Children · Dalcroze · Teaching

Leading and Following

Because music is often a social activity, the Dalcroze classroom is a great opportunity for kids to experiment with roles that will also be important for them as they move through life. Over the past several months, I have become interested in giving them experiences of leading, following, working with a partner and being a member of a large group, all areas good musicians navigate with ease.

At 4 and 5, children are such natural followers that, when asked to become the ‘engine’ of a train, they will very often simply end up following the ‘caboose’. I gently encourage them to make a directional choice that allows the train to follow a winding path throughout the room. As they go the music mirrors their movements as closely as possible, giving them a more solid experience of their own tempo choices. Of course, when they speed up, it is easy for many children to loose track of the ones following them as they become caught up in the thrill of moment. If their train falls apart, we regroup and I encourage them to carefully lead the cars so that the train stays together, and the passengers safely arrive at their destination.

Once they become skilled at this, they are ready to lead a partner in a room full of pairs making independent choices. We become taxis drivers and passengers, and an observer stepping into the room would see (on a good day!) many different things happening: taxis driving alone and with a passenger, stopping for red lights, going slowly in traffic or on the expressway, and many other surprises the children come up with on the spot. This is done without music, so that I can narrate what I see, helping the children become aware of possibilities other than their usual favorites.

The older children seem to be moving into a more social phase of their development. I often notice that the 5-6 year olds are more interested in directing their playfulness towards each other than are the younger children. They have experienced walking alone vs. walking with a partner vs. moving with the whole group, taking their cues from the music. In a follow-up activity they mimed playing an instrument while I ‘conducted’ solos, duets, and full orchestra to the opening movement of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. I have also made time to improvise freely with different combinations of non-pitched percussion instruments in solos, duets, trios and whole ensemble configurations.



Children · Dalcroze · Teaching


snowflakeA phrase can perhaps be best described as a musical sentence. Phrases can be long, extending over many bars of music, or short, lasting only a few beats. And just like a spoken sentence, phrases are often separated by a breath, or at least a feeling of a breath. The ends of musical phrases can imply the punctuation of a written one: commas, periods, question marks, exclamation marks can all be heard in music. Musicians who play with a good sense of phrasing communicate a feeling of beginning, middle and end to each phrase they play.

These may be challenging concepts to explain in words to a four-year-old, but children can easily experience phrasing in movement. At first, they are given musical or dramatic cues to encourage them to stop – something they are not always inclined to do on their own. Imagery can also play a role: this time of year, in any given class, snowflakes are apt to drift out of clouds and roll from one drift to another as we transition between activities.

The image of a horse and rider is very powerful for young children, as anyone who has witnessed a room full of children galloping with complete abandon can verify. Since the very first class we have been riding to songs that gallop such as “She’ll Be Comin’ Round the Mountain”. They are practiced in pulling the reins to stop the animal, and so now their attention can be brought to the places in the song that feel like the horse is taking a pause. Very astute groups will be able, after a while, to notice when the horse galloped for a long time as opposed to a short time. Their awareness of phrasing will enable us to explore larger forms in the coming weeks. We have also applied the concept to a song called, “Who Stole My Chickens and My Hens”, which you may have heard your child singing recently. In this song, rests of varying lengths separate the phrases. While the children are singing they walk around. During the rests, they pause to look for their lost chickens. As the year goes on, they will be given opportunities to find ways to initiate, continue and stop movements on their own. This, to me at least, is one of the essences of improvisation. In future posts, I’ll address some of the ways I attempt to transfer the work into the playing of simple percussion instruments.

A more challenging exercise asks the students to stand in their own space, while one student delivers a ball to another during a phrase of a song. Many skills are required here, not the least of which is standing still until it is your turn to move with the ball! But to perform this game well, students must have a clear sense of the arc of each phrase, as they have to decide whether to walk to someone near or far depending on the length of the particular phrase.  The five and six-year-olds will work on this exercise to an Irish lullaby called “Cucanandy”, which has a short-short-long pattern of phrasing. This year, I have used the “Cuckoo” movement from Saint Seans’ Carnival of the Animals to illustrate phrasing. In this short magicall piece, a cuckoo calls out at the end of each phrase. We walk quietly through the forest, stopping to point out near and far birds as we go.

