June 2022

Developing an Internal Pulse 

by Tish Berlin

If you often lose your place when playing ensemble music, this article is for you! If your rhythmic skills are strong and you can find your way back in quickly after losing your place, this article may provide some useful tips for helping those who need some guidance in this area.

Most people have a perfectly good sense of rhythm and tactus (the beat) when walking, singing, or tapping the steering wheel while listening to the car radio. But put an instrument in our hands and notes on the stand and suddenly we can feel rhythmically incompetent. If this happens to you, it’s time to develop an accurate and confident internal pulse, which is a crucial step toward becoming an accurate and confident ensemble player. We all get off sometimes, but with a strong internal pulse you will get back on quickly and become a mentor for the less-confident players in your ensemble.

How many times have you been told NOT to tap your foot while playing in your recorder group? There are good reasons for this instruction. First, the repertoire that most recorder players play comes from the court, church, or chamber music of the Middle Ages to the Baroque periods. Audible and visible foot tapping is distracting in this music, both to the audience and to your fellow players. (If you are playing bluegrass or other music that has a tradition of foot tapping, tap away, if you can keep a steady beat with your feet!) Second, the person who is tapping their foot may not be tapping at the same tempo of the conductor. If they are not coinciding with the conductor or group leader’s beat, they will throw off their fellow players.

I agree that it is bad form to tap audibly or visibly during a performance or rehearsal, but for players who have not developed a strong internal pulse I teach a practice technique that utilizes alternate foot tapping. This exercise will develop your internal pulse and make you a stronger ensemble player. If you lose your place when playing, you will be able to find it again much quicker with a strong internal pulse. You can even use the technique in a more subtle way to help navigate tricky rhythms while performing. See the end of this article for my tip for subtle tapping. 

(Playing with a strong and confident sense of the beat does not mean you are playing robotically–quite the opposite! With a strong sense of the beat you have security and the ability to take freedoms within the beat when appropriate.)

CAUTION: I do NOT advocate tapping your feet while playing in general. This technique is for people who need to develop a strong internal pulse, and is to be used in practice sessions, not in performances or rehearsals.

You will need a metronome for this exercise. If you have not used a metronome before, or if you hate working with a metronome, you should go through Section I several times first. Then practice Section II with your metronome so you can listen to it while playing, just like you listen to your duet partner while playing.

Let’s start without a metronome to ease you into this process.

Go to your favorite method of listening to recordings, and choose something with a steady beat. At the bottom of this article are two YouTube suggestions

Part I: Move/speak with the recording

1. Listen to the music and move your body to the beat - either walk or dance around the room, or sit and tap your feet.

2. Try moving to a large beat, then add speaking or singing to a smaller beat. (You could use nonsense syllables or numbers as you sing or speak, rather than the lyrics.)

3. Sit or stand still, tapping alternate feet to the beat of the music you are listening to. Vocalize a smaller beat while you continue to tap.

4. Turn off the music. It’s time to bring the actual metronome on board!

Part II. Move and/or speak with your metronome

1. Set the metronome at 60 BPM. Tap alternate feet - one foot per beat.

2. Once you’re confident that you are tapping with the metronome, say “dah” once for each beat until you are comfortable tapping and speaking. Then say “dah” twice as fast as the metronome beat. If you think of the metronome as the quarter note, you are now speaking the eighth note.

3. Change your speaking to different note values - half notes, dotted half notes, sixteenth notes, etc.

4. Count out loud. Start with the metronome beat, counting 1-2-3-4, tapping alternate feet with one foot per beat. Add the eighth note by saying 1-and-2-and-3-and-4-and (or any vocal pattern you are used to using for subdividing into the eighth note, for example ta-te-ta-te).

5. Change your time signature to 3/4. Notice that the downbeat is no longer always on the same foot. That’s okay! The feet are the beat, not a measure.

Part III: Play Music with your Metronome

1. Put the easiest music you have on your stand. Start the metronome at a slow tempo. A beginner’s method book is a good place to start.

2. Start tapping alternate feet. Play the music. If you can’t play and tap your feet at the same time, choose something easier or slow the tempo down. When you become proficient at this level, give yourself a pat on the back and move on to slightly more difficult music.

3. Don’t give up! It takes some people a couple of months of practicing this to get comfortable with tapping their feet while playing. Stick with it and your internal pulse will become strong and confident. 

Once you have developed confidence with the exercises above and can apply them to more and more complex rhythms, start over but count the bigger beat. Counting the half note in 4/4 (two long beats or pulses per measure) or the whole note in 4/4 (one pulse per measure) can help your playing flow, rather than get stuck in the smaller beat.

Remember the Caution!

Don’t tap audibly or visibly in rehearsal or performance. Audible and/or visible tapping is distracting to the audience and your fellow players, so (tip for subtle tapping here) pulsate your big toes instead, in closed-toe shoes, if you need a little extra confidence with tricky rhythms. Once the alternate tapping has become an automatic movement you will be able to turn it on and off at will. Your ultimate goal is to feel a strong internal pulse without having to pulsate your big toes except in cases of dire need.

Why tap alternate feet instead of just one? One foot has nothing to bounce off of, though you could use a rocking motion from toe to heel if you must use just one foot. The single foot can easily go faster or slower, or even a little haywire, without the other foot to keep it balanced. It’s best to use alternate feet so that you can use the subtle tapping in performance.

Keep with it, and you will become a leader and mentor in your group!

Two suggested music videos with which to practice foot-tapping:

Letitia (Tish) Berlin, a former ARS Board President, teaches recorder and coaches ensembles in California and at workshops around the country, including the Amherst Early Music Festival, and the Oregon Coast Winds and Waves recorder workshop. She is the director of the Hidden Valley Early Music Road Scholar program (Carmel Valley, CA). Ms. Berlin performs regularly with the Farallon Recorder Quartet and the recorder duo Tibia. She and her partner Frances Blaker were selected by the ARS Board for the ARS Distinguished Achivement Award in 2022. (See article here)

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