Teacher Talks: Rhythm, Language, and the Body
Posted 06/08/2017 08:32PM

By Joshua Smith, Music Teacher

A renowned music educator named Emile Jacques-Dalcroze once walked in to a classroom in a poor section of Mainz, Germany. The students were young, unskilled, and initially wary of Dalcroze, a strange fellow from Switzerland who did not speak their German language. While the students huddled in the corners of the open room, Dalcroze silently took the seat at the piano and improvised music that suggested walking and skipping motions. His irresistible playing invited the students to leave the corners of the room and join in walking and skipping around the room. When he saw that everyone had joined, he suggested through an interpreter that each student join in skipping together with a partner at a specific command, then return to moving individually when the command was given again. After several exchanges with different partners, Dalcroze suggested that they try clapping simple rhythms with a partner. While always being accompanied by his improvisations, the students’ joy and enthusiasm grew as they experimented with changing rhythms. They laughed, as they would occasionally miss each other’s hands. By the end of this short experience with music and movement, their happiness could be plainly seen as they cheerfully embraced one another.

Music is a universal language that can be understood by everyone, regardless of any person’s primary spoken language. We clearly see that truth in the lesson above, which was described by one of Dalcroze’s many apprentices in the early 20th century, Henrietta Rosenstrauch. In its raw form, however, this universal language is often wordless, nondiscursive. The challenge for every music educator is this: How do you teach students to be fluent and literate in a language that, in many cases, has no words or sentences? How do you teach students to think and communicate within an art form that seems so abstract?


Dalcroze’s solution was to use the student’s body as a gateway into understanding music. This way he took advantage of how the body and the mind work together. With the help of Swiss child psychologist Edouard Claparede, Dalcroze developed an approach to music learning he called “Eurhythmics.” The word comes from the Greek eu and rhythmos, and describes the objective of all Eurhythmics activities: finding “good flow” within music. Activities often involve moving the body in response to music, which is improvised by the teacher; hence Dalcroze leading his German students in walking and skipping motions, depending on what he was playing. Because the teacher and students must use a wordless language, the learning environment deeply engages students’ skills in sensory experience, perception, attention, memory, and action. These skills have fundamental importance in language immersion programs.

Letting the body respond immediately to what it hears and understands is a source of great joy and satisfaction. The satisfaction comes from the total involvement of the person: body, mind, and spirit. When describing Eurhythmics activities, Dalcroze teachers across the world often hear their students use words like: “joy, concentration, awareness, feeling, flow, openness, balance, happiness, and energy.” After such liberating experiences, listening to music while sitting in a concert hall becomes richer and more vibrant in sensation as the body recalls the feeling of jumping and hopping to the beat, or moving to meet a partner across the room in exactly seven steps![1]

Even though Dalcroze found great success teaching young students, his innovative approach first began while he was still the Professor of Harmony and Solfège at the Geneva Conservatory. The conservatory students, he observed, could play some of the most technically demanding literature for their instrument, yet they experienced great difficulty in adding expressive or artistic value to what they were playing. Many could not interpret music notation on a page without playing it, neglecting the important prior step of “inner hearing.” Dalcroze had his students abandon their desks and instruments. His instructions were simple: walk to the beat of his music. As he and they progressed through new exercises in inner hearing, he was guided by this assumption: students must first master a musical concept through movement of the body. Only then can the student succeed with the same concept on a musical instrument, which is in fact an extension of the body.

In November, our grade 2 students explored the different ways in which a horse moves. The children’s song Trot Old Joe was an initial starting point for the students trotting to eighth-notes, walking to quarter-notes, galloping (in the child’s case, skipping) to lilting triplets, and jumping in two-beat patterns. A simple – but fun – eurhythmics task involved myself playing musical improvisations and changing between these rhythmic ideas, while the students moved in the corresponding way: trotting, walking, skipping, or jumping. This activity is called a follow, where students must respond immediately to randomized changes given by the leader of the activity. In the midst of jumping every two beats, the students had to match their jumping to very quick, falling anacruses in order to know when their feet should hit the floor: at the crusis of every two beats. Instantaneous laughter could be heard from the students when I made the tempo of the pattern progressively faster! Bright, inspired eyes could be seen when the tempo decreased past the original speed. All the while, the students gained a cognitive and experiential vocabulary of how faster tempos can have a lighter weight and feeling, while slower tempos can have a heavier weight and feeling.

In further Eurhythmics studies, our primary school students have been able to master rhythms in compound meter through movement. One student would improvise a simple idea by speaking combinations of action words like running, skip, and beat. The rest of the class would immediately echo the same idea by saying it and moving to the actions with their body, creating an interrupted movement canon. The students’ mastery was on full display in The Music Man KIDS production. The classic song Seventy-Six Trombones presented many rhythmic difficulties, such as: “They were followed by rows and rows of the finest virtuosos…” But the student-actors and student-choir members singing these words simply needed to recall the movement experiences they had in Music class: “And a running and beat, beat, beat, skip and skip and skip and beat, beat…

This is how Keystone Academy’s unique process of experiential learning plays out in the Music classroom, where music is not simply taught or imposed, but it is felt deeply through the mind and body. Learning then becomes joyous and meaningful to the student. This process-based approach is one of many music methods that further accomplish the vision for Keystone’s Music program, where we foster a love of music in our students, cultivating in them a desire for life-long music learning.

[1] The Rhythm Inside: Connecting Body, Mind, and Spirit Through Music

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