Besides having their attention drawn to one of the most pleasurable aspects of music, the work has obvious application to instrumental work. For example, a violinist or cellist performs a version of the ball game each time she puts the bow to the string. The Dalcroze work allows the students to experience on a large canvas what must eventually be made small.
January, 2012



Register And Scale

Image converted using ifftoanyTranslating musical phenomena into verbal language can be tricky. Most adults are familiar with the use of the words high and low as applied to musical pitch. Specifically, these words refer to the frequency of the musical tone. Higher tones have a more frequent wavelength than lower tones. When physicalizing these concepts, we take advantage of the other meanings of high and low, which refer to points in space. While adults may take this type of synesthesia (mapping of one sense onto another) for granted, these concepts may be beyond the immediate intellectual grasp of young children. In the Dalcroze class, physical experiences can draw their attention to this very elemental musical phenomenon. After a while, many can intuitively demonstrate the awareness of high and low frequency sounds through high and low gestures in space.

            To encourage this kind of perception, we have gone apple picking. As they walk around the apple orchard, accented sounds in the upper register of the piano ask them to ‘pick’ an apple from way up high in the tree. Accents in the lower end of the piano ask them to scoop up apples from the ground. This focuses their awareness on specific registers of the piano: high, middle and low in very general terms.

            Further exploration of pitch begins with the scale. From the beginning of the year, I have asked them to stand up using the first five notes of the major scale while singing, “Will you please stand up?” Lately, I have been able to drop the singing and just used the piano, the Pavlovian response of standing shows me that they are beginning to hear scale degrees.

            I have also used a poem called, “The Little Man Who Wasn’t There” as a way to apply the idea of scale to a dramatic situation. Many of them know it by now – you might ask them to sing it for you. It begins, “As I was walking up the stairs…” As the melody slowly ascends the minor scale (this is the version I sing, there are actually old swing band renditions of this poem), a mystery unfolds. For the older children, we have dipped our toes into scales other than major and minor. Using the xylophone, they have been asked to choose a starting note, other than C, and climb up 8 steps (as the song does). Each new starting point provides a different scale, known as a mode. These modes each have a very different feeling, and I like to give children an aural experience of them, even if they are not quite ready to grasp the music theory behind the concept. As the play up the new scale on the xylophone, the class shows the man ‘climbing up the stairs’, while I provide an accompaniment on the piano that gives them a feeling of whatever mode they have chosen.

Many well known pieces of music use modes. One that the children have been hearing in class include Sleeping Beauty’s Pavane by Ravel.

Finally, older children might enjoy this educational video of Tchaikovsky’s march from the Nutcracker. As the music plays it highlights some of the instrumental and pitch events as they unfold.

Enjoy, and enjoy the holiday season!


Source: via Michael on Pinterest

Children · Dalcroze · Teaching

Exploring Meter

A primary focus areas in the beginning of the year is the subject of meter. Meter can be defined as the grouping of beats into 2’s, 3’s and 4’s. Usually the first beat of the group is felt as a stressed or accented beat, and in the Dalcroze work we also recognize and explores the qualities of the other beats in the pattern.

I first look for ways to give the children an experience of accent: squirrels jump from branch to branch, subway cars have bounce, and jack-in-the-boxes spring. These experiences lead to activities involving recurring patterns of accent. The 4-5 year-olds mostly work with groupings of two beats. A story of giant building a house gives them an opportunity to chop down trees, saw wood, and hammer nails, all with a two beat accompaniment. Ball passing games in which they raise the ball high before passing to their neighbor gives them an experience of not only feeling the accented beat, but also the building energy that leads to the accent (called the anacrusis). After these experiences, the children are given a chance to invent their own patterns with two, three and four parts on percussion instruments.

In addition to these activities, the 5-6 year-olds can also explore groupings of three and four beats. In one game they are asked to move alone if they hear no metrical pattern, move with a partner if the music is in two, and come together as a group if the music was is in three or four. This is a challenging listening and cognition task, but with a little coaching, most groups are able to accomplish this!

In addition to the songs we sing, I regularly slip music from the classical literature into the classes whenever possible. After the movement stories, we usually have a cool-down rest period, and if they are relaxed enough (i.e. if I have worn them out!), they are often more than willing to simply lie on the floor and listen. I have not given the names of the pieces I play yet, but they might recognize them if they heard them on a recording.

