-ka-di-MI) versus three words (Ta-ki-DA).
Quarter Note Triplets
These are commonly inaccurate, but solid internal time divisions will make this rhythm much less mystifying and significantly more precise.
To begin, students must feel a steady pulse. It is helpful to have a metronome sounding at a medium-slow tempo. I like to introduce the exercise at 60 beats per minute. With the metronome pulse sounding, students should physically move to embody the pulse. It is not enough to simply tap feet. Have students use their hands and arms in a robotic down/up motion during simple meters or a down/out/up motion during compound meters. Each down motion corresponds to the start of a new beat (ta), and the up motion is the middle division of the beat (di). In compound meter, the down motion is still ta, the out motion is ki and the up motion is da. If a piece is written in an asymmetric meter, have the students move in a manner that matches the beat groupings; in 5/8 written as 2+3, students should move down/up/down/out/up.
The next step is to model one measure of a simple rhythm in Takadimi and ask the students to verbally repeat it back all while maintaining the steady movement in time with the metronome. Repeat if necessary until the class echoes it back accurately, and then ask for help notating the rhythm visually on the board. Next, ask the students to perform the rhythm together on their own instruments by playing each measure on a given scale. As the class gains confidence and security, gradually increase the difficulty of the rhythm.
With a basic understanding of the Takadimi system of rhythmic solfege and a little practice during rehearsal periods, teachers will be astounded by the increased level of rhythmic accuracy of their ensemble. I presently use this system with my woodwind students at Franklin College and when teaching woodwind sectionals at local high schools. One particular high school band that I worked with performed pieces like Night on Fire (John Mackey) and Metal (Brian Balmages). Through my work with these students, I observed the benefits of teaching the students the Takadimi system to help them understand complex meters and rhythms and to assemble the musical puzzle of these metrically complex pieces. Your students will benefit as well.
1. It should lead to accuracy and musicality in performance, both studies and sight-read, including the ability to recognize and perform musical gesture.
2. It should require and reflect an understanding of rhythmic structure, recognition of metric and rhythmic interaction, and an awareness of the precise location of beats and attacks.
3. It should facilitate aural recognition and identification of rhythmic patterns and metric divisions.
4. It should provide a precise and consistent language for the discussion of temporal phenomena. There should be no need to create new terms or separate categories for performance, transcription, or analytical work.
5. It should address rhythmic concerns presented by music outside the realm of traditional tonal literature such as asymmetric meters, modulation of meter or tempo, complex syncopations, complex tuplet groupings, and passages that combine these in novel and challenging ways.
6. Like pitch solfege, it should be a system that is easily applied and adapts to broad applications, and it should be a tool for life-long use.