Let's hear it for eurythmics

2nd February 1996 at 00:00
Estelle Maxwell tunes into an unusual way of teaching music

Rhiannon Passmore struck the piano keys sending an explosion of sound racing around the dance studio. Right on cue 10 bare-foot toddlers, some still in nappies, ran the length of the room before sitting on the wooden floor just as the torrent of music ended.

Raising her voice above the piano's dying strains, the clarinettist from the Welsh School of Music, explained: "Once the lesson begins it is rather like a steam train, it just keeps going and we don't stop the momentum."

Without pausing for breath she "sang" instructions to the children from the Toad Hall nursery school in Llandaff, Cardiff, as they sat cross-legged on the floor, intoning "sit up straight".

Rhiannon's old piano filled the room with short sharp chords and they clapped in time, earnestly trying to keep up, stopping like statues at the end. When the music became peaceful the children clapped more quietly then burst into the refrain from Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.

On the surface the lesson appeared simple and fun. It was based on eurythmics, a system now standard in Hungarian schools which was devised by Emile Jaques-Dalcroze, a 19th-century Swiss composer and teacher. Jaques-Dalcroze, who studied with Bruckner and Faure, developed exercises that express the rhythmical aspects of music.

Miss Passmore is the founder of the Dalcroze and Symphonia School, an unusual organisation teaching music to the under-fives in Wales. She said that Dalcroze approach helped to bridge the gap to students' "basic musicality".

"The approach has helped people in Hungary to become more musically adept and it has a lot to offer pre-school children here.

"In our country music education tends to be for middle and upper-class children - a minority of working-class children slip through the net because someone has introduced them to the subject. It is wrong that they do not all get the same chance."

The Dalcroze system consists of carefully constructed musical games aimed at developing concentration, co-ordination, rhythm, pitch and relaxation.

From the age of four Dalcroze pupils graduate to Suzuki learning - an aural method of learning music by copying a piece from memory, developed by a Japanese violinist. They go on to more formal teaching at seven.

Despite its apparent informality this lesson demanded real concentration and physical stamina from the children. In 30 minutes they worked through a story, timed their actions to music, curled into balls and jumped in the air hands and legs outstretched. They caught silk scarves in both hands scrunching them up to the staccato sounds of the piano, their brows knitted in concentration before turning the material into imaginary boats and sailing quietly - the music was now legato - over rippling water.

They attempted to sing a song in a minor key to make it sound sad and then closed with in the major key, struggling to stay in pitch.

By the end of the morning they had studied tempo, tonality and pitch, all oblivious to the knowledge they had acquired.

Miss Passmore explained: "The study of rhythm, pitch, co-ordination and many other facets of music through movement is one of the few ways under-fives can understand the complexity of the subject, by feeling it is fun rather than hard or complicated."

Although few children would become musical prodigies some display real ability including her own daughter Arianna who began to play the piano aged two-and-a-half using the Dalcroze approach.

Now five she is an accomplished player of the violin and piano. When she was just four she came second in a competition for seven and eight-year-olds. Despite her achievements her mother insists Arianna is not exceptional.

She said: "People ask how can children under seven be taught music but the key is its presentation.

"At seven a child can be taught through theory, but you have to teach them for the age they are and this is the missing link - in Switzerland it is taught to babies of two months. Every child has some musical appreciation, usually at least one or two children will stand out in every class of 10. This method of teaching music is very visible - you can tell whether children are picking it up or not."

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