Avoiding the Clap Trap

I'm not actually facepalming, I'm fixing my hair.
I’m not actually facepalming, I’m fixing my hair.

I’m not sure where it came from or who in particular introduced it, but it spread with a voracious rapidity amongst the gathered in Acarigua this past June. It may have been carried in by one of the Venezuelan visiting faculty, or one of the international guests, but it became an epidemic, infecting teachers and students alike.

I’m talking about a so-called “pedagogical” practice of striding up to an instrumentalist and clapping subdivisions in his or her face if the rhythm being output is the least faulty or unstable. This was witnessed in Acarigua in sectionals, in full orchestra rehearsals, in private lessons, first from faculty to student, then from student to student. Of course it seems like a good idea at first glance, to offer the help and support of an external metronome literally on hand, and it was always extended with the best of intentions. But as I watched the clapping hands of faculty get to within inches of the faces of young musicians, the distance decreasing in inverse proportion to the clapper’s frustration, I increasingly wondered what possible benefits there could be to such an act. The sheer uncouthness of the gesture aside, it presumes that the hands doing the clapping are as reliable as a mechanical device. This was very, very clearly not the case from the clapping seen and heard in Acarigua.

Even if the clapping hands were accurate enough to serve as an aid to rhythm, that doesn’t necessarily make them a good idea. Rhythmic instability is a result of untrained internal clocks. It’s very easy for developing musicians to get overwhelmed by the multiple visual and aural inputs within an orchestra. They are expected to read complex music, follow a conductor, listen to their colleagues and then connect and coordinate these multiple, oft conflicting streams of data with their own physical apparatus as they play their instruments. Without a certain level of mastery, choices have to be made. Something’s gotta go, and in my experience it’s usually the physical/motor element that lags behind the visual and auditory.

The problem with clapping is that it introduces yet another resource, or in this case a recourse, but one that is unavailable in the real-world context of a concert. Some might argue that clapping could function as a form of scaffolding, a temporary support to be withdrawn when unnecessary, but the desired result is in this case quite different from the actual outcome. By its very existence, the clapping invites a degree of mental laziness. It encourages a reliance on one external source for tempo and inevitably results in the abdication of responsibility for active mental engagement.

Elizabeth gets the tempo wrong in Vancouver
Elizabeth gets the tempo wrong in Vancouver

There is a better way to manage this, and it’s simply to have the participants provide the metronome themselves. In 2010, when the horn section in Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture habitually rushed its “Marseillaise” motifs, I had them stand up and march in place while playing, American football band style, to help them feel and reinforce the tempo internally. Not only was the physical gesture consistent with the martial quality of the music, but it could in fact be replicated when seated, if it were still necessary. Interestingly, it wasn’t. This past visit, in helping the string section coordinate the sophisticated rhythms of the passage at the start of the 6th movement of Pictures at an Exhibition, music replete with triplets, dotted and double-dotted rhythms, I asked the musicians to speak the 32nd note subdivisions out loud, via a simple “Ya-ta-ta-ta Ya-ta-ta-ta” while playing through two passes of the part in question. The rhythmic problems were entirely solved on the first pass, with the second only required for security. In this case the numbers were actually a major help; with so many musicians involved in this exercise it was hard for anyone to rush or drag. There was an active but unspoken negotiation while they played in order for them to coordinate the verbalization of the subdivisions, and since they were generating the subdivisions themselves, externally at first, they had no problem internalizing them shortly thereafter, nailing the part at the concert. Through this process their internal clocks were collectively trained, directly in relation to the music.

Much of working effectively with an orchestra is about facilitating natural strengths and tendencies. In this case, the solution was to exploit the number of participants as an advantage, rather than considering it a hurdle.

I’m acutely aware of the sordid associations the word “clap” has in relation to disease, but the analogy was deliberate on my part. I consider the “in-your-face” clapping to have been a virus spread by contact that was both far too close and far too unwise. Students saw it, picked up on it, and imitated it unthinkingly, compelling me at one moment to take a young Venezuelan aside and ask them to reflect on what precisely they hoped to accomplish with their new found “teaching tool.” When practices are objectively scrutinized in relation to desired outcomes, the results can often be quite discomfiting.

Clapping actually does something quite well. Outside any discussions of its uncouthness or temporal accuracy, it certainly reinforces the primacy of the person doing the clapping. If that’s the intention, clap on.






One thought on “Avoiding the Clap Trap

  1. Thank you for giving us permission to do something different. I wish more conductors were like this, especially with any pedagogical or amateur ensemble. I’m sue there are even times when you wish a professional organization would get past their egos and do this for the music.

    I’m sure it can be frustrating for someone who believes they know the correct rhythm or what ever it is that needs correcting. For that issue we need another solution to be addressed in another blog as its expression does not belong in the rehearsal as some of us have learned the hard way.

    I hope your blog solicits a new habit of curiosity. Stop. Put the instrument or the baton down and explore what could be a teachable moment for entire ensemble. Engage all of the musicians with the question conductor/pedagogues must ask themselves all the time. “Why isn’t this working?” It takes longer in the short run but it teaches young musicians to be reflective rather than judgmental. We are asking them to appreciate how complex and difficult the task at hand is from the conductor’s point of view.

    I remember going on a tour bus with my youth symphony in high school and everyone in the bus singing their parts for fun because our instruments were not available. I our conductor loved this and now I realize in hind site we were singing it better than we played it. If only we had done this in actual rehearsal instead of when we were clowning around. There are so many things that can get between a musician and the music, such as their own instrument. For a violinist the mystery is often do I know the rhythm or is it the bowing or a string change that is getting in my way? This is layered somewhere between are we listening to the roll our part plays in the conversation with others.

    As we know most young musicians are sight-reading their music on the first day of rehearsal anyway and are not ready to deal with technical minutia on their instruments so why not put the instruments down and challenge them to sight sing and tap all of their parts. Free them from the distraction of finding fingers and bowings and engage them in rhythms, motifs and shaping of the musical phrases. String players have a notorious habit of not breathing while they are playing. Ask them to inhale and exhale their bowings, gesturing with their arms. We often envy how the Venezuelans sections move expressively in their sections and then manage to stand up for their parts during the performances. Why not dance and sing the first rehearsal or run through to get synchrony before students work out the technical devices they need on their instrument to get there. It will keep young musicians from getting lost in the canyon of their own parts and give the conductor immediate feed back about what is going on inside the heads of their musicians.. Maybe its just me, but I think it would also be a much more efficient use of ensemble time on many levels.

    I invite everyone’s experimentation. Let the ideas roll.

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