From my experience with choirs and singing groups it appears on the face of it that we are a rhythmically challenged nation!
I often try to introduce a bit of clapping or steps or syncopation into our warm-ups and songs and am always amazed at the apparent lack of co-ordination and body-awareness amongst the group. As soon as I begin teaching some simple dance steps, or try to clap a simple rhythm that is not on the beat, several people just sit out and don’t even bother to try because they “know” they can’t do it. And some people sit out because “I’ve come here to sing, not dance!”
But of course, we do all have a good sense of rhythm, it’s just that we don’t practice it very often. Rather like people who think they can’t “sing” because they can’t immediately pick up a tune – they are simply out of practice with their listening skills.
It seems to me that this is a cultural phenomenon. Ours has become a very visual and rational/ mental culture. We use our eyes and thinking brains far more than our ears and bodies. Once people have sung in a choir for some time, they get in contact again with their innate listening abilities. They learn to trust their ears and not just their eyes. Similarly, given time and patience, I believe that people can re-discover their innate sense of rhythm and body-awareness.
In this culture we tend to compartmentalise different activities. So, for example, when we’re singing we’re singing, we’re not dancing, so we don’t need to pay any attention to our bodies. And when we’re dancing or clapping out a rhythm, we don’t need our voices. I came across this time and time again when I used to teach at drama school. The lessons themselves were compartmentalised: a movement class followed by a voice class followed by a tap class. When I arrived and tried to teach everything at the same time, there were a lot of confused students!
However, in many other cultures – notably many African cultures – there is very little if any separation between dance, vocal melody and rhythm. You only have to see a group of South Africans for instance singing a song and you cannot see where the dance ends and the song begins – it is all the same thing. So when teaching songs from these cultures, we often find it difficult. It is no good trying to count some complex off-beat rhythm in your head using your conscious brain, it’s just too hard. You have to let your body “dance” the rhythm and then the song’s timing will come automatically. Similarly with the complex 7/8 rhythms common in the Balkans – just learn the dance at the same time and it comes easy!
Often we have found ourselves carrying out a complex task such as patting our head whilst rubbing our tummy and find that sweet moment when it all falls into place. But then as soon as we begin to think (“great, it’s working” or “I hope I’m getting it right”) it all goes disastrously wrong! We need to trust our intuition, our body intelligence, our non-rational brain which is just getting on with the task quite nicely thank you.
The Natural Voice approach to singing which I follow places the relationship between breath, body and voice at its heart. We believe that you simply can’t separate these components to be fully in the song. And it’s no coincidence that much of our repertoire comes from cultures which don’t make these separations.
I once met an instrumentalist who wouldn’t even begin to learn tunes from another culture until she’d been to a few dance classes from that culture. She needed to embed the culture’s “dance” into her body before she even picked up her instrument.
A few years back I was taught an amazing Ysaye Barnwell gospel-like song called Lawd it’s . This is an amazing song with some quite tricky rhythms. We learnt it by having the sheet music in our hands and it took a long time to get it right. Most of the difficulties were to do with the cross rhythms. It occurred to me afterwards that we probably would have learnt it a lot faster if we had put the music down and simply let the rhythms into our bodies!So next time somebody asks you to move or dance at the same time as you're singing, they're not trying to make life difficult for you, they're actually making it easier for you to learn the song. Just go with it!