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 Some might argue that clapping could function as a form of scaffolding, a temporary support to be withdrawn when unnecessary, but the desired result is in this case quite different from the actual outcome.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.
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.