Dalcroze: a tool for musicians

Violinist, tutor and Dalcroze expert Naomi Burrell unpicks the power of Dalcroze for musicians.  

Violinist Naomi Burrell

Violinist Naomi Burrell

Who was Jacques Dalcroze? And what is the Dalcroze Eurythmics method?

'Dalcroze Eurhythmics' is a process for awakening, developing and refining musicality through movement. By tuning the body as an instrument, a deeper understanding of music can be gained on intellectual, instinctive and emotional levels helping musicians to own their music more fully and communicate more strongly, honestly and precisely.

Jacques Dalcroze (1865 - 1950) was a Swiss pianist, composer and educator who found that his students played mechanically and with bad rhythm!  He set about to find a completely fresh approach to learning about and performing music.  He realised that there was natural musicianship in every individual which simply needed releasing via a more holistic approach than before.  He was immersed in the German Expressionist movement, where there was a revival on the emphasis on human individuality and potential, a time when many thinkers, musicians, dancers, actors, artists believed in uniting the body, mind and soul.  The extraordinary innovative method which he developed in his schools in Germany and Switzerland spread worldwide.

Emile Jaques Dalcroze

Emile Jaques Dalcroze

A typical Dalcroze lesson would usually be in a group setting and have mainly improvised music for the students to move and respond to.  Exercises vary extensively - it could be for example walking in time with the music then showing the pulse elsewhere in your body when the music stops.  This is a very basic exercise in the internalisation of pulse.  A more complex example might be the 'layering up' game where the teacher introduces a chain of rhythms which you have to pass through feet then hands and so you will sometimes be doing a polyrhythm between feet and hands.  There may be a theme such as 'unequal beats' where time signatures like 5/8 or 7/8 might be explored in a multitude of ways - it may be through improvisation, repertoire / songs, creative movement and exercises to engage more deeply with the various elements.  The aim is to get away from cerebral learning and experience and discover for oneself with the analysis coming in later.  This way the learning is more fun, creative, and something students will own more deeply.


What are the benefits of using Dalcroze teaching methods with beginners and young musicians?

What better and more enjoyable way to learn a skipping rhythm than to discover it by actually skipping?! 

the Dalcroze process helps them to maintain physical freedom and stay connected to the music itself rather than becoming bound to the dots on the page

It's all in the experience - and the cognitive skills can then follow. In a Dalcroze class all our natural movements - walking, jogging, running, galloping, striding and more - are used to develop basic pulse and rhythm. There is an emphasis on good posture and coordination so that children are physically prepared to play an instrument and develop good habits that remain important throughout a musician’s life.  Basic aural and improvisation skills go hand in hand with this rhythmic learning.  All this, taught with an imaginative and creative approach, provides a hugely rich foundation for young musicians! 

Jaques Dalcroze said in 1919: 'before all else, teach children to know themselves... develop their temperaments... furnishing them with the means of both living their own lives and of harmonising these with the lives of others.' (Rhythm, Music and Education, [p. xi-xiii)


And with teenagers and more advanced students?

As the student develops on their instrument and the music becomes more challenging, the Dalcroze process helps them to maintain physical freedom and stay connected to the music itself rather than becoming bound to the dots on the page. Crucial skills for playing in chamber ensembles and orchestras are developed through sociable group-learning.  It is interesting to see how many adult musicians are shy when it comes to singing or improvising.... in the Dalcroze process, this is woven in at every stage, which makes for rounded, flexible and confident musicians.


Naomi Burrell

What about professional performers? How do you apply Dalcroze to your own performing work?

Returning to music through movement can be a powerful 'go to' when the pressures of the profession kick in as it helps to maintain a child-like connectedness with the music that can so easily get lost.  It is not to say that it is simplistic - it is far from it - in fact, it works very powerfully in tandem with more intellectual approaches to the music. 

I was lucky enough to grow up with Dalcroze right from the start of my life. For me music = movement and music = movement!  I use 'Dalcrozian' principals when preparing for recitals, teaching music, and sometimes also in professional ensemble settings where elements can feed into a rehearsal.   For example, I might travel through the space increasing the speed with the amount of intensity of the music to work out the shape of a phrase or use a ball to discover the most dissonant moments of the music by bouncing the ball when these arrive.  When composing, I might invent a short movement sequence to inspire a musical phrase, pattern or motif, sometimes just working with simple gestures and vocal sounds to accompany them - known as 'bruitages'.  When I play, I'm always looking for the gesture, the direction or shape, the harmonic language, the character or mood. The experience of having explored music in a physical way, even years before, informs my decisions both consciously and subconsciously. It is a part of my toolbox or musical genetic make-up, and so it informs how I play the music to make it speak as naturally as possible.


Working on movement and aural training, away from my instrument? Can this really help me prepare for my upcoming recital?

Absolutely!  It will give you a clear vision of your piece. If you become the music for a moment through movement, you very quickly see where you don't yet own it properly yet. Exploring the music through movement will help with memorisation, characterisation, the narrative trajectory and form of a piece, and can also bring a deeper sense of harmonic rhythm and how that guides the shape of the piece. It is also an amazing way to let go of technical thinking and difficulties and prioritise the music itself. Where does the music begin, end, travel to? Where is it at its most intense? If you're playing a fugue, what shape does the subject have? How does the countersubject relate to this?

In 2010, I did a project about the Grosse Fuge by Beethoven with my quartet, the Borromini's. Having explored the 8 note B-A-C-H theme through movement in a multitude of ways, our sense of the theme was so much deeper that when we played each new section of the piece, we maintained an ownership and focus on the theme and a sense of coherence across such a vast and complex work. 


What about ensembles? Could Dalcroze help a string quartet? What about a whole orchestra?

Big time! I recently led a Dalcroze session with the inspiring Britten Sinfonia Academy where we explored the storm scene from Beethoven's 6th Symphony. We unpicked the score through movement together - looking at the pulse and harmonic rhythm, the 'effect' or mood and how different parts responded to others.  We then played it together without a conductor, and had a much clearer idea of the basic pulse, what and who to listen out for and further important decisions about the music. What is so wonderful is that it is huge fun, and a great way to connect with one another.  Actors spend a lot of time in similar ways but why not musicians?! It actually got us much further musically than if we had tried to learn the piece together in our usual playing positions. Every member stepped up their level of engagement and responsibility which resulted in an exceptional read-through of the piece. 

It is not to say that other aspects of the music do not need rehearsing - they absolutely do - intonation, tricky ensemble moments and so on, but the basic essence of the music is right in your body waiting to be explored!  Sometimes I feel it is difficult to persuade people that you are in fact saving time by exploring the music physically first, as the assumption is that anything away from instruments may be time lost. In fact the opposite is true!  One has a much clearer and deeper sense or vision of the music - a strong and important starting point and so in fact much of the detail simply falls into place.


I'll leave you with a diagram that I love.  It shows how through Dalcroze, all of the aspects or skills of a musician become active and work in synergy with one another!

Diagram from Sandra Nash, 2015

Diagram from Sandra Nash, 2015