Coming to a classroom near you ... Get with the beat - New app makes rhythm easy
Very few people are blessed with natural rhythm, and schools give plenty of opportunities for students and teachers alike to demonstrate the point - the school disco chief among them. But the worst examples of mistiming can often be found in music classes.
"I have been teaching rhythms throughout my career and (it) is something people find so difficult," says Marion Wood, former director of music at the University of Exeter in south-west England, and now a researcher and freelance conductor. "I found myself wishing children were taught how to read and perform rhythm at a young age."
Wood decided to turn her wish into a reality by developing an app that would teach younger children complex rhythms in an interactive way. The Woodchuck Rhythm App, which Wood built herself, uses familiar words such as "caterpillar" and "dinosaur" to help children play and remember new rhythms.
"It's about taking a complex concept that isn't normally taught until much later and wrapping it in a way a five-year-old can understand," Wood says.
To take one example, the word caterpillar is shown above a picture of a caterpillar and a notation of four semiquavers. The children are instructed to clap the name as they say it, following the four circles that make up the picture of the caterpillar as they do, clapping louder on the head.
The thinking behind it is that when we read ordinary text, we don't read every single letter but recognise groups of letters. Wood believes the same process is possible with rhythms, and teaches children to recognise patterns rather than having to break them down each time.
"Usually, rhythm is taught with maths and many find this inaccessible," says Wood. "If people learn to read rhythm as they do words, it is much more natural."
The app lets users group the rhythms into longer patterns that they can play on virtual or real-life instruments. It also offers games featuring rhythm characters to increase familiarity.
But the app does not just bring music benefits, according to Wood. "Anything that teaches you to look beyond a word to the context is a useful skill," she says.
The app was recently trialled at Cockwood Primary School, Exeter, with 35 students ranging in age from 4-9. "They loved creating their own rhythms and that was really telling," Wood says.
The app is available to download free from iTunes. You can find additional resources at woodchuck-rhythm.moonfruit.com.