These and other activities included in our book, Math Dance with Dr. Schaffer and Mr. Stern, now available from our Book Shop

Clap Your Name

Developing number sense through music

Rhythm, wrote the poet Langston Hughes, "is related to the rhythms of the earth as it moves around the sun, and to the moon... [and to] those vaster rhythms of time and space and wonder beyond the reach of eye and mind." In musical rhythms we can find delightful patterns and in human designs and natural arrangements we can find inspiration for musical rhythms. The mathematics of rhythm can be complex, and the ways rhythm is used varies considerably from culture to culture. Learning about rhythm is a wonderful way to expand one’s appreciation for other cultures.

Grades: K—12

Time: 15-60 minutes

Concepts: Number sense, patterning

Groups of: 2

Space: Better on the floor, but chairs okay. Does not need a lot of room.

Materials: none (optional: unifix cubes, paper and pencil)

Related activities:

Bobby Summerhill, a second-grade teacher we worked with, had her students convert their names to clapping patterns. Soon she could clap a pattern and students would recognize their names:

"Clap-Slap-Clap" Ana would say "yes?"

"Slap-Clap-Slap-Clap-Slap" Peter would jump up.

Do you see the pattern?

Clap hands = vowel

Slap thighs = consonant

In our first math/dance performance, we had the audience play a clapping game. We would have the two halves of the audience clap

a three pattern (Clap-slap-slap or "C s s") and

a four pattern (Clap-slap-slap-slap or "C s s s")

at the same time, like this:

Three’s: C s s C s s C s s C s s C

Four’s : C s s s C s s s C s s s C

We decided to put the two activities together: Ana and Peter will clap/slap there names at the same time.

1. Warm-up: follow the leader

This warm-up works well with younger kids K-3; older kids and adults like it too. Perform a pattern by clapping your hands and slapping your thighs with both hands several times. For instance, one pattern might be clap-slap-slap-clap-(repeat). Then have the class imitate in unison. Perform another pattern and have the class imitate. Try longer patterns. Try putting pauses into your pattern. For instance, try clap-slap-pause-clap-(repeat). Or slap-clap-pause-(repeat). Make patterns of your own.


2. Play your name

Learn to sound out the letters of your first name by clapping your hands for a vowel and slapping your thighs for a consonant. For example, M-A-R-I-A would be played slap-clap-slap-clap-clap. Learn to play your name pattern without pauses, so every clap and slap takes the same amount of time. While there is nothing wrong with making some beats longer than others, and it can even be fun, this exercise works better if all beats are the same length.


3. Demonstrate

Go around the room and have students demonstrate the rhythm of their names. Are any of the sequences the same? Can the students determine who might have the same sequence beforethey listen to the names? You might then clap out some of the names she or he heard, and see if the students can recognize the pattern of their own names.


4. Three times in a row

Now try to play your name three times in a row, without pausing at the end of your name. Make sure every clap or slap should last the same amount of time. Students often want to pause at the end of their name (M-A-R-I-A–-M-A-R-I-A–). Have them practice going right back into the beginning (M-A-R-I-A-M-A-R-I-A). Also have them accent the first letter of the name. For example, accented the "M" in "Maria" creates a five beat pattern (M-a-r-i-a-M-a-r-i-a). Some people will automatically syncopate the beats of their name, or pause between names. Again, for the purposes of this exercise, students should learn to clap out their names evenly.

5. Big hint!

Don’t pound. Keep the sounds audible but soft. Later in the exercise, students will be asked to accent the first letter of their names. Amid soft slapping and clapping, it’s much easier (and less painful) to accent if the rest of the sounds are soft.

Replacing sounds. If the thigh slap or clap don’t work for some students, it’s great if they come up with their own. As long as the sound in fairly consistent, it’ll work. We’ve had students slap the floor, vocalize on the first letter on their name, and do other things too.

6. Clap with a partner

Pair up with someone whose name is not the same number of letters as yours. Sit facing each other and play your names at the same time, and at the same speed. Try not to get confused by listening too closely (at first!) to what the other person is doing. Do not speed up, or slow down; a consistent beat allows each of you to continue playing without getting confused. Practice until you are fairly good at it, and you can repeat your names without getting messed up.

7. Demonstrate

After the students practice a while, have several groups demonstrate. Have them try again. Do any of the paired names produce particularly pleasing rhythms? Can your group play your names until they get back to the beginning: that is, the accented first letters meet up? Question: After how many beats will the accented letters coincide? For example, two names of lengths 4 and 6 letters will coincide after 12 beats, 12 being the least common multiple of 4 and 6. Let students discover an answer by experimenting. Have a pair of students demonstrate, so everyone can listen for the accented beats to come together.

8. Dance your pattern

Now that you and a partner can do your names together, here is a tricky thing to try: without changing the pattern, replace the claps and slaps with two different movements. You can slow the rhythm down if you need to; we can slap and clap much faster than we can walk, for example). For instance, you might make a clap a step and a slap a kick. So J-E-N-N-Y would be step-kick-step-step-kick.

9. Arrange your pattern

Use unifix cubes or other colored objects to make visual patterns. For example, red stands for clap, blue for slap thighs, green for snap fingers. Try different arrangements: lines, circles, left to right, top to bottom, back and forth. Arrange cubes in different patterns and attempt to clap-slap out the rhythm. A metronome can be helpful. Find a rhythm around you, in a picture, in a pattern, in a word you really like. Play the rhythm and show everyone the picture or source for your rhythm. Find the rhythm of your name somewhere else, in a picture, in a tree, etc.

10. Write down your pattern

Make up a way to write down your rhythm with colored pens and paper. See if you can make a picture out of your rhythm. Do not ask or expect students to use conventional musical notation; the process of inventing your own notation is valuable. Can you read your rhythm and use your picture as a "score" to remind you how to play different names? Can you teach someone else how to play your picture? This exercise is a natural bridge to abstract symbolic systems like algebra. It helps students realize that all symbol systems – the alphabet, mathematical symbols, musical notation – are made up.

11. What do you think?

Which was harder, clapping by yourself or clapping with a partner? Why? Did it get easier? Was it fun to listen to other people’s rhythms? Who was good at it and why? What tricks did you learn to make it easier?

These and other activities included in our book, Math Dance with Dr. Schaffer and Mr. Stern, now available from our Book Shop