Here are some of the pieces I use regularly:

1. Far Away Places, #1 from Kinderszenen (Childhood Scenes) by Robert Schumann

2. Entreating Child, #4 also from Kinderszenen

3. Sleeping Beauty’s Pavanne, from the Mother Goose Suite by Maurice Ravel

4. Royal March from Carnival of the Animals, by Saint Seans

I have been using this last selection in a ball passing game that emphasizes the strong ‘two-ness’ of this piece, along with the exciting chromatic swirls that occur in the middle section. This has been a new invention this year! For extra practice, put on almost any kind of  music (jazz, classical, pop – most kinds of music use meter), and try to find first that recurring cycle of beats with your child.

Let me know how it goes!



November, 2012

Children · Dalcroze · Teaching

Curriculum Focus: Attention

One of the most important aspects of the Dalcroze work is the training and development of attention. There are many different forms of attention: focused, sustained, selective, divided, alternating have been identified by motor learning researchers. Like many other motor activities, music utilizes all of them, and in the Dalcroze class we attempt to foster the development of all forms of attention.
When we think of attention and music, we are likely to think of the kind of focused and sustained attention necessary to perform a complex piece of music. But there are other kinds of attentional demands for musicians as well. This week I have been enjoying an activity with the children that demands the kind of attention that might be beneficial if one were reading music in an ensemble. Studies show that experts in a motor activity are better able than novices to selectively attend to incoming stimuli. This can certainly be true in musical endeavors when sight reading, for example, or perhaps when executing a group tempo change while playing in a string quartet.
This week, I am experimenting with a ball rolling activity with the children, using the famous 2nd movement of Haydn’s surprise symphony with this game. I roll a ball to a student, and simply ask that she roll it back to me. My movements are timed with the phrases, and I attempt to match the way I roll it with the character of the phrase happening at the moment. Many of the students naturally pick up on this, and do the same to the best of their ability. The piece has many changes of dynamics, textures and numbers of instruments playing. To draw their attention to this fact, I introduce a second ball into the group when the dynamics increase, and when there are many things happening in the piece, a third ball. When the music is moving quickly with many voices (contrapuntally active, in tech-speak), the balls are rolling fast and furious, usually to the great hilarity of the children. The kids must be ready for a ball at any time, as I tend not have a pattern, though I do try to make my intentions clear. This is the improvisatory element of the game.
In any case, their selective focus is hopefully being strengthened while they are being introduced to a great piece of music. If you’d like to put it on at home, it is the second movement of Haydn’s Symphony No. 94 in G major. You could, of course, try this game with any music that has lots of changes of character.
Experiment and let us know what music you have enjoyed!
Children · Dalcroze · Teaching

What We’re Working On

Parent: “What did you do in class today?”
Child: “I was a cat.”
Parent: “Oh.”

It is difficult for children to express exactly what they are ‘learning’ in a Dalcroze classroom. Having heard many exchanges which ended like the one above, I am writing to keep you more informed about what exactly we goes on in the room after we take off our socks and shoes.

Of course, in the mind of the child the most important thing we did probably was that he became a cat. And not just any cat, but one who plays, prowls, chases mice and catches one for dinner. The class attempts to take every possible advantage of a child’s passion for drama and role-play. While he was busy being a cat, he was also moving to music that moved very softly (the prowl), music that moved very quickly and lightly (the chase), and music that slowly crescendo-ed to a loud accent (the pounce).

Experiences like these are meant to align the child’s sense of music with the way she naturally moves. This will, hopefully, inform the way she perceives and responds to music, and the way she might engage a musical instrument.

In these posts I’ll attempt to describe some of the things we accomplish in class over the course of the year. I hope to pass along ideas for following up the experiences that we have had, and let you in on some of the discoveries that seem to happen each week. I will welcome your comments, questions and discussion. You can expect a new posting every month or so.

The work for the 4-5 year-old groups is sometimes different from that in the 5-6 year-old groups. But there are some general things that all ages focus on, especially in the beginning weeks.

In a eurhythmics class sound equals movement, and vice versa. Many initial experiences are meant to help the student begin to discover this for himself. Students will hear music that walks, runs, skips, gallops or marches. Most do not need to be asked to move appropriately to what they hear – it is most often their natural impulse to do so. The students also are given opportunities each week to have the piano match as closely as possible their own improvised movement to give them a deeper experience. To build on these experiences at home, put on music that walks, runs, skips, sneaks, slides, rolls, marches… and see what your child does! (See my previous post that suggests ways to use Saint Seans’ Carnival of the Animals.)

