In the method for music learning developed by Emile Jacques-Dalcroze, there are 3 most commonly referenced branches. Dalcroze used eurhythmics, solfege, and piano improvisation to bring his students to their most natural and fully realized musicianship. There is a fourth branch of the Dalcroze Method that is often used in serious Dalcroze study. This branch is called Plastique Anime; a technique that embodies and performs musical elements with movement. Usually, students prepare Plastique Anime using composed music and largely choreographed routines. Different from improvised activities and games, Plastique offers students the opportunity to analyze a specific piece of music more deeply, and to connect to it in very real ways. Often, in an advanced Eurhythmics curriculum, the students will choose a piece to prepare and will make many choices before presenting their completed Plastique for a grade. This format allows for students to demonstrate their understanding through these choices. Even the choice of which piece to prepare is evidence of understanding. In this way, Plastique is a somewhat “product” based exercise in a curriculum that does not offer much opportunity for objectivity.
Perhaps this freedom of choice makes some educators nervous about introducing Plastique to children. There are some children that don’t react very well to having unlimited choice. Even some professional musicians are uncomfortable with improvisation or free structures. In my practice, I’ve found that by limiting the scope of choices, my students can gain a great deal of experience and confidence from learning Plastique. Here is a short list of the choices a student might have to make in order to prepare a Plastique.
- What piece should we use?
- Should we use a recording of the music or perform with live accompaniment?
- Which classmate might make a good partner or group?
- Which musical elements of the piece are important?
- What is the overall feeling and emotion of the piece?
- How should we embody those elements?
- How should we interact as embodied elements?
- How should we arrange ourselves in space?
- What artistic elements might be added for extra effect?
In the case of a children’s class, the teacher can make many of these choices, or guide the students through the process. For instance, this past week in Elementary and Intermediate Eurhythmics at CMC, we prepared Plastique to Brahms’ Waltz in Ab. I chose the piece because the form was a simple AABA and the melody was very strong. We used a recording to practice, since it was logistically easier to teach that way. I put the students in small groups of my choosing knowing their ability level and personality. The first part of the activity involved listening to the piece and analyzing the musical elements. We charted out the form, we wrote the dynamics, meter, and melodic contour. I guided them through the analysis and we discussed different ways you might embody those elements. At this point, I let them make more choices. In their groups, they decided how to embody the elements. They decided how to arrange themselves in space and decided how to interact. Lastly, I invited them to try different props and artistic elements. At the conclusion of this session, we presented our partial Plastique to each other.
As we progress through this unit, I will allow the students more choices. For instance, I am allowing them to bring their own piece that they can play on piano or their major instrument. We can hear the pieces and make some choices on what would make a good Plastique. Eventually, we will decide on groups that make sense for a longer and richer experience. Each group can be assigned a specific piece to present at the final performance.
With younger children, the teacher might make even more choices. The teacher might decide on the movement and choreography. The students can make some choices regarding their interpretation of the choreography. The teacher might guide the students to an arrangement in space, as well as how they are to interact. The students may have input on this and it might be an evolving process.
When I introduce the concept of Plastique to children, they make very few (but certainly a few) choices. The early lessons involve listening to the piece, mirroring my choreography, and then discussing why I made the choices that I made. This helps the student understand how a Plastique represents the musical elements and a context regarding the nature of interpretation and embodiment. The students develop a vocabulary both of movement and terminology. After I teach them the choreography, I will begin to recede myself from the performances and watch them evolve and improvise themselves. If I see a student with a great contribution, I am likely to point it out to the class and have a discussion about how to implement their idea. This begins to build their confidence and familiarity with the process of creative evolution. By the third or fourth lesson involving the Plastique the piece has evolved to a large degree and we might either retire the piece, or prepare it further for a performance.
Preparing Plastique for children also presents the Eurhythmics teacher with a great opportunity for a final performance, and a demonstration of skills learned. Most parents, even though they might not fully understand the power of Plastique, can appreciate the amount of preparation, creativity, artistry, and musicianship necessary to make each presentation possible. I have always received robust feedback from the community after Plastique performances in my public school situation. The administration also appreciates the relatively high level of artistry and execution that is required for a good Plastique and how evident the degree of difficulty is to the untrained eye.
This May, my students at the City Music Center will present a Plastique Project, in which we will perform about 14 Plastique pieces across 4 grade levels. Some of the Plastique will be performed with live accompaniment by the students. In my public school, the 1st grade will present Plastique for the entire Carnival of the Animals by Saint-Saens. The 2nd grade will present a collection of songs and Plastique to represent fairy-tales. All in all, this year my classes will be presenting over 30 Plastique performances.