Today’s Readers Choice blog post topic is brought to you by Rachel. She suggested that I write about “Explaining Syncopation Clearly”. There are no doubts in my mind that syncopation can be difficult to teach, particularly when we spend so much of our time coaxing students to “stay on the beat”. However, like most musical concepts, I think the trick to teaching syncopation clearly is finding a way for students to feel and identify the concept before seeing it. Therefore, in part one of Teaching Syncopation, I’ll be highlighting repertoire and movement activities you can use to help students hear and feel syncopation.

Choosing the Repertoire
Start by choosing a song or instrumental piece to be the foundation upon which all other examples of syncopation can be built. The following is a short list of songs/pieces that showcase syncopation, with a variety of genres represented.

Alabama Gal (folk song) <–one of my favorites for intro into syncopation
Somebody’s Knockin’ at my Door (folk song)
Jupiter from the Planets by Holst
In the Mood by the Glenn Miller Orchestra
It Don’t Mean a Thing if it Aint’ Got That Swing by Duke Ellington
Rhapsody in Blue by Gershwin
The Entertainer by Scott Joplin
The Sacrifice from The Rite of Spring by Stravinsky
Roar by Katy Perry (in the chorus)

For purposes of clarity, I’m going to pretend that you’ve chosen Alabama Gal for your repertoire. I know of two versions of this song. I’ll be using the version that Jimmy Stewart sang in It’s a Wonderful Life (with the title of Buffalo Gals). I love anything involving Jimmy Stewart. Sometimes I think I was born in the wrong time period due to my love for the golden age of musicals and people like Jimmy Stewart and Fred Astaire. But then I remember that I have the internet, junk food, and Target. Can you relate? Anyway…

From Alabama Gal, extract the following rhythm pattern (indicated by the arrow). This will serve as the syncopated rhythm you’ll use for all movement activities and/or games. That way, the transition into introducing the actual song/piece will be a cinch because the students will already know it.

Arrow clipart by Krista Wallden

The following games are meant to help your students recognize the feeling of syncopation. Before you play the games, make sure your students have mastered keeping a steady beat, as well identifying strong and weak beats. Those skills will lay the foundation for understanding syncopation.

Rock the Boat

  • Students sit in small groups of 4-8
  • Each student has a pair of rhythm sticks
  • Tell them they’re sitting in a boat, and they must row the boat (tap rhythm sticks on the floor) with the steady beat of the rhythm patterns they hear.
  • When they feel the boat rocking (a syncopated rhythm), they have to stop tapping and place the sticks in their laps
  • Alternate between syncopated and straight rhythms, always using the same syncopated rhythm found in Alabama Gal
  • If one of the groups does not make the switch quickly enough, their boat “capsizes” and each student must “swim” to another boat and continue rowing
  • Continue playing the game until students are able to identify the syncopation
  • If students need a challenge, ask them to clap the syncopated rhythm each time they hear it

Bump Up Tomato is a song/activity that I originally found on the blog Treble in the Classroom. I love that the premise behind the game is to make others laugh. As a teacher, I would’ve loved to join in as I rarely had a student who could keep a straight face around me.

The following video shows a clapping game that would be another great activity for syncopation. However,  I think this game would be best to use after students have had ample practice with the concept. It’s a bit of a challenge since they have to keep a steady beat with their hands while singing syncopated rhythms.
The final example is rather dry, but would be a good reference on days in which you have a sub and need to introduce or practice the concept of syncopation. It would also be a good as a simple review video for older students.
As you can see, Youtube is a great resource for finding movement activities to teach syncopation. Have you tried any of these games with your own students? If so, how did it go?
Stay tuned next week for part two in Teaching Syncopation, in which I’ll discuss activities for reading and writing syncopated rhythms.Thanks for reading!