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The Orchestra Rocks with Rhythm

Aim: How do composers rock with rhythmic phrases, meters, and beats?
Summary: Students explore rhythmic phrasing, syncopation, and accents in the concert repertoire.
Standards: National 1, 2, 4, 7, 8; NYC 1, 2, 3, 5
Vocabulary: accents, ostinato, rhythm, syncopation

Rhythm can be defined as a pattern of short and long notes. Composers create rhythmic phrases that generate a sense of movement and propulsion. They can also inject an element of surprise into their music by altering an established rhythmic phrase or moving the phrase around within the measure. The following activities investigate several ways in which composers play with rhythm to make music rock.

Explore Syncopation

  • Compare and contrast two different parts of “Come to Play.” Establish the steady beat, asking students to pat the pulse on their laps.
  • While keeping the beat, ask students to sing or listen to Track 3 “Come to Play” (vocal part 2).
    • Notice how your hands strike your lap along with the strong beats in the melody.
  • Establish the same steady beat again, and sing or listen to Track 4 “Come to Play” (vocal part 3).
    • Notice how your hands are off your laps when the rhythm of the melody changes. This melody is syncopated.
    • When the rhythm of a piece changes in an unexpected way or feels as if it is “jumping out,” it is called syncopation.
  • You can try this same activity with additional pieces of repertoire, including “Johnny B. Goode” and “Go BIG or Go HOME.”

“Go BIG or Go HOME” by Jessica Meyer

Jessica Meyer wrote “Go BIG or Go HOME” for musicians in an ensemble based in Miami, Florida to showcase their special talents and capture the spirit of the city’s vibrant culture and community. Meyer said that the piece contains “hints of funk, bluegrass, and Afro-Cuban beats, while being driven by groove, virtuosity, and moments of improvisation that allow members of the group to put their own personal signature on the piece. Most importantly, it is written from a place of self-realization, empowerment, and celebration of how joyous life can be.” The piece adds traditional rock instruments to the orchestra, including electric guitar, electric bass, drum kit, and synthesizer.

Your students will have a chance to add their own voices to the piece in a structured improvisatory dialogue with the percussion section. Instructions included in the music will guide students’ preparation for this exciting moment.

Explore Accents and Ostinatos in The Rite of Spring

  • Listen to Track 12 “Dance of the Adolescents” from The Rite of Spring (excerpt).
  • Establish a steady beat clapping hands. Count from 1–8 following the steady beat. Repeat several times.
    • Which beat(s) did we start to naturally pulse heavier than the rest?
    • Why do you think some beats feel heavier or lighter than others?
  • Listen to Track 13 “Dance of the Adolescents” from The Rite of Spring (clapping complete).
    • What do you notice about this pattern?
    • Do all notes have the same weight?

Find the Accents in The Rite of Spring and My Ostinato Challenge

  • Using Find the Accents in The Rite of Spring (PDF), listen to Track 14 “Dance of the Adolescents” from The Rite of Spring (slow clapping), then circle or draw a symbol underneath each accented note that you hear.
  • Once completed, check your work by performing individually or as a group. You may use Track 15 “Dance of the Adolescents” from The Rite of Spring (play-along) to accompany your clapping.
  • In the same activity sheet, go to My Ostinato Challenge.
  • Circle or draw a symbol underneath each note you want to accent. You can have as many or as few as you want.
  • Clap the ostinato that you have created. Then share with a partner, and see if you can clap each other’s ostinatos.

Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring

Stravinsky composed the rhythmically charged music for the ballet The Rite of Spring, which depicts an ancient ritual, for the Russian Ballet in Paris. At its first performance, some of the audience found the music and dance so shocking that they started a riot! Despite this tumultuous premiere, The Rite of Spring went on to change the worlds of music and dance. It is an important example of the ways in which music and movement can be interwoven to tell a story. Its music, which includes dissonant chords, a driving pulse, and surprising accents and beats, is critical in painting a story of mystery and power.

Explore Basslines in “La Follia” and “Johnny B. Goode”

  • A bassline is like an ostinato in the way that it repeats throughout the duration of a piece, forming the rhythmic foundation. Basslines also outline the harmony.
  • Using Track 17, play the basic recorder part to the opening theme of “La Follia.”
    • Notice that the part you are playing is not the melody. It is the bassline, which is like the foundation of the piece. In Vivaldi’s time, this was called the continuo.
  • In a rock song, the electric bass plays the bassline, combining with the drums to create the rhythmic drive.
  • Using Track 44 “Johnny B. Goode” (chords) and the Chords in “Johnny B. Goode” chart (PDF), introduce students to the chords in the song.
  • Explain that chords are built from a single note called the root.
    • If we take out the notes on top of the root, we are left with a very basic bassline.
  • Using Track 46 “Johnny B. Goode” (bassline) and the Basic Bassline in “Johnny B. Goode” chart (PDF), learn the basic bassline for “Johnny B. Goode.”

Go Deeper

  • Invite students to create their own basslines.
  • Play the basic bassline in the Basic Bassline in “Johnny B. Goode” chart (PDF).
  • Add your own rhythm to the basic bassline, using quarter notes and rests.
  • For an added challenge, add other notes from the chords to your basic bassline.
  • Play your newly composed basslines with Track 45 “Johnny B. Goode” (melody).

Rhythmic Call and Response with “Drumlines”

  • “Drumlines” by Thomas Cabaniss provides an opportunity for students to engage in a rhythmic call and response with a drumline that joins the orchestra at the culminating concert. Students can evoke the sounds of the drumline by clapping their hands for the snare drumbeats and stomping their feet for the bass drumbeats.
  •  During the concert, the drumline percussionists will shout: “Yo! Challenge: We go, then you go!” The drummers will then initiate a call and response with the audience, playing rhythms that the audience will echo back.
  • Create your own rhythm challenges in the classroom.
    • Invite students to take turns as leaders, initiating the rhythmic call and response.
    • Investigate different elements you can add to your rhythms, including syncopation, lengthening and shortening the phrase, or varying the snare and bass drum sounds.

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