Dalcroze For Children · Teaching

Letter to 1st and 2nd Grade Families

note: here’s an end-of-the-year summary for the families of my 1st and 2nd grade Dalcroze classes. I refer to a list of skills and experiences. It’s a bit long for a post, but if you are intersested, I’m happy to send you a copy.

Dear 1st and 2nd grade families,

The 1st and 2nd grade Tuesday Dalcroze group came a long way this year. Dalcroze learning is based on the accumulation of musical experience. We move, sing, play games and use our imaginations for 45 (or fewer!) minutes per week. In a music conservatory like Diller Quaile, a portion of that time is spent relating their experiences to skills, knowledge and understanding they will need as they learn their instruments. However, children especially will have a hard time explaining exactly what they learned or even did. I’ve attached a long list of skills and experiences they have had this year, but even I am overwhelmed by looking at it! We did all that?! Wow. It’s important to remember that the kids may have not, say, completely mastered the concept of meter, but they can probably perform a requested action (a jump, for example) on the first beat of a measure, even when the music changes between meters. They may not be able to explain what the difference between consonance and dissonance is just yet, but they have created shapes with their bodies to express the differences, which are all too apparent to them even at this young age. It’s best to keep that in mind when looking at the list of skills and experiences that I culled from my record of lesson plans for the year. It’s just a beginning.

Demonstration classes are the most effective way to understand what goes on in a Dalcroze class, but those were difficult this year because of COVID, so here’s a description of a typical class. Hopefully that will give you a context through which to understand the larger list of skills and experiences.

I like to start my classes with a physical warm-up, and I love to do it with them. Their class is at the end of the day, and I imagine they need to be grounded in their bodies as much as I do. For each class, I choose a movement subject, a rhythm subject and a pitch subject. I don’t always get to each, but that is the goal. (To make it easier, I sometimes try to kill two birds with one stone!) In this class, from week 19, my movement subject was isolations (i.e. moving a single part of the body by itself), meter and basic vocal exploration. Here’s what we did.

I began by putting on some music by a young jazz vibraphonist I like named Joel Ross. This week there was nothing definite they were supposed to hear in the music, but I hoped it was set a tone of focused, creative curiosity. I began by slowly moving a single part of my body (maybe an arm, my shoulder, a foot), and gave them the direction, “Move a different part of your body at the same tempo.” When they got the idea, I let different students lead. After a while, I switched the directions: “Move the same part of your body at a different tempo.” I had a couple goals in mind. One was to expand their movement vocabulary. This can be accomplished by watching others, and perhaps by moving, say, an arm much more slowly than they are accustomed to. The other goal was to work with the concept of tempo.

After the movement warm-up, I usually move into the rhythm subject, which often calls for more specific kinds of movement. Today the subject was meter (regular groupings of 2, 3 or 4 beats). An important musical skill is being able to keep track of the first beat of the measure, even if the groupings change. First we sat, and we tapped the floor on count 1, and the remaining beats of the measure we clapped silently. At first I called out the number of beats, but soon I was just playing on the drum as they followed the changes. When they could do this well, I switched to the piano. After they mastered this, I asked them to step only on count 1 and clap the remaining beats. It’s challenging for this age to take a single step and hold it while doing something else. By this point in the year, though, they were getting better at these kinds of activities.

This is a very focused activity, and when I begin something like this, I know I will have to end it soon and give them something much freer. So our next movement game is what we call a “reaction” game. They were asked to move to music that suggested walking, running, skipping, lunging, etc. and at the signal (“hop”), they were to stop and clap four beats. This also gives them an experience of meter, but now I can change the tempo, the style, the dynamics, etc. to give them the experience of lots of difference kinds of music. If they are very good at this, we can alternate between stopping and clapping 4, then hopping 4, and perhaps more. This helps build their musical memories and powers of focus while still moving with joy and abandon (hopefully!).

