Category : Music

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Timing and rhythm – can they be taught?

Music is a fundamental part of Irish dancing – everyone dances to it, whether it’s a lively set or a moody slip jig. Your first hops were probably to a light jig or a reel, and you have been hopping along ever since. But what if music doesn’t come naturally? Can the fundamentals of rhythm and timing be taught? And what do those words even mean?

You might not know this, but Sean O’Brien, one of the most popular piano and accordion players on the feis circuit, was also a champion dancer. His experience both on stage and at the side of the stage has given him an innate understanding of music from both dancer and musician perspective.

In discussing music, the terms rhythm and timing can often get confused. According to O’Brien, “Timing is very mathematical, almost rigid in nature. Either a beat (and in Irish Dancing’s case that’s usually made with your foot) falls in time with the music or it doesn’t. The timing may be simple or complex depending on the type of dance and/or it’s level of intricacy, but it’s still very black and white; either a step or a lift or a jump is in time or out of time with the fundamental beat of the music.

“Rhythm is more to do with flow, light and shade, individual style; in other words it’s a little more musical and open to interpretation than timing. Rhythm can be fast and complex or slow, deliberate and spacious. Individual rhythms can be emphasised and forceful or delicate and intricate. The rhythm is the story of a dance. It helps creates a sense of ebb and flow in the overall piece.”

While timing is very black and white, there is often discussion as to whether it can be taught or not. Some camps say yes and some say no. O’Brien points out that, “For some of us timing comes naturally. For others it may be kinesthetic abilities like moving and jumping. Whilst others are gifted with naturally turned out feet and loose ankles.”

“Timing is unique. Wherever human culture has manifest, dance and music have sprung up, taking any number of forms. The common element in this, from my viewpoint, is the link between music and the way it’s felt in the body, and vice versa. Humans just seem to feel rhythm! They want to dance and move in such a way that reflects and expresses the sounds of the world around them! I think this is a universal trait alive in the human collective and that some of us are just more naturally attuned to it. The teaching of timing therefore is more a case of unlocking that which is buried within. I’ve seen it happen!”

As a starting point, O’Brien suggests practising dancing to a metronome. “This is the simplest way to strip music back to its fundamental, unchanging beat. Sometimes people can be confused by the layers of instruments, and a metronome helps to distinguish the underlying tempo.

“Coming to know rhythm is a slightly different practice. Rhythm is about self expression and requires ‘feel’. The best way to practice ‘feeling’ the music is to first find tracks and artists that inspire you! If you find yourself naturally grooving or tapping your feet to a piece then that’s ‘feel’; the deep instinctual part that simply wants to move!”

When it comes to Irish dancing, you should definitely want to move!

Do you struggle with timing or rhythm? Have you ever practised with a metronome? Share your experience below or weigh in on our Facebook page.

Image courtesy of Barbara Blakey Photography
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