Eurhythmics Practice by David Creswell

The following post is by David Creswell.

One of the many highlights of my 6 years at the Cleveland Institute of Music was their excellent Dalcroze Eurhythmics classes.  They were required for 4 semesters for undergraduates, and I liked them so much I took all the additional 4 semesters.  I didn’t think too deeply about the idea behind it at the time: that rhythm can be learned and refined through the natural motions of the body without an instrument as a conduit.  I’ve realized over the years, however, that it’s added great depth to my musicianship and teaching.

Some years ago, Heidi Castleman asked me if I would develop and teach a Eurhythmics class for her Juilliard studio.  It’s still one of the most fun things I get to do.  In developing it, I focused on aspects that I had found useful to me specifically as a violist and in my varied musical work in the New York area: rhythmic precision and “tuning,” front- and back-side-of-beat playing, ensemble dynamics (of a rhythmic nature), and polyrhythms.  There are many things you can practice and develop on your own; all you need is a metronome and some careful listening and feeling.

The basic practice we do is clapping with a metronome.  This is something you can easily practice on your own.  When you clap directly with the metronome, aurally, the click seems to disappear.  You also don’t need to clap very loudly for this, and it often helps to put less effort into your claps than more; it’s really about precision.  When you can make the click disappear consistently at a moderate tempo (around 80), increase the tempo gradually and get used to staying with the beat and making the click disappear as consistently as you can.  Practice with slower tempos as well; they have a very different feel.  The next stage is clapping off-beats to the metronome, tuning the off-beats so they’re dead center between the clicks.  Ideally it should be indistinguishable which is the beat and which is the off-beat: your claps or the metronome click. Once this is comfortable, switch back and forth between clapping beats and off-beats (maybe a dozen of each at first), trying to have as little need for adjustment as possible when you make the switch.  As you practice, you’ll notice your sense of rhythmic precision start to expand, as though the tiny space of time around where a note starts has more places it could potentially go.

The next thing to develop is front- and back-side-of-beat playing.  In different composers and time periods, and in different styles of contemporary playing (jazz, rock, pop) there are subtle variations to the feel of the placement and rhythmic direction of notes.  It’s an invaluable skill to be able to walk into a rehearsal or recording session and immediately tailor your playing to what’s needed.  To practice this, first clap on beats again with the metronome.  Once you have the click disappearing well, try to clap slightly late or early to the click.  If you hear two events “click-clap” then you’re too far off.  What you want to hear is a single sound, but a kind of combination of the colors of the click and your clap.  The sounds will be unique to your clap and metronome, but they will have a distinctly different color depending on whether you’re on the front or back side.  The directional energy will also feel very different depending on your clap placement.  This is within the same tempo, so the difference isn’t in speed; rather, it’s a subtle but very communicable change in the feeling of propulsion in the rhythm.

In the studio class, we use the group to do a number of additional things: ensemble work and polyrhythm machines.  Of course, rhythm and tempo is rarely totally stable when we perform a piece, and learning to sensitively adjust to our colleagues so we play together as a group is vital.  This is what makes group practice so helpeful.  Most of the time the whole class sits in a circle and each person claps once in turn along with the metronome in whatever exercise we’re doing.  The person or group of people clapping right before you may not be totally with the metronome, and just like in real ensembles that can completely throw you off when your entrance comes.  Practice like this allows you to learn how to make quick choices about what to do with the rhythm the way it’s presented to you, as well as how to focus and not get thrown off by something distracting happening when you don’t expect it.

Polyrhythm work helps develop two important skills: being able to fit your rhythm in with another rhythm happening in an ensemble; and getting a natural feel for complex subdivisions like quintuplets and septuplets.  For these exercises, we clap and step the two rhythms at the same time (for example: 2 in hands, 3 in feet), and switch back and forth between them.  We also do polyrhythm machines, where a group keeps their feet together in time, but each person starts their claps on each different foot beat, resulting in claps from the group on all subdivisions (eighths, triplets, sixteenths, etc.) while each person is only doing their particular rhythmic division.

Many of us started playing instruments at a young age, and have now been playing for decades.  During this time we’ve practiced hard, been critiqued and taught by many people, and developed many unconscious habits and feelings toward our instruments and our playing.  It’s easy to get stuck in these habits and limit ourselves to what we think our instruments are capable of and what we are capable of when playing them.  Eurhythmics is a great tool that can help us understand, from a different perspective, how we make and experience music, and help us become more sensitive and expressive musicians.

A more in-depth history of Dalcroze and his pedagogy methods is here: http://www.dalcrozeusa.org/about-us/history

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