After all this, they earned a rest. We melted down to the floor and allowed bodies to succumb fully to gravity. I typically have a moment in each class like this to allow body and mind to recuperate. At this point in a class I will often bring them up to sitting for some board work to tie in whatever experience we’ve had to notation or terminology. This time, however, because the subject was somewhat a review, I chose to move into a bit of vocal exploration. Many of the kids are a bit shy to sing. This has been an increasing trend over the past 10 years or so, and I am at a loss to explain why. To help them to loosen up their voices a bit, I pretended to shoot a basketball, and asked them to use their voices to trace the arc of the ball, gliding up and down. I then asked students to lead this as well.

We ended with an improvisation. I told them I would answer any question they asked, as long as they asked it with their singing voice. (This was a follow-up from the week before, in which I had sung them questions like, “What did you have for breakfast?” in a singing voice, and asked them to sing their answers back. I remember this having the desired effect. They forgot they were singing and got interested in things they could ask me. I moved on from this type of exploration after this class, but I now wish I had returned to it. I think it was paying off!

And that’s a class! We sometimes end with a song, but not this time. 40 minutes goes by pretty quickly! By the end of the year the class was working well as a group. They had made progress in using their bodies effectively and creatively in many musical ways and I was really enjoying their ever-emerging personalities. Never a dull moment! I wish you all a good summer and hope to be able to work with your children again. I’m happy to answer any questions you may have about our work.

take care,

Michael Joviala

Musical Subjects · Teaching

Meter

Part of a series of posts on the ‘musical subjects‘ I am working with in my classrooms and thinking about as a musician and teacher.

I often turn to Walter Piston when I want some inspiration for teaching or for my own practice. Here’s what he says about meter in his book, “Counterpoint”:

“In itself, meter has no rhythm. It is simply a means of measuring music, principally for purposes of keeping time, and as an aid in playing or singing together in ensemble music.” (Walter Piston, Counterpoint. Norton, 1947. pg. 26.)

This rings true to me. The language of meter—that of an accountant or an actuarial—gives it away. We count, we measure, we create bars and lines. Piston provides easy and obvious examples of music in which the melodic and harmonic rhythm do not agree with the grid on the page. For me the point is not that meter really exists only on the page, rather it is something we can feel as a living thing. It should be as flexible, responsive and alive as a beating heart.

In groove-based music such as jazz there is no other way to do it other than to feel it. Once you feel a regular grouping of beats into, say, three or four, there is nothing more to ‘measure’. The cycle of the meter in groove and dance based music is so much more than an ‘aid to playing or singing together’, though it certainly is that, too. Each beat has the potential to contain whatever can be imagined in time, with it’s own function in the cycle.

In the classroom, I find myself working with meter in ways that I don’t have to with other rhythmic phenomena such as beat, division of the beat or syncopation. I’ve never taught anyone to synchronize to a beat. I have simply set up the conditions in which this primal human behavior can take place. Not so with meter. For children (and even many adults) synchronizing an action to different parts of a measure takes effort, understanding, practice and often patience.

With children, the first thing I want to know is whether or not they can detect the regular, recurring grouping of beats into meter. Do they notice when this grouping changes, say, from four to three? Though I do not have any proof of this, I suspect they can feel metrical differences long before they can articulate them. This is why I like to slip different beat groupings under their basic locomotor movements. I’ll let them walk or even skip in 3 once in a while and watch them. They will sometimes look at me to see what I’m up to. Often, they’ll subtly change the way they are moving to reflect what they are hearing. Those are special moments!

