Your body is your instrument, say advocates of Dalcroze, an approach to music education that has for over 100 years encouraged music experience through movement. Inge Kjemtrup checks it out…
Have you ever watched your favourite concert pianist perform a rhythmically complex work and envied the ease with which they navigate the tricky rhythms? The rhythm seems to be part of them. Or have you found yourself playing a piece with a strong rhythmic basis – say, Schubert’s March Militaire or a Chopin waltz– and struggled to make the rhythm seem natural?
Music, we are told, must come from the heart. We as musicians spend hours of practice and study to build the intellectual and technical strength to express our heartfelt feelings in music. Yet all too often we are stymied, practising difficult passages over and over again without any improvement or greater understanding. We forget that playing the piano is a physical activity and we have to bring our bodies into the music as well.
The idea that your body is the instrument is central to the Dalcroze method. It’s a method of teaching and learning music that has been around for one hundred years, yet remains little appreciated, even by experienced teachers and professionals musicians. We’ll get to the possible reasons for its less-known state later, but meanwhile, a little about the history of Dalcroze.
Émile Jaques-Dalcroze, born Émile Henri Jaques in Vienna in 1865, was a professor of harmony and solfège at the Geneva Conservatory when he started observing that his students had poor rhythmic sense and limited harmonic understanding. These weaknesses hampered their musical expression. Always a questing and unconventional person (he described his time as a college student as ‘a prison’, for example), Dalcroze thought deeply about many facets of music education as he considered his students’ musical deficiencies, and he began to develop something new.
The Dalcroze US Society website has a good description of how Dalcroze’s observations brought him a new understanding of music education:
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‘Dalcroze noticed his students would exhibit subtle, spontaneous movements – swaying, tapping a foot, a slight swinging of the arms – as they sang. The body was conscious of the life and movement of the music. Dalcroze capitalized on these natural, instinctive gestures. He asked his students to walk and swing their arms, or to conduct while they sang or listened to him improvise at the piano. He called this study of music through movement “eurhythmics,” from the Greek roots “eu” and “rythmos” meaning “good flow.” ‘
By 1910 he had left the Geneva Conservatory to open his own school near Dresden. Musicians and dancers (including Rudolf Laban and Maria Rambert, important names in dance history) flocked to the school, which later moved to Geneva, where the Emile Jaques-Dalcroze Institute was founded in 1915. The enthusiasm for Dalcroze’s new idea was contagious: the London School of Dalcroze Eurhythmics opened its doors in 1913 and the Dalcroze Society of Great Britain and Northern Ireland was founded in 1915 (the modern Dalcroze UK developed from of these organisations).
Dalcroze’s central insight was that music must be experienced through movement. As the Dalcroze UK website says, the purpose is ‘to engage the whole body in the process of musical perception, learning, creativity and expression.’ Or, as Edinburgh-based Dalcroze teacher Monica Wilkinson puts it, ‘The body is the primary instrument and if you understand things physically, you have embodied music.’
Dalcroze has three facets: eurhythmics (or rhythmics), ear training (or solfège) and improvisation. Eurhythmics focuses on ‘rhythm, structure and musical expression through movement’, solfège ‘develops an understanding of pitch, scale and tonality through activities emphasising aural comprehension and vocal improvisation’ and improvisation, ‘which develops an understanding of form and meaning through spontaneous musical creation using movement, voice and instruments’ (all explanations from Dalcroze Society of America). Its founder believed that intertwining all three facets would create more complete musicians. [Cont…]
Photo by Brian Slater, courtesy of Dalcroze UK
Read the full article inside issue 91 of Pianist.
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