A 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.