Winter 2009 Pedagogy Articles:
“Strategies for Music Learning” by George Palton
“Circular Breathing Defined” by Paul Nobis
Tips for Tuba: “Downbeat, upfeet!” by David Porter
Stepping Stones to Success: “Don Haddad’s Suite for Baritone (Tuba)” by Pat Stuckemeyer
Tips for Tuba, Volume IX A: Downbeat, upfeet!
by David Porter
There is much information available about the topic of rhythm, and I hesitate to write an article unless it pertains specifically to young students.
For students, figuring out the meaning of the time signature is usually easy. Then I say, “Show me the downbeats in a measure.” Then the student always points to the beginning of the measure and says, “one.” “Now find beat two.” Often a very young student will start moving their finger around like a ghost while looking at me to see reactions. I know our students are smart youth, but sometimes they are looking for the easiest way out. As we all do, I am trying to get them to think on their own. In the student’s case, I am trying to get them to lead the ensemble with independent rhythm. One other point: many times students do not learn independent rhythm but are depending on the ensemble director to dictate the rhythm. This is really only necessary when time is short for performance preparation. This is where the private teacher can make a difference in helping the ensemble music program.
After I have helped the student understand the mathematical hieroglyphics of music notation (sometimes takes up to two lessons with many continued reminders), we then move to playing what was figured out visually. In my younger years, I could never figure out why this would be so difficult. Two thoughts have emerged. Obviously, one is the difficulty with getting young minds to also do breathing, buzzing, articulation, air direction, and fingerings cohesively. The other is something I discovered a few years ago. The way they feel pulse. Where is it?
For many tuba students it starts in their feet. Sometimes it is taught, sometimes they get it from marching ensemble, and sometimes they tap their feet because it is one of the few body parts not directly involved with playing tuba. My response to this is two fold—embrace helping with it, and then eventually wean them from it. The rest of this article is about helping them make sense of their foot tapping. I am sure all of us who teach have sat and watched a student’s foot tap one tempo or rhythm while they are playing another. I used to write this off as young and uncoordinated, which is true. But more recently, I have come to believe that young students have trouble focusing on any notes that need to be played when their foot is up—the upfeet! I have witnessed many students trying to tap their foot as if every note is a downbeat. When the notes would be too fast or not on the mathematical measure divisions, the foot would change tempo or worse yet, start fibrillating! Now there is a sight that most people cannot make their foot do willfully, much less involuntarily.
The main difficulty comes because students can easily blow air and tongue a note with a down tap because it “feels” like it is going the same direction—down and/or forward. Inhaling on the upfeet is easy because it “feels” like it is going the same direction—back and/or up. When a student tries to blow air and tongue notes on the upfeet, it feels like things are happening in opposite directions—foot coming up at the same time air and tongue “feel” like they are going forward or down. Having come to this conclusion, I have the following suggestions for us.
1. Whatever method a teacher wants to describe this process, it is important to recognize the coordination of foot and pulse.
2. Have the student first practice breathing in with the downbeat and blowing out with the up-feet.
3. Then have them play a singular note on the upfeet over and over.
4. Next change the up-feet note to be played in one of three places.
A. right after the foot is coming up
B. at the top of the upfeet
C. right before the foot hits a downbeat—simulating the sixteenth note division in 4/4 time
5. Then move into slowly trying to play the music parts with the foot moving accurately on the correct downbeats and up-feet.
Like I mentioned, I hesitated to write this until I had a story to tell. I can honestly say I am blessed every day to have young students who are eager to learn and want to be independent thinkers. They usually have to be shown the way at first and then they get excited and take it. In the case of the downbeat—up-feet, I have had some students who needed help and progressed with the method described above. One student in particular had a tremendously difficult time playing any rhythms correctly in middle and early high school. Rather than giving up, we both persevered with each other until this student is correctly sight reading rhythms (and notes) out of the Robert Getchell Second Book of Practical Studies and marching in step during marching season and is on the cusp of becoming another world class young tubist. I am so humbled and honored anytime a student makes it past any obstacles in their playing that helps them enjoy playing more and lead to a better ability to show musical expression.
Not forgetting to breathe goes hand in hand with these issues, and, in the case of counting rhythm and coordinating downbeat up-feet, the students tend to “freeze” during rests, so I say quite a bit, “Don’t forget to breathe!”
serves as Principal Tuba with The McLean Orchestra and performs as a member of the Camerata Brass Quintet. He is also faculty on The Masterworks Festival and Director of Youth and Youth Music at Fairlington United Methodist Church.