Eurhythmics is a notoriously difficult subject to explain. It can be hard to understand without a robust experience in a class setting. The most important factor to understanding Eurhythmics is to watch your own musicianship improve through a prolonged practice. I am often presented with questions regarding Eurhythmics, usually either by a prospective teacher or an inquisitive parent. Here are a brief collection of these questions, and some basic answers to them.
What is Eurhythmics?: Wow… good question. Eurhythmics allows students to study and experience musical concepts through physical movement. Instead of learning “about” rhythms, meters, dynamics, articulations, forms, etc… the students can experience how these concepts feel and therefore gain understanding and mastery over them. A concept like compound meter or sixteenth note rhythm patterns might be difficult for an eight-year-old to understand, but they can certainly recognize and utilize the concepts in physical form. One of the main philosophies behind Eurhythmics involves the idea of the body as the primary instrument. You do not “play the piano.” In reality, you “play your body” which happens to be touching the piano. Learning to move musically is equal in value to learning to operate an instrument. For children, this is a huge advantage because their gross-motor development is so far ahead of their fine-motor skills. A child can use “big body” movement in ways that their “little fingers” are not yet ready to handle. A good Eurhythmics class will include many activities that utilize these concepts.
OK… so its like dance?: Well… no. While it’s true that both dance and Eurhythmics involve music and movement, they are fundamentally different. Dancers are very interested in form and technique. They are interested, to some degree, on how their movements look. The Eurhythmist is interested mainly in how the movement feels. Eurhythmics is not much to watch. It is not choreographed. Often times the movement is improvised and disjointed. It is a process of discovery, with no clear product of performance. This is another major difference. Dance is an art that is based on a product. You practice the dance and perform the piece. Eurhythmics is not usually approached this way. We are much more interested in the process. By focusing on the process, the Eurhythmics student can grow into a stronger musician. When they apply their growth to their major instrument, the student can then begin to think about the product.
Why do we take off our shoes?: In the tradition of Dalcroze Eurhythmics, students have been removing their shoes since the early 1900’s. There are some fundamental reasons for this. First, you must understand that in Eurhythmics we consider the body to be the primary instrument. We need this instrument to be as graceful, nimble, and sensitive as possible. The way we move must be musical, and students move much more musically when they are not wearing shoes. Students who are wearing shoes will have a tendency to move much more aggresively and clumsily. They will stomp and run in ways that are wholly un-musical and inappropriate. When the shoes are removed, the movements become more smooth, graceful, and thoughtful. Eurhythmics has its roots in something called “Rhythmic Gymnastics” and some Eurhythmics classes will even have the students wear a leotard similar to that of a gymnast. Most contemporary Eurhythmics classes don’t go quite this far, but the shoes off is still a popular option to increase mobility and sensitivity. The same reasons one doesn’t wear shoes for yoga, gymnastics, or martial arts; are the same reasons we don’t wear them in Eurhythmics.
Seems very focused on rhythmic ideas, what about ear-training and melody?: This is a common critique of Eurhythmics, that it neglects tonal skills. It is true that Dalcroze believed that rhythmic proficiency was the best place to start with young students. It is not true that he neglected tonal skills. Having a strong base of rhythm is a great place for a young student to begin their training. Rather quickly, however, we move into exercises that build tonal skills. Dalcroze has a entire branch of solfege training that is very unique and rigorous. There are many ways Eurhythmics combines movement with tonal concepts including harmony, melody, sight singing, and improvising. When someone observes a Eurhythmics class, it is possible that the bulk of the time is spent establishing a rhythmic foundation, and in some curricular settings the solfege class is another course of study with a different teacher. This does not have to be the case. The Eurhythmics teacher, with the proper training and resources, can develop tonal skills in a highly intuitive and effective way.
Where can I learn more about Eurhythmics?: We are very fortunate in the Pittsburgh area to have a robust Eurhythmics “scene.” You are always welcome to come observe a class at the City Music Center, and there are also regular classes at Carnegie Mellon University. There are often workshops and training courses at CMU, and information can be found on their website. There are many books on the subject, with lesson ideas and games. I recommend Elsa Findlay’s “Rhythm and Movement”. It’s a great place to start with practical activities and explanations. Please feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.