One of the best and most important parts of the job of being a middle school ensemble director is the chance to give students a good solid footing for the basics of music performance from the start of their studies. As someone who has taught at the high school and college level, I can recount more stories than I care to about students at those levels who arrive in my classroom or studio with poor fundamental skills. The most immediate and easily observed deficiencies are usually physical ones centered around technique or posture. These can be difficult to remedy but also easy enough to rectify if the student is committed to working towards a solution. Where one finds greater challenges is in the area of reading sheet music, especially when it comes to sight-reading. Which components of music notation does the student need fluency with in order to successfully sight-read? If one thinks about it, there are really just two immediate components involved: pitch and rhythm. Surely beyond those two basic components, the student must learn to navigate other more specific aspects of notation such as dynamics, bowings and navigation markers like codas or 1st and 2nd endings. I would argue those are easier to implement and are not usually a barrier to getting sound off the printed page. Furthermore, I would posit that rhythm is usually the obstacle that prevents students from translating symbols into sound. Once the student is familiar with the 5 lines and 4 spaces of their clef, there is little more for the beginning musician to know with regards to reading pitch. Most students can identify the pitch names of a page of whole notes early in their music education. The problem arises when these same pitches are assigned different rhythmic values. Nothing changed about whether notes are on a line or a space and which pitch letter is assigned to that line or space, but the beginning music student is usually suddenly confused by the addition of this new information, even if the student can identify the different note values (whole, quarter, eighth etc).
I would argue that this is another area in which the widely accepted dominant system is rooted in a white, Euro-centric approach and could benefit from the addition of a counter-narrative or secondary approach. In the rhythmic system that we have inherited from this parochial view of rhythmic decoding from Western European music theory, we teach our children to decode rhythm using a combination of numbers and words. As if that weren’t complicated enough, we also employ isolated vowel sounds like “e” and “a” into the daunting task of reading music. It’s no wonder so many children struggle with decoding rhythm and therefore arrive at high school or college saying and believing things like “I’m a terrible reader!” or “I wish my sight-reading was as strong as my playing is!” This also prevents further obstacles for children with learning disabilities or for whom English is a second language. Assigning the word “four” to a quarter note value which receives one beat is fine so long as the word “four” is one syllable long, as it is in English. If you use this system in Spanish, for instance, the word for four is cuatro, which is obviously two syllables. Now you must truncate the word cuatro (or teach the system in English to a Spanish-speaking student) so that it is a monosyllabic word forcing it to correlate to a quarter note value which is another cognitive step (or obstacle) in translating notational symbols into musical sound.
Here’s an example of how much language is required to decode rhythm under the dominant system:
Illustration 1: Using the dominant method for decoding rhythm
As you can see, in these two measures of music we employ numbers, words and isolated vowel sounds to unravel this rhythmic passage that employs the use of just three simple rhythmic values (quarter, eighth and sixteenth notes). The student is required to call upon many different pieces of knowledge in one cognitive request. This is how students end up with a damaged epistemology with regards to decoding rhythm.
The solution I am putting forth is to teach a comparatively less complicated system for decoding rhythm, especially in the beginning of a student’s music studies. The South Indian system for decoding rhythm known as solkattu does exactly that. The system employs no numbers or words but rather syllabic sounds that correspond to note values. In this way, the teacher is allowed to focus on what really matters when teaching the early lessons on reading rhythm which is the concept of beat. Without a firm understanding of beat (or pulse) the student is adrift in an ocean of numbers, words and vowel sounds when it comes to decoding rhythm an act which requires cutting the larger beat into smaller, specific durations.
In solkattu, a single beat (or quarter note) is called “ta” regardless of where it occurs in the measure. Therefore, a single quarter note, regardless of where it falls within the measure will be called “ta” and not 1, 2, 3 or 4 in common time. This works so well because it allows the student to focus on the first and most aspect which is “at what tempo (or speed) will I attempt this passage?” So often students confuse being counted into a passage with a countdown. When the director says “1, 2, 3, 4” it is not a countdown into a shapeless space of time, it is an indication of the tempo or beat. Imagine how much clearer the indication of the tempo would be if teachers counted their ensembles in with “ta, ta, ta, ta” at a specific tempo rather than the traditional “1, 2, 3, 4”. So many students hear the traditional count-off as a countdown “1, 2, 3, 4… blastoff!” They do not extrapolate the necessary information from what the teacher has said, which is an indication of the tempo. Furthermore, when “ta” is split in half (eighth notes) we use the syllables “ta ka”. When the beat is split into three parts (eighth note triplet) we use “ta ki da” and into four parts (sixteenth notes) we use the syllables “ta ka di mi”. It must be stressed to the student that the most important step when attempting to sight read a piece is first picking a feasible tempo at which to make an initial attempt.
Illustration 2: The four basic rhythmic subdivisions using solkattu
Illustration 3: The rhythmic excerpt from Illustration 1 decoded using solkattu
Consult rhythm expert David Alderdice’s 2016 TED Talk 10.