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Check Patterns

Troy Bennefield | July 2009

    There are few things as frustrating as working with a band whose players have weak rhythmic skills. It leaves a director feeling that he has to teach each student where every note goes by rote. This is especially baffling if these students are otherwise technically proficient. 
    While playing rhythms correctly is difficult at every level, students’ problems with rhythm begin early, from their first lessons on the instrument.  Percussionists tend to be better  at rhythms than wind players simply because teachers expect it, unfortunately at the expense of good note reading. Many instructors create similar problems for wind players, teaching them the skills to produce the right pitch but often forgetting the crucial lesson of why it is played at a certain time. As a result students rely on each other, guessing when to play a note instead of being individually accountable for the correct timing of each note. Robert Levy agrees, saying, “After years and years of guesswork while reading rhythms, there are few leaders and many followers. They play together what they guess the rhythm is.” (Teaching Techniques and Insights for Instrumental Music Educators, GIA Publications)
    I believe that if directors use check patterns as a daily exercise, as described by  Thom Hannum in his book Champion­ship Concepts for Marching Percussion, students will become accountable for the correct spacing of notes and the correct alignment of every rhythm. Hannum’s ideas can become a solution to every music teacher’s search for that mental response to an unseen division of space. Through time students can be as comfortable with rhythms as they are with scales and fingerings.

Check Patterns
    I learned about check patterns in high school when I read how the author used his approach with championship drumlines and applied it to teach percussionists of all ages. Check patterns simply takes a basic 16th-note pattern (the check) and replaces the 16th notes with variations (the check patterns). It is based on the fact that there are only 14 possible variations of 16th notes and rests in one beat. 
    Teachers can use each variation to train students to play each rhythm correctly, every time, while creating a rhythmic vocabulary in the process. In his new book A Percussionist’s Guide To Check Patterns: Building A Funda­mental Rhythmic Vocabulary (Alfred), Thom Hannum explains that for students, “learning to recognize and respond to patterns gets them beyond the note-to-note stage of reading music. At the same time, pattern recognition helps to improve technical facility and musical expression, as the player now has to concentrate on a unit larger than a single note value.”
    While this method was created to help percussionists, there is no reason to limit these powerful exercises to one instrument. With some simple alterations, check patterns can become a major part of how band directors teach rhythm to an entire ensemble, a way to begin each rehearsal, and with time, a new musical vocabulary.  

The Basic Idea
    As stated, check patterns use a 16th-note pattern and replace each set of   16th notes with variations. In the original version there is no concept of note length or pitch, merely rhythm, which is how they are typically used as percussion exercises.


To use the exercise with mallet instruments, the student plays simple arpeggios and even changes keys if necessary.

    As an exercise for wind instruments, the most important change is the concept of note lengths. When a snare drummer hits a note, the same sound results whether the notation shows a 16th note or a whole note, but instructors have to adjust this for wind players. The exercise begins with clapping so at first the length of the note is unimportant. Eventually, however, students add note values to make the note lengths included in the exercise.
    Another difference created by adding note lengths is the visual appearance of the rhythm to the players. Check patterns work best when students learn them first in the original form, focusing on only 16th notes. Later, it is important to apply the rhythms as wind players usually see them.