By the time they are a little older (say 5 or 6 years), I can begin to get them to synchronize to specific parts of the measure. This week I (somewhat spontaneously) told a story about 3 spare parts in a warehouse that decided to find a way to work together. (One child did not understand the idea of ‘parts’ so it was not entirely successful!) In groups of 3 they assigned themselves an order and created their own movement possibilities. I improvised music with nothing but three grouped beats. As they gradually found a groove, I began to play more ‘naturally’, stretching phrases over the bar lines, adding longer durations to the melody here and there. For some groups, I even slipped in a bit of the Bach Minuet in G that many of them have heard. My 3rd-5th graders are comfortable enough with the concept of groupings of beats that we were able to explore meters of 5 in different combinations this past week (3+2 and 2+3). They were able to toss and catch stuffed bears (the balls were missing, so I had to improvise!) in groups of two and three.

For older kids, especially those that have had lessons, I also try to connect the work to the time signatures they encounter in their music books. I try to loosen the vice grip the quarter note has as representative of the beat. Any note value can be a beat after all, so I am careful with my language, “One way of writing the beat is with a quarter note, etc.” Children are taught to say that the quarter note ‘gets’ the beat. I am not at all convinced that this has lived meaning for most children and even many adults. I know it doesn’t for me. Why should a quarter note ‘get’ anything? If anything, it should be the reverse: the beat should get the quarter note as choosen by the one notating (the composer, the arranger).

When I stepped into a Dalcroze class for the first time, meter had long since calcified into ‘time signature’, a thing I ‘knew’ all about. Irregular meters perhaps could command my attention, but certainly I had long since mastered everything there was to know about 4/4. The power of creative, purposeful movement helped create a sense of mystery around this most basic subject for me that continues to unfold to this day, and that is something I hope to do for others as well as in my work with adults. The usual oversimplification applies here: the kids can feel it but can’t explain it, the adults can explain it but can’t feel it.

If I seem wary of this subject, well, it’s because I am. I notice that I emphasize it much less in my work with young people than I did when I first started teaching, perhaps because I am so aware of things I have needed to unlearn. I’ll give Emile Jaques-Dalcroze the last word on the subject for now:

“… the metric tradition kills every spontaneous agogic impulse, every artistic expression of emotion by means of time nuances. The composer who is obliged to bend his inspiration to the inflexible laws of symmetry in time-lengths comes gradually to modify his instinctive rhythms, with a view to unity of measure, and finishes by conceiving only rhythms of a conventional time-pattern.” (Emile Jaques-Dalcroze, Rhythm, Music and Education. p.185.)

Related posts for personal practice:

Triple and quadruple time

Changing Meter: Reaction Game

Musical Subjects · Teaching

Subdivision, Simple Meter

Note: this is the first in a series of posts about the musical subjects I am working with in my classrooms and thinking about as a teacher and musician. If I continue long enough, I’ll eventually index and categorize them. Each one will include a subject, some notes, descriptions of some activities and  some target skills for different educational contexts, of course with an eye to Dalcroze practice.

Notes:

In music education we talk of dividing and subdividing the beat. But when I play, I don’t really think of dividing anything. It feels more like simply playing faster or slower and often in the context of the prevailing beat and tempo. Dividing is a physical act: we divide a pie into pieces. Or it’s a calculation: everybody gets two pieces. But I don’t really experience those aspects in time, as such.

Though the metaphor of division is strained, I still use it since it is so widespread. I say division (in both simple and compound meters) to mean a primary level (e.g. 2 eighth notes with a quarter note beat) and subdivision to mean a secondary level (e.g. 4 sixteenth notes with a quarter note beat). (A quirk I picked up from my colleague, Jeremy Dittus, in his quest for specificity!)

Subdivisions in music are often too fast to move by stepping. They can be performed by speaking or with smaller body parts like fingers.

Children can experience subdivisions as a single event, lasting a beat, or as a continuous event, that is, a kind of continuous shift. Even young children are very sensitive to this. I can see by the way they respond that when I play with subdivisions the music feels faster to them. It is, but technically, as long as there hasn’t been a tempo change at the beat level, it actually isn’t! I look for ways to draw this truth out.

