A Class for 5-6 Year-olds

So many things can happen over the course of a Dalcroze semester that you can often get a better idea of what a class has been doing by simply describing a single class in detail. Here’s a description of a recent class of exceptional 5-6 year-old girls that I am fortunate enough to see every week.

I began the class by placing the girls in the 4 corners of the room. I played a chromatic scale with the left hand ascending and the right hand descending, and I asked the girls if that suggested a way of moving. (The previous week, they had found a way of moving 4 even phrases in the shape of a square.) After a bit of thought, one student pointed to the center of the room, which was exactly what I had in mind. The girls followed the piano through different shifts of tempo, and then I let each one lead a turn. By the time we were done with this warm-up, the class was quite in tune with one another.

Next, we played an ‘inhibition’ game, a standard Dalcroze technique. I asked them to move with the music, but at the call ‘hop’ they were to stop for 4 beats. At first, the piano stopped with them. As they got used to the game, I kept playing, which required them to feel four beats internally. After a while they got good at this, too, and I was able to try different kinds of tempos and dynamics.

Next, I played a rhythm pattern (quarter-quarter-half) and asked them to move it. They picked up the basic pattern right away, but stopped at the half note. This is a typical reaction, as we are naturally drawn to the start of a musical event. Indeed, that is where the influence of a pianist pretty much ends as far as the sound goes. Not true for singers and string players, though, who must continue moving the breath or arm in order to continue the duration of a sound. I encouraged the girls to move through the note, using their arms or shifting their weight in space to show the entire length of the half note. We explored many ways to do this. For pianists or future pianists, this gives them the internal experience of sustaining a sound that they can’t get from playing the instrument itself.

The rhythm pattern was part of a round I wanted them to learn, called “Ah, Poor Bird”. The round contains this pattern twice, followed by a new 2 bar pattern with eight notes, and then a return of the first quarter-quarter-half motive. I was hoping to get them to step rhythm and clap the beat, but that proved challenging. To move toward this goal, I put them in pairs. We decided we were birds, and that one bird would flap their wings to the beat throughout the song, while the other bird would move to rhythm, which sometimes goes fast than the beat, sometimes slower. It was not easy for them to separate parts like this. One often gets drawn into the other. However, this ability to feel two (at least!) things simultaneously is an essential skill for musicians in countless (pun somewhat intended) ways. The Dalcroze classroom is the perfect place to externalize this very internal skill.

It was time to take our experience to a more abstract and symbolic realm, however. We sat down with cards with quarter, half, and eighth notes printed on them. After establishing gestures for each duration, and names for each, the girls figured out the rhythm pattern of the song. (In college courses, this is known as dictation!) I set them up with their partners, one with a percussion instrument and one with a particular duration. (We first spent a moment to decide which instrument might be best suited to which duration.) The pairs improvised. When one partner help up their card, the other played the rhythm. Then we tried it with the rhythm pattern of the song. I had to dictate the rhythm first, but they soon were able to do it by themselves. It was quite an impressive display. Finally, it was time to loosen up, so I let them freely improvise to St Louis Blues.

The musical material was simple, but the girls managed to take it far beyond where many discussions of quarter, eighth and half notes usually end, and that is one of the many things I love about the Dalcroze work.






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