Check Patterns in Rehearsals
    Check patterns will only be helpful to playing accurate rhythms if the director and students are patient and detailed. Those who rush through the process usually do not achieve the desired effect. Begin by using the original rhythms, only worrying about 16th notes and rests, and set the metronome between 60 and 75 b.p.m.
    Slow practice is important because it forces students to subdivide and to understand space and silence in rhythms. It is also important to set either an 8th-note or a 16th-note subdivision. This helps to train students to play even subdivisions of the beat, thereby increasing their feel of space and tempo.
    Begin teaching these exercises by having students clap the rhythms.  This takes out many variables caused by the instrument, and more important, it teaches students to feel the rhythms.  Start by having the students clap the original pattern. You will probably notice that they will want to rush the rhythms, especially the 8th notes. Do not move further in the exercise until they are comfortable doing this part perfectly at a slow tempo. It may take three minutes or three days, but be patient.
    Once the original pattern is rhythmically even, move on to the variations. Simply have the students clap Check 1 in place of each beat of 16th notes. They have to learn to truly feel the rest on the downbeat. Counting the subdivisions works well because the students don’t have an instrument in their mouth as yet. When Check 1 is comfortable, keep working on the next 13 variations. You can skip around the order if you feel some rhythms need more work than others, but do not change the numbers. They will be useful later. 
    Because these are wind players and not percussionists, have them use the instruments as soon as they are comfortable with the exercise and have a better understanding of rhythm. Never be afraid to return to the clapping because it is a great teaching tool. Begin by playing the original check on concert F (or B flat if that is your usual long-tone) using a staccato articulation.
    When the students have a strong understanding of the subdivision of the rhythms then introduce the typical notated check patterns.
Once students have a strong concept of subdivision, they should have an easier time with the 8th-note to 16th-note relationships than before. As all 14 patterns become stronger, I suggest using them as a daily exercise, creating strong rhythmic habits. The easiest way to do this is to set a metronome and play from the original check, straight though the patterns, and end with the check again. You could also play the check between each variation.
    Directors should begin to see im­proved rhythmic accuracy throughout their ensembles, especially in sight-reading, once they reach this step. Many introduce
the patterns as vocabulary for their bands, telling one section, “Trumpets, those check 3s are too short and too loud. Flutes, the check 7s were perfectly separated.” At this point I suggest you evaluate the merits of the exercises and explore the many ways they can evolve to help your students.

Beyond Check Patterns
    The only way check patterns be­come effective with wind players is when a director adds note lengths and varied articulations. Students learn each exercise using a staccato articulation, so next it is time to play with the full length of each note using slightly separated note lengths. In doing this they are using a sequential, formula-type exercise but applying real-world concepts.
    This should greatly increase the improvements in performance skills during rehearsals and at concerts because the students are now combining the math concepts of note length with correct performance. As Steven Cooper notes, “It’s crazy to have an intellectual understanding of note values if one doesn’t know the rhythm.”   (Teaching Techniques and Insights for Instrumental Music Educators, GIA Publications) To further increase the students’ productivity, you can add accents on different parts of the beat creating almost limitless variations.
    Some band directors use the check patterns as breathing exercises because many young students stop the air when they have to play notes in succession. By performing check patterns using air and tongue only, teachers can adjust a  student’s articulation technique while learning how to keep air behind the tongue at all times.

Melodic Variations
    There are any number of ways to use melodic variations, including some that are simple to learn and very effective. To introduce melodic variations  go up the instrument in scale degrees every two beats or follow the circle of fourths. You can assign scale degrees for each 16th note, replacing them with rests as needed.

    Some teachers become creative and assign chord tones throughout the band, which results in a balance-and-intonation exercise as well. The only limitations are your own, so work with students to find a process that is best for the group.
    Directors who are having success with this method should continue to use it daily. There are any number of ways to keep it interesting, such as creating a contest in which students play all the way through with no mistakes. These are especially a lot of fun when someone is beginning to learn the exercises.
    As a motivational tool, students like any kind of game used in instruction.  Games also reveal a lot about how a person thinks and acts. You can assign specific check patterns to individual students or to sections. When played together the entire band should execute 16th notes sounded in identical rhythms across the ensemble, leading to even stronger results. When combined with exercises in which students play different note lengths, this can build skill throughout the ensemble. You can also use it with other warm-ups, such as including the patterns in daily chorales or using variations within phrases and chords. Any way that you can work in multiple concepts will help students to apply them to actual music.
    One important method of using check patterns is during marching season. Simply combine the techniques with marching fundamental blocks and then add creative ways to change the patterns. Perhaps change them at each direction change. Again, the possibilities are almost endless.
    Whether you use all of these ideas or just the basic check pattern, the idea is to develop a consistent way of teaching rhythm and apply it to musical concepts. Keep experimenting to find what works and what doesn’t. Most important, come up with your own variations that work for your particular ensemble. 
    While it is helpful to remind students that good tone and intonation  create the desired sounds, I cannot overstate the importance of great ensemble rhythm. When I teach rhythm, I like to remember the ideas of the late Alfred Reed, who wrote, “If the rhythm is not accurate, it makes no difference how good the intonation is, how perfectly an ensemble produces tone, or anything else because it is not going to sound great. It makes no difference how well everyone plays individually. The ensemble depends on rhythms; the rhythmic sense.” (Teaching Techniques and Insights for Instrumental Music Educators, GIA Publications)