Even the young can hear one set of subdivisions if played the right way. The easiest way to test this is to play an inhibition game: they move with the music when they hear one set of subdivisions, and hold when they hear another set, toggling back and forth. (I avoid saying ‘freeze dance’, which has become popular because I don’t want them to freeze, just hold themselves still.) By changing the character, tempo, style, mood of the music the game does not become tiring. The children can even suggest ways to move, though at some point you will have to ask someone for “a slow way”. I imagine that even youngest children, can feel the relationships between beat and subdivision when we do this. There will be plenty of time to articulate it later when their math skills have caught up. Hopefully I am making the lives of their private teachers and band directors that much easier when they begin to encounter “1-ee-and-ah” in their written music. Older children (late elementary) love this game, too. They love to be right, and they love to detect things according to rules. This gives them both plus the opportunity to stand still, which they value much more than their younger counterparts.

To introduce the subject to my early and late elementary classes, I used the first movement of Mozart’s Symphony No. 1, whose theme is built on a very declaratory 1-3-5 statement, ending with two sets of subdivisions. I gave the kids a movement task (“find joints in your body and move and mirror your partner”). I asked them to change partners whenever the theme appears, which provided some hilarity as the theme kind sticks out like a sore thumb each time. (Give him a break — he was nine when he wrote it!) I wish the theme emerged just a bit more for this purpose, but if was fun anyway and primed them to listen for both subdivisions and the major tonic triad.

Target Skills:

Early Elementary:

  • Recognize one set
  • experience as continuous event
  • associate with
    • a rhythmic language
    • notation in simple meter, with quarter note beat
  • create patterns
  • improvise with

Late Elementary (all the above plus):

  • Understand the relationship to the beat and division
  • Perform on command in movement that travels and movement in place
  • notate in at least two different meters
  • read patterns
Teaching

Guided Improvisation Sessions

As we returned to (mostly) in-person teaching and learning, I found myself wondering if I could create a short class that would actually work best remotely. I thought about things the internet does well, like encouraging a feeling of connectedness while simultaneously allowing users to be completely isolated. To exploit this paradox, I’m experimenting with a series of guided improvisation sessions.

The idea is simple. Much like a guided meditation session, participants will use a series of instructions to lead them through an open improvisation session. Each participant will be muted, free to make as much or as little sound as they like. The instructions will appear on the screen as prompts. I’ll be playing, too. You’ll have the option of turning up the sound to see how I am interpreting the prompts, or you can keep me muted as you like. At the end, we will have a brief discussion, during which you can share experiences, ask questions or ask to practice something specific with me.

The sessions are open to any instrument, including voice, and can even be adapted for movement. Though it is probably not suitable for complete instrumental beginners, complete beginners to improvisation are welcome. The prompts will contain a mix of very open and very specific, so even experienced improvisers should have plenty of inspiration.

To prepare for the classes, I’ve been noticing things I do when I improvise freely. I’ve created the instructions out of things I find myself doing when I play alone. Though we might have time to practice a bit during the discussion, the overall goal is for each person to connect to their artistic selves through the experience and discipline of in-the-moment-composition, otherwise known as improvisation.

Please join me and spread the word. Classes will meet on Saturday between 1:00-1:45pm Eastern on January 22 and 29 and February 12th and 19th. For registration information, visit the classes page here, which I’ve also updated to include the upcoming Dalcroze and Dalcroze teacher-training classes at the Kaufman Music Center.

Dalcroze Practice

Ostinato of 3 + cross-rhythms

As fall approaches we begin to think of bonfires, homecoming games and ostinatos with cross-rhythms. No? Ok, me neither, but how about some ostinatos with cross-rhythms anyway?

I was hoping you’d say that. I recorded a slow meditative track with an ostinato (repeating pattern) of 3 against cross-rhythms of 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5. Practice suggestions: step the left hand, clap (or play on a hand drum) the right. It is a predictable system (with one quirk – can you find it?), so the best way to learn it is to try it first as an canon, either at the measure, or at two measures. Once you know the pattern you can move it simultaneously.

Other possibilities: choreograph another way besides hands and feet; invent your own system that will produce cross-cross rhythms; improvise other patterns in the two measures in between each one. Enjoy!

Check the “Classes” page for the updated fall schedule. Adult classes are all in-person with online options. This is a rather advanced exercise, and I’m hoping to add a drop-in class that will be post-Certificate this fall. That will be online, too. Check back later for details.

Drop me a line and let me know what you’d like to practice, and I’ll do my best to accommodate.

Teaching

Improvisation Workshop: Finding Your Sound

Ever hear some music, maybe a jazz pianist who has a great command of the instrument, or a piece by Debussy that seems to take wing, and think, “If only I could improvise like that!” I have felt that many times, and I still enjoy trying to capture and take inspiration from the sounds created by others. But more and more I am coming to value a regular practice of listening to myself and finding my own sounds. In fact, these two pursuits are not separate.

On Saturday, May 15th, I’ll be giving a workshop for the New York Chapter of the Dalcroze Society of America. As the pandemic hopefully begins to wind down in the United States, I am as eager as anyone else to get back into the classroom with students again. The heart of our work doesn’t exist in online teaching. But while we are still in this moment, I wondered if I could offer something that would only be possible by teaching online, with the participants isolated from one another. I realized it would be an opportunity to lead people through a personal investigation of this process, which is really best explored in one’s own practice studio.

So this workshop will be somewhat unusual. I won’t be playing or offering any musical material to work with. We won’t be playing together. Instead, I’ve designed it as a guided personal improvisation and practice session that will be unique to each individual. The objective will be to strengthen your connection to yourself and the music that only you can make.

You can register for this workshop here, and I’ve included the information I sent to the chapter below.

Improvisation Workshop: Finding Your Sound

What is your sound as an improviser? Having your own unique sound is one of the highest aspirations shared by jazz musicians, but it’s also something that improvisers of all stripes and genres can benefit from, especially those who, like Dalcrozians, teach through the medium of improvisation.

During this session we’ll both improvise and listen to ourselves improvising. As we play (players of any instrument, including voice or movement, at any level of musical and improvisational experience are welcome), we’ll explore the difference between improvising and practicing improvisation. We’ll work with our spontaneous reactions to what we hear, think and feel when we improvise and when we hear ourselves improvising. We’ll talk about ways to sustain this practice beyond this workshop (how does 5 minutes a day sound?) with a goal of strengthening your connection to yourself as a creative artist, whether you are in the classroom or on the concert stage.

Nervous about improvising in front of other people? Not a problem for this workshop. Sound (and cameras for movers) will  be turned off as you improvise while I guide you through the process. We’ll come together as a group to share experiences and gain inspiration from each other.

For full participation, workshop attendees should have access to a space in which they feel free to make as much sound (or movement) as they wish, uninterrupted and unencumbered. They should also have the ability to record and listen to themselves while also participating online.

Dalcroze Practice

Subtraction

In the Drop-in Wednesday morning class series, I realized that I had been doing a mathematics run. The first week was about addition. The next was about division. So last week, I decided to try subtraction. (Can you guess what is coming this week?)

We worked with a series of 8 beats that gradually whittled itself away to 1. There is not a lot of music that fits this pattern, so in lieu of a recording I am offering one of my own compositions for you to play with. I’ll leave it to you to explore ways to use it for movement. If you are stuck for ideas, go through the previous posts. Many of the techniques and suggestions will work well here.

This piece is meant to be a springboard for improvisation, kind of like a jazz ‘head’. It’s also something of a Dalcroze two-fer: there is a harmonic association (two things put together) tucked in. Hint: it has to do with the intervals. Try it on the piano!

