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And My Arms would get tired

September 29, 2008 | 13 Comments

Dear Mr. Keillor:
What do you think of the way people clap along with the Powdermilk Biscuits song and "Be-bop-a-ree-bop Rhubarb Pie?" I thought it was a European or Germanic tradition to clap ON the beat, and an American one to clap OFF the beat. But everyone you perform to each week seems to prefer the ON beat, whether they're Minnesotans or New Yorkers. That's an interesting phenomenon.

Corinne S.
Athol, MA

It's an interesting phenomenon for us on stage, my dear, especially if the clapping falls behind the beat and we're trying to stay with it, sort of like running in soft sand. I do remember audiences clapping on the off-beat — in New York, San Francisco, and I think in L.A. — and found it thrilling, but there is a powerful cultural undertow that pulls us into military march time. I would guess that if you dig into cultural anthropology, you'll learn that clapping on the off-beat is not American so much as African-American, and though African-Americans have had an enormous influence on American music, they haven't necessarily changed our rhythmic impulses, which may lie very deep indeed. So you could have a white audience thrilled by rhythm and blues who nonetheless might be culturally tied to the polka and John Philip Sousa. Decades ago in Minnesota we began to see mostly-black high school bands marching in parades and people were wowed by them, the style of them, and the shuffle-time cadence of the drums. It takes time for white folks to pick up that feel. I don't think an audience is going to jump right into it with both feet. I reckon that I could get them to do it by clapping on the off-beat over my head but I don't like to bully the audience. And my arms would get tired.


An the beat go's on --
Listen to your own heart.

As a semi-professional musician of many years' experience, I have, most of the time, been observant of, and often amused by, the way that people clap in time with music. Speaking as an afficionado of jazz and rhythm-and-blues, myself, I tend towards clapping on the off-beat, but I can go both ways, as the spirit of the tune dictates. In fact, I have been in many situations where the crowd was very mixed in terms of generations, as well as ethnicity, and there was clapping on all the beats, and it was all good. As fellow denizens of the Upper Midwest, GK, we are well acquainted with the cultural imperatives of our Scandinavian, Germanic, and Celtic heritage, and in that context we tend to find folks firmly in the on-beat camp (or, the One-and-Threes, as many of my friends and I refer to them). Sometimes this term is applied with a bit of derision, implying squareness, but that's not really fair. Some music, such as an Irish jig or reel, is simply not meant to be clapped to off of the beat, and to do so would be disrespectful, as well as highly embarassing, and just as disgraceful as trying to force an on-beat feel to the blues. Music is the soul-language of a culture, and it's always a good idea to learn to speak any language the way it's meant to be spoken. Still, as the previous commentator so wisely observes, the beat does go on, and so we should follow our own hearts, and enjoy.

As a teacher of pre-school children
I can say I leave the rhythm up to
the kids. Many of my students are
"naturals" when it comes to rhythm.
You ought to see them use their
rhythm sticks (tapping to a rhythm,
not hitting each other!).
I offer music from Yo Yo Ma to
Myron Floren; from African drums
to Frank Sinatra (we have what
we call "Friday with Frank).
Just this past week a four year
old boy heard a haunting version
of "Shenandoah" by the pianist
Keith Jarrett -- he said, "This
song makes me think of my mom; I
miss her."
Powerful stuff...
Garrison, for the kids' sake,
please keep making music!!

For the benefit of live performers and for my own interest, I typically prefer to clap on the off-beats and find it incredibly heavy and unnecessary to clap on the downbeats. After all, they're downbeats; they don't need any extra emphasis!

In my two-year stint as a choir director at a predominantly white Methodist church, I was often plagued by my choir members' preference to clap on the downbeats even when we were performing African-American Spirituals or Gospel pieces. The look on their faces as they tried to grasp TWO and FOUR was likened to a deer caught in headlights. Typically, they were only able to clap or sing... not both at once.

I try not to get the embarrassed music major blues when I'm in a crowd of people who insist on clapping on the downbeats... I try not to grind my teeth.

What an intriguing line of thouhgt.
Most apropos in light of the recent discoveries that: Leonardo da Vinci, Johann Sebastian Bach,
Frank Lloyd Wright, Guglielmo Marconi, Giuseppe Verdi, The Wright Brothers, The Smith Brothers and The Brothers Karamasov were not palefaces.
Curious also; neither is anyone in your band!
Not withstanding those facts, and wanting to avoing getting vcaught in an undertow of rhetoric:
You have a great show!!!


And I once dated a polka band drummer who couldn't dance. Not for the life of him. Seems he was so used to drumming on the off beats he couldn't make his feet move any other way. When it was obvious he couldn't get the hang of it (and my frustration level reached its limit), it was over. Maybe this explains why I'm always wishing people wouldn't clap along with the music...because they're not doing it right. Then again, maybe I'm just a control freak.

Clapping behind the beat can arise from the finite speed of sound. The performers' beat takes time to reach the audience, who claps when they hear it, and the clap takes the same time to reach the stage. In a large auditorium you can hear the clap passing front-to-back, like a wave. It's not lack of time sense, it's just physics. If you had a conductor, and the audience watched the conductor rather than listening to the music, you could solve this problem, at a price.

Actually, my comment on this discussion is this: PLEASE DON'T CLAP!!! Groups of more than 3 people CAN NOT clap in time and keep the beat. Whether I am a dancer, musician or an audience member, I hate it exactly because of the falling-behind-the-beat phenomenon. Ugh! Please just don't. Quietly tap your toe or sing along (even off-key) or get up and shake your booty but PLEASE DON'T CLAP!!!

As a drummer, I share Jason's frustration with the lack of understanding on the part of many people. I'm trying to resolve these issues, however ;-) I've made this comment to my wife several times (that very shy woman from Pennsylvania). I've suggested to some to listen to the snare sound in typical 4/4 pop or rock music, and time the clapping for that, the '2' & '4' counts Jason referenced. It does complicate it when the audience is 'off', but, hey - that's why we get the big bucks, right?
And, like doublenan's boyfriend, I couldn't dance to save my life - I like her rationale - it's my new story, and I'm sticking to it!
And GK - thanks for the incredible amount of time you stay after the show, listening to stories & signing books, hats, Bibles!, smiling for 300 flash photos, etc.

It's very simple, people. Write this down.

If it's country, bluegrass, polka, march, or Celtic, you clap on one and three. If it's blues, jazz or gospel, clap on 2 and 4. If the tempo is higher than quarter note=240, prepare for possible injury.

There will be a test...

I am always mystified by the tendency of audiences to clap on the downbeats, as my own tendency is to clap on the upbeats and stamp my foot on the downbeat. Does musical training and aptitude affect this? I am a trained singer and I play the guitar. Has anyone done a survey on this?

I can't figure out how to time clapping for the life of me. I simply look around for the nearest person who looks like they know what they're doing, and clap in time with them.

Is this problem due to an American educational short-fall; or is this a world wide phenomenon?
Mayhaps, it is nothing more than a bit of Clap-Trap.

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