Performing with a steady beat is a fundamental musical skill and working towards that skill can be part of every music lesson.
In Sing and Play, the first songs are limited to single syllable words. With just one sound on a beat it’s really easy for children to use movement to feel the beat. I almost always introduce a song away from the book and the piano.
I have a gorgeous little blackbird puppet that I use for this song. I call him Quaver (always preparing for the future!). I bounce the bird on my knee and the children do the same. We also fly him around to show melodic contour, but more on that later! If a child is struggling to feel the beat then I can bounce the bird on their shoulder or hand. The children can choose different places on their body to bounce the bird.
The Game Cards include a set of Black Crow icon cards. The children have their own set to take away so that they can practise these games at home.
The first activity with the cards is lining them up and working out how many times we need to tap through the four cards to fit the song. I might ask them how many times Quaver bounces on their knee, or how many sounds there are in the song, or just how many birds do we need. Sometimes the children will guess, then we can count out their suggestion and double check, each time tapping once on each card.
Once they have the right number they line them up on the table and tap while we sing. They must tap each bird once for each sound. Some children will do it straight away, especially if you’ve already spent much of the lesson tapping knees and bouncing birds. However some will rush ahead. They will reach the end of the cards before the end of the song. Then you have a puzzle to solve! Why might they finish too soon? Perhaps they tapped too fast or started fine but sped up near the “finish line”. Remind them it’s not a race and the game is to finish the cards at the same time as they finish the song.
The same activities can be completed with the next three songs in Sing and Play since they all have single syllable words, one to each beat. The children love choosing from my big bag of puppets! The Game Cards also have cards for The Clown and Woof Woof, plus on the reverse of the Black Crow cards there is some blue sky for Reach for the Sky. They could also make their own icon cards to match the theme of the song.
Success on the instrument
Once the children start playing their songs on the piano the physical challenges of the instrument can distract their steady beat. Singing the song while they play can usually resolve this, but for some students it’s an ongoing challenge that requires regular practice, repetition and reinforcement. Don’t worry, just keep giving them steady beat experiences and remind them that the piano needs to “sing” the song so it should sound the same. Work on pulse will continue throughout their musical education.
Feel the beat
Help the children physically feel the beat by sharing a pair of claves. The physical sensation of each strike vibrates right through their arm.
Tapping, bouncing, marching
Tapping knees is always going to be my favourite pulse action because it can be done so subtly and efficiently in the lesson wherever you are sat or stood. However make sure you place the pulse on different parts of the body and also create more active pulse actions. Ask the children what actions they could do. For The Clown they could jump, bouncing like a clown. For Reach for the Sky they could alternate arms reaching up to the sky or punching the air. For Woof Woof make sure you have a little dog puppet or toy for them to use, like Semibreve my sleepy dog! They also love to improvise dog actions. Get them away from the piano and moving around the room, walking, marching, crawling.
Why not play some rousing marching music to warm up to by marching around. I live in Worcester, Edward Elgar’s birthplace, so Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1 in D Major is an obvious choice for us. Elgar’s statue is pride of place in our High Street so making that local connection is really important to us.
Here’s a recording from BBC’s Last Night of the Proms from 2014.