by Donna Kinsey
How does the director get from reading the spots on the page to making music that touches people’s souls when they hear the piece performed? This article discusses the use of Dalcroze concepts of anticipation, time and space, and energy to take music making to a new level.
In my experience, the best directors are excellent teachers. To see and hear a director working with a choir, whether it be a young ringers’ group ringing a handbell or handchime for the first time or bronze level choirs at a festival with a massed director, is an educational experience. What you hear in the first half hour of rehearsal is certainly not what is heard in the final performance of the piece. How does the director get from reading the spots on the page to making music that touches people’s souls when they hear the piece performed? We all agree that there is more to music making than just playing all the right notes and all the correct rhythms, but what is it that allows music to come alive for both the performer and the listener?
If we look to many of the great music educators from the 20th century, we find many different philosophies. The educator who awakened my interest and inspired me to change my way of thinking about music and to search for new ways to engage my musicians and students to learn was the Swiss musician/teacher Emile Jacques-Dalcroze.
After attending my first Dalcroze workshop, I was quite excited to find a different approach to teaching music that would be so helpful for handbell ringers. The answers I’d been seeking when trying to teach musicality to my ringers was found when working with the concepts of time, space, and energy in a movement-centered environment. The games that taught thinking, coordination, listening, anticipation, group dynamics, music reading and fun at the same time allowed me to see my students and choir members in a new light. I now had concrete things I could do to help my musicians improve their skills and build on their abilities while having fun at the same time. I was hooked. Bob Abramson, a very experienced Dalcroze instructor, was not familiar with handbell ringing but advised me that the Dalcroze concepts would no doubt remedy many of the problems I had shared with him.
I soon realized as a young handbell director in the 60s that many ringers of all ages were so stiff and so often quite scared of reading and ringing that they clutched their bells to their bodies tightly and only moved them at the last minute… maybe. They could count the beat, but could not ring a bell on the beat. Their bell was consistently sounding late. They did not understand the need to get the arm moving ahead of the beat so that the clapper could strike the casting on the beat. Ball bouncing games that Bob Abramson included in his text Rhythm Games for Perception and Cognition gave me a new way to approach a tension/non-listening problem. Folks realized that in order to bounce a ball to the beat of music, they had to listen to the music to find the beat, flex their knees to the beat, move their arms in anