During my research, I regularly describe the shortcomings of the rhythm class at the conservatoire today. But I bumped into the fact that, as a Belgian musician, I never studied in the Flemish/Belgian conservatoire. And my descriptions of the rhythm class were only based on "hearsay" knowledge. By interviewing two rhythm class conservatoire teachers Jan De Haas (Royal Conservatory Antwerp) and Toon Van Dionant (School of Arts Gent) I try to get a realistic description of what a rhythm class looks like in real life and what obstacles the instructors and students encounter. I also tried to find out if they think that the future professional jazz musician/composer needs a more balanced focus on rhythm, melody and harmony?
Both schools teach the rhythm class in the first two bachelor years. Antwerp has an exception minor were you can follow a rhythm class with the Belgian drummer Stéphane Galland.
Jan: “I just don't know if they can take the minor 2 years apart. But I am sure that after 1 year you will have enough information to put into practice for the next 5 years of study.”
When I asked about the rhythmic level of the students, I soon got the same answer. The level is very diverse. You have first bachelor students that have a background in a Kunsthumaniora and had a good rhythmical solfege schooling. And you have students that start with their theory classes at the conservatory. As a teacher, you have to find the average to determine the final criterion they have to reach at the end of the first or second bachelor. That makes that the expected level is in the middle of the rhythmic level of the students.
Toon: “We have 38 first-year students and that is a mix of pop, jazz and production students. Their rhythmic levels are so different. At the end of each year, I ask the students what they have missed in the lesson and what they would like to dive into more deeply. Here too, the answers are very different: Sight-read in 4/4, transcription, polyrhythms, odd metres, simple rhythmic notation in 4/4... So it's very difficult with such a big group and all these different needs to fulfil them all."
Both schools believe in progression. So if a student can play very well but cannot clap a quarter triplets over a 4/4 bar, they will still accept that student for the course with the belief in progression of the student during the course.
The first bachelor rhythm class is very large. This makes it difficult for both schools to transfer theory or clapping exercises to the instrument in the rhythm calls. Depending on the number of students, this is possible in Bachelor 2.
Toon: “My initial plan was to make the rhythm class a very practical class, where we would put our phrasing on the instrument in a blues. Or where we would try to move away from the typical subdivisions in our improvisation (8th notes) to a freedom to also master strong triplets or quarter triplets in our improvisation. The conservatory thought it was a great idea and said "go for it!" But then reality set in. In Ghent we have 38 first bachelors. They all have to have rhythm classes. How do you organize that? The different levels and only one teaching hour made a theory rhythm class the only option.”
Jan: “In Antwerp the second year, they play more on their instrument. Only if the classes are small enough. With a class of more than 10 it becomes difficult. Or everyone gets too little time to actually try the exercise on the instrument.”
The pandemic situation did bring about a change. Through distance learning, many students received specific rhythmic practice on their instrument. In Ghent, for example, they had to learn the special of Sir Duke by Stevie wonder and could choose whether to play it on their instrument or sing it. But also in Antwerp, the second bachelor year after the pandemic was a small class that actually formed a rhythm section. So the focus was more on playing.
Both teachers indicate that due to the limited possibilities in the lessons with the large classes and the different levels, they do not get around to returning to the instrument. And they think this is very necessary.
Jan: “You can understand a polyrhythm or a cross rhythm but that does not mean that you can use it in your own play. This link should actually be made.”
Toon: “You have to have a good sound and technique, you have to play the right notes and rhythms and you have to listen what the other instrumentalists are doing. I find all that together much more difficult than clapping with my two hands 5 over 4. So we need to put that into practice.”
It is also noticeable that this is not only a difficult topic for the instrumentalists. With the drummers too, both teachers note that if drummers have to sing a melody or play it on an instrument, the rhythmic focus is immediately lost.
Instead of taking rhythm classes, the drummers at the Antwerp Conservatory are taught a course by Jan de Haas in which they play standards on vibraphone and improvise on changes. The focus here is more on melody, but Jan does notice something.
Jan: “What strikes me is that I then have to say: “watch your rhythm” because they suddenly have to think... I mention this because I think it's in both directions. Drummers who then suddenly have to improvise with scales and melody then suddenly forget their rhythm.”
Jan adds that this might explain why this incident also occurs other instrumentalists. It seems that if you have to think about something (scales), you are too busy with that. As a result, the focus is just there with the scales. So Jan encourages more independent focus on rhythm for instrumentalists is definitely a good idea. Jan says that one of the subjects that often comes back at meetings at the conservatoire is how we cut everything up in education. You have rhythm, harmony and arrangement they have become separate things and yet it is one whole in jazz improvisation or composition.
Both teachers feel that the focus on rhythm should be more balanced with the focus on harmony and melody in jazz conservatory courses. They both indicate that it is currently almost impossible to do so in a first-year bachelor. But that there are possibilities to do this in a second bachelor. Only, the different rhythmic levels make sure that not every student seems to be ready for this. For instance, some students struggle with the sight-reading of simple 4/4 fragments, while others are already able to play a 4 over 5 with ease.
They both agree on the need for a rhythmic return to the instrument. Only they have not yet found the ideal way to apply it.
What is very positive is that one of Ronan Guilfoyle perspectives, the one of “the musician without an instrument (syllables and clapping)”, is clearly covered in the rhythm class.
I conclude from this that what happens today in rhythm class is a confirmation of what I described in advance. But that this is actually also necessary to solve the rhythmic problems. Only it seems that now there is no time and space to also add Ronan's perspective as "a listener" and "as a musician on your instrument" to the rhythm class.
So my conclusion is that we either need to compromise on the level by also refocusing on the application of rhythm to the instruments. Or that we would still need to put in an extra class or hour to return the theory into practice.