In January, after a fabulous holiday to New Zealand and a Christmas and New Year celebration full of food and sleep, I tootled off to Sydney with my cello for a 10-day Dalcroze Eurhythmics course.
The approach, developed in Switzerland in the 20th Century by Emile Jaques-Dalcroze, is about learning music through concrete experiences and physical movement. Dalcroze, as it is colloquially known, is particularly unique due to the intensive training of rhythmics - the bodily expression of music. As a tripartite approach to music pedagogy, Dalcroze trains aural skills, improvisation skills, and movement, culminating in a physical realisation of a piece of music.
- The comprehensive ear-training traditionally uses fixed solfege, although moveable solfa is more common in Australia due to the influence of the Kodaly method.
- Improvisation is used to learn to play music for movement, and also to explore and synthesise specific musical ideas.
- Rhythmics is taught, along with movement training, to engage students' bodies in the expression of music. Some examples of rhythmics activities include stepping rhythms through a large space, full-body conducting patterns, and showing dynamics through the use of different levels and planes in the space around the body.
"The culmination of the learning done through each branch is found in plastique animée, best described as a kind of living analysis of a piece of music in which students examine, through movement, the elements of energy, character, harmony and form in the piece under study. This is not choreography in the dance sense, but rather an attempt to use a vocabulary of movement and the physical space to illuminate the structure of, and relationships within, a musical work" (sourced from Dalcroze Australia).
Dalcroze Eurhythmics guides students towards constructing musical meaning through physical experience. The importance of a musical method that develops coordination and musical sensitivity cannot be understated in our screen-dominated culture, particularly for children. However, this is an approach that can be applied to all ages and it inspires pedagogy in other areas too. In fact, it was originally developed for tertiary music students. It was radical to take off one's shoes, put on a leotard and move around the space in conservatoires in the early 20th century, and in Australia, it is very much still a radical thing to do - let alone in a music theory class!
My interest in Dalcroze began during my undergraduate degree at the Queensland Conservatorium, where I encountered the approach through my string pedagogy classes. I attended a short course in Sydney and enjoyed it enough to pursue Dalcroze as part of my Honours thesis. It was an approach to teaching music that made immediate sense to me, and it fit in with my personality easily. Everything I have studied through movement has remained fixed in my mind, and when I sing or play the music I've moved to, I can feel the action that represents the expression I want to play. Four years later I'm partway through my training track to become a Dalcroze teacher. The training track is (as it should be) intense and thorough, to produce excellent teachers but also to protect the ongoing reputation of Emile Jaques-Dalcroze's name and pedagogical legacy.
The day before the course began, Henry the Cello and I boarded the plane to balmy Sydney early Sunday morning, anticipating a leisurely day of coffee, food and sight-seeing. In a hilarious and heart-wrenching turn of events that may or may not have been due to me being a little late for the plane, Henry ended up on the next flight. Unfortunately this meant I was unable to cart the enormous flight case through the packed streets of Sydney - what a tragedy. I endured a delightful espresso in the Queen Victoria Building without the stress of trying to hide the cello from the glares of the other coffee-drinkers squeezed into the same cute coffee shop. Even though my heart rate was a little high, Henry arrived safe and sound at our accommodation by courier later in the day.
We spent the afternoon at St Scholastica's College meeting new students and catching up with old friends. Most students had traveled long distances to be at the Summer School, from across the world and across the country. Classes began at 9am the next day and the ten days that followed were filled with rhythmics classes, improvisation classes, ear training classes, and late night rehearsals of our plastique animée (we selected the Andante from Bach's A minor Sonata for solo violin as our piece for movement).
We also studied applications of Dalcroze Eurhythmics to the development of motor coordination, early childhood education, choral teaching, and conducting through engaging lectures and lessons given by Eva Nivbrant Wedin, Jerison Harper-Lee, and Kristin Bowtell. Dr. Christine Mearing led movement classes each morning which inspired creative movement for the rest of the day, and helped with coordination - a highlight for me, as a self-identified clumsy individual.
After ten long days (and a lot of ice cream courtesy of the local gelateria), the other students and myself undertook a variety of exams from Foundation through to Certificate levels. I completed a rhythmics exam, a part of which was presenting our finished plastique animée - a very different kind of recital than the kind I'm used to. It went very well and I'm excited to keep working on my movement skills as a tool for musical expression, something I'd never expected would be a part of my cello-playing career. Mind you, as a young cellist I also expected to be Jacqueline du Pré by now, and that's simply not going to happen.
I'm extraordinarily grateful for the time and effort put in by all of the teachers at Dalcroze Australia, particularly Dr. Joan Pope OAM and Dr. Sandra Nash who so passionately educate and inspire their students. I'm grateful to the many teachers and friends (old and new!) who took the time to support me through this course and exam, and I hope to repay the favour, most likely in more ice cream and baked goods. My Dalcroze partner and #1 pal Shannon McIntosh made sure I got through the whole course in one piece, and my mentor and Dalcroze teacher Madeline Hagon coached us from afar under the watchful eye of her then-2-month-old baby girl. Thank you both for being fabulous, talented, and endlessly supportive.
If you're considering Dalcroze Eurhythmics as a part of your musical career on any level, you won't regret coming along to a workshop to experience it for yourself - Dalcroze Australia is your first port of call, and you can find them on Facebook too.