Mixed Meter Lessons in 5th Grade

Over the past few weeks we’ve begun studying mixed and odd meters in our 5th Grade music class.  Some are surprised and even skeptical of the choice to study and perform pieces in meters like 7/8, 9/8, 10/8, etc.  After all, these meters are not commonly found in elementary or middle school repertoire, nor are they really used in American pop music with which our kids are familiar.  Many would doubt the necessity of spending valuable instructional minutes in 5th grade to learn how to count, feel, and recognize these odd meters.  Some of our kids still struggle to be literate in more common, simple meters; the conventional wisdom would be that we are endeavoring something that is FAR too difficult for our kids to grasp at their developmental level.  However, in my experience and studies I’ve found that not only are these meters right within the reach of our students’ understanding, but learning them helps their literacy and performance of simpler meters.  Learning to perform and understand music in mixed or odd meters makes our kids stronger musicians overall, regardless of the likelihood of them never publicly performing such a piece.

At the beginning of our time together, the students’ understanding of meter was rudimentary at best.  We worked hard through movement and literacy to understand how to identify and perform music within a meter.  We began with 2/4, 4/4, and 3/4.  After a little while we moved to 6/8.  The kids learned how to count and feel these different meters using a variety of movement oriented activities.  They’ve written music in these meters, and notated by rote.  By this time, in 5th grade, the students are operating almost on “auto pilot” when it comes to the meter.  They’ve ceased really actively engaging the meter and although I remind them constantly, many of them do not subdivide the meter anymore to keep the space even.  They no longer feel challenged by the meter, but I would not agree that this is justified.  Their natural tendency to “rush” begins to be evident again.  All the work we’ve done to internalize the “groove” has reduced itself to laziness.  As a whole, they just feel that their groove is “close enough.”  When we introduce odd meters, the students’ must re-engage with the meter.  They must subdivide, or it will completely fall apart.  They have to become active participants in the meter, and you can see it evidenced in their face.  Gone are the vacant expressions of placid compliance, as they simply follow their instincts in a simple meter.  Instead you can see their brows furrowed, their eyes searching the ceiling, their heads gently bobbing to the new groove, and their mouths wearing a determined smirk.  The students are forced to re-focus on the fundamentals of meter.  They must awaken the same attentiveness to meter that brought them to the point of apathetic confidence.

When our students’ learn to feel 7/8 and groove with natural freedom, this does not only add to their existing repertoire of metrical facility.  It improves their sense of time and duration in all meters.  A student who has learned to groove in an odd meter is stronger for this difficulty.  When I asked my classes why they thought we were bothering to work on these odd meters, one student appropriately answered “because it’s hard!”  I thought that was insightful.  When we learn to do something that feels difficult like this, the baseline of our abilities is raised.   If you think about it, athletics are a great way to illustrate this idea.  When an athlete wants to grow stronger, they lift weights.  If they want to get faster, they’ll run around with a tire strapped to their back.  If they just said “well I’m pretty fast, and I know how to run, so I guess that’s good enough” they wouldn’t improve their abilities.  Musical ability takes training, and these kids should always try to improve.

I would also dispute the idea that these meters are really that difficult to grasp.   While some might reference their own experience, in which they probably didn’t really study odd and mixed meters until late in high school, or college, I would remind them that this was not due to inability but rather inexperience.  In many folk cultures these mixed and odd meters are as common as simple, symmetrical ones.  Children learn to perform folk songs as easily as they do in ours.   Perhaps there is a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts here.   We don’t teach these meters to our kids because they are difficult, and they are difficult for our kids later in their lives because we didn’t teach it to them earlier, because it was difficult.

I hope you will feel free to email me or reach out to me with any questions or comments

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