When I was a postgraduate student at the Manhattan School of Music in New York back in the 1980s, I decided to make up some credits for my master’s degree by taking courses in Dalcroze Eurythmics. Fortunately for me the teacher of these courses, Dr. Robert Abramson, was one of the world’s leading exponents on the subject and I learned an enormous amount about how rhythm works.
Rhythm does not exist in the head, but in the body – we have to feel it physically. Playing a musical instrument rhythmically is a totally separate thing from playing by merely spelling out the counts. If music is dead in time, it is just that – dead! I once had an advanced student with a fundamental rhythmic flaw. Barely a bar would go by without some glaring rhythmic inaccuracy, and yet when I got her to count it out, it was clear she had a complete intellectual understanding of the mathematics of the meter. What was missing was the physical aspect, how the rhythm actually felt.
The solution? No amount of metronome practice over the years had helped her one iota to play rhythmically. One term in a Dalcroze Eurythmics class did wonders to complete the circuitry and this made a huge difference to her playing. The whole body interprets musical rhythm enabling the large movements to become internalised. This rhythmic sense can then be executed by smaller parts of the body (namely our playing mechanism).
“Muscles were made for movement, and rhythm is movement. It is impossible to conceive a rhythm without thinking of a body in motion.” Emile Jacques-Dalcroze
Perhaps we can compare counting out with reading a recipe from a book and rhythm with actually tasting the dish (the full sensory experience)? Rhythm (the placement of sounds in time) embraces the concept of timing, playing sounds either earlier or later than their literal, mathematically assigned moment. Playing metronomically is contrary to an alive, vibrant rhythm where beats are rarely absolutely evenly spaced apart. Music is almost never inflexibly mathematical.
Try this experiment: find two or three recordings and figure out the metronome speed. Put the metronome on with the recording and see how long the performance keeps to this strict beat. I will wager not more than a bar or two! The beat of the vast majority of music (except perhaps for toccata-like music or music that is intentionally meant to sound mechanical) is not carved in stone, but is flexible. You might compare the musical beat to the heartbeat – it can vary subtly and imperceptibly from moment to moment depending on our emotions and state of mind. We need to remember that in creative music making there is a balance between meter, which represents thought, and rhythm, which represents feeling.
This past week, I was sent details of a summer school in Dalcroze Eurythmics in Canterbury, organised and run by The Dalcroze Society. Looking at the events calendar it seems that the society offers other courses and workshops that are bound to be of interest to performers and teachers looking to connect up their head with their body.