In this first semester, the 4-5 year-old groups will have classes built around basic oppositions: slow and fast, long and short, heavy and light, for example. In the first 30 minutes of class, we will experience the subject in as many ways as possible: songs, stories, and games requiring the students to follow changes in what they hear on the piano or drum. In the last 15 minutes, the students have an opportunity to play or conduct the music themselves. For example, if they have experienced soft walking and loud pouncing, individual students can try these sounds out on the drum while the class responds to what they hear. Or student conductors will create gestures for loud and soft, while the class responds on percussion instruments.

The 5-6 year-old groups will work with these same concepts but within a more structured musical context that will include beat, duration and meter. Games and activities will ask them to recognize and respond to quarters, eighths, and sixteenths. I have begun to teach them a rhythmic ‘language’ to describe what they hear, and we have begun to work on recognizing the notation.

I welcome all questions and comments throughout the year. If there is something specific you would like me to address in a future post, let me know! I look forward to hearing from you!

Michael Joviala

Children · Dalcroze · Teaching

Reinforcing the Classwork at Home

The Dalcroze classes are now in full swing (ok, pun intended), and the kids have heard and experienced music with a variety of tempos, rhythms, and dynamics. They  have been encouraged to express those changes in movement. Children naturally learn in many different ways. Some like to watch in class and ‘do’ at home. Some are more active in class. All learning styles are appropriate and children instinctively give themselves what they need at this age. So, the more opportunities they have to hear, experience and respond to music, the better. Parents are often interested in ways to continue the work at home. I’ll share some possibilities in this article.

In the stories I create for movement in the class, I attempt to take full advantage of children’s natural connection to the world of animals. The composer Camille Saint-Seans uses the same phenomenon in his “Carnival of the Animals”, a perennial favorite for children since its composition in 1886. The different temperaments and tendencies of various orchestral instruments are matched with an appropriate animal. Using a recording at home, it would be possible to reinforce many of the experiences we have been having in class.

You might start by simply playing a track, and asking your child to become any animal they like. The simple act of moving like that animal as the music plays is enough to get a wide variety of nuance as the dynamics, rhythm and tempo change. There are no wrong answers. Of course, you can also tell them the name of the movement. Each short piece has a specific way of moving, and many exhibit one or both sides of a musical opposition (slow/fast, high/low, etc.) You might enjoy seeing what they respond to as they listen. Here is a list of some of the musical features of each movement that might catch kids’ attention:

1. Introduction and March of the Royal Lion: A stately and proud march, something kids love to do. Contrasts between high and low (in pitch) between the two pianos; loud dynamics.

2. Hens and Roosters: Starting and stopping.

3. Wild Donkeys: Fast and loud.

4. Tortoises: Slow and soft. (contains a musical joke – Offenbach’s popular Can-Can played very slowly)

5. The Elephant: Heavy with a medium tempo. (more jokes: music by Berlioz and and Mendelssohn originally written for flutes, now given to the low basses)

6. Kangaroos: the opposition of short and long; starting and stopping.

7. Aquarium: Light, gliding, running.

8. People with Long Ears (Donkeys): Lots of oppositions. Fast and slow; high and low (meaning pitch); loud dynamics.

9. The Cuckoo in the Woods: Phrase length awareness. The piano plays phrases (musical sentences) of different lengths. The “cuckoo” of the clarinet marks the end of each phrase.

10. Aviary: High, light, fast, soft.

11. Pianists: moving between high and low (pitch).

12. Fossils: Short, light, quick, loud dynamics. Twinkle Twinkle is tucked into this movement, along with a few other French folk tunes which may or may not be recognized. But this movement is really just about the dance!

13. The Swan: legato (smooth and connected), gliding, soft.

14. Finale: All of the animals are brought back. See how many you can recognize.

There are many recordings of this piece, and it is often packaged with other orchestra kid’s favorites such as “Peter and the Wolf”. I have a fondness for Leonard Bernstein’s recording with the New York Philharmonic from the 60’s. He does talk about each movement before he plays it, and his voice might not be every young person’s cup of tea these days. He uses young musicians whom he introduces on the recording however, and the idea of that might be inspiring for some. Pictures books related to the piece abound, and this could be of further inspiration.

This type of play can be done with many kinds of music, not just Carnival of the Animals, and not just orchestral music. So plug in the ipod, pull up something interesting, and enjoy some active listening with your child today!