Dalcroze Practice

Divisions of 12

To warm up for this one today I let a gesture or movement unfold as slowly as possible until it reached its limit. I tried to wait until I was really ready to begin a new one. I sometimes resisted an impulse or two so that I could really listen to what my body wanted to do. You might find some spacious or interesting music to open up new possibilities. Don’t worry about matching the music just yet. I am on a Muhal Richard Abrams kick, and that really worked for me today. He has just the right balance of mind/body/spirit for this! Experiment with speed, length of gesture, spatial planes… or anything else that feels right. The sky is the limit.

When you are ready, you can use the track below. You’ll hear a very slow measure at first. Find your large gesture or movement inside this measure. I begin by dividing it into two very large and slow beats; eventually the two become three, then four and then six. Don’t worry about counting at first, just investigate it through movement. Eventually, I bring in the division in the left hand. There are 12 per measure, but you can just continue moving in the same way. I enjoyed finding a way to divide the large gesture into 2 parts, then 3, then for, then 6. There’s no warning as to when I change the grouping, so you’ll probably have to catch up a measure or so later, but that’s not a problem. Enjoy the cross-rhythms!

In fact, for a more advanced challenge, try moving a different grouping then the one you hear. You can also experiment with combining two with hands/feet, left/right, body/voice, etc. I would recommend that you try to keep the spirit of open, free, curious and investigative movement, though, even if you up the challenge level.

Happy dividing (and conquering if you so choose)!

We’ll work with this in the Open Level Drop-in class (online) tomorrow. If you’re not on the list yet and would like to be (this will run through the end of March 2021), just let me know via the form on the “Dalcroze Annex” page in the left menu.

Also, new Eurhythmics, Improvisation, Solfège and Pedagogy classes are starting a new semester as we speak at the Lucy Moses Dalcroze School in New York City.

Dalcroze Practice

Beat-Division-Multiple Series in 4/4

Here’s the series we did at the end of today’s drop-in class. It is somewhat of a classic. It’s in simple quadruple time (for example, 4/4). One measure of beats, one measure twice as fast, another measure of beats, one measure twice as slow. In 4/4, then, it would be 4 quarters/8 eighths/4 quarter/2 half notes.

Try it in canon between the feet and hands (drum is nice here); left and right; hands and voice; piano and voice, etc.

In this recording, I play the basic pattern once through, then twice through in canon. The left hand follows the right. We usually associate the right hand with the hands, and the left hand with the feet. In my own practice, I tried to loosen the iron grip of this association by doing it as the reverse. I was only partially successful!

This is just one example of a series with basic pulse levels. Why not make up your own? Change the meter or the tempo. Better yet, improvise the canon. For an added challenge, try a three part canon: feet/hands/voice. All of that should keep you busy. For best results, I like to precede this kind of technical stuff with enough juicy, free, open movement to grease the wheels (sorry, mixing metaphors again) before heading down this thorny path.

Enjoy!

Open Level Drop-in class for February and March has begun. See the “Dalcroze Annex” in the menu at the left to find out how to join us.

Also starting this week is another round of Dalcroze Eurhythmics, Solfège, Improvisation and Pedagogy at the Kaufman Center.

Please join me for some fun. And who doesn’t like fun?

Dalcroze Practice

Quadruple and Triple Time

Another reaction game, this time with a musical signal. You will hear music in a meter of 4 (e.g. 4/4). If you hear a division of 3 on the 4th beat, the next measure will be in a meter of 3 (e.g. 3/4), for one measure only.

There are many possible ways to interact with this recording. If moving through space, try stepping on 1 and lightly playing drum, sticks, etc., or just silently clapping, on the other beats. For more of a challenge, do the reverse: play/clap on 1 and step the other beats of the measure. Be sure to take advantage of all the space (high, low, diagonals, back, front…) around you. If sitting, you could assign these roles to your left and right hands or simply conduct.

One note of warning: I did quite a few takes of this recording, many of which I liked but each of which contained at least one error. I finally decided not to let the perfect be the enemy of the good. This means that there will be at least one place in the recording that you will wish to give me “the fish eye”.

It’s ok – I’m used to it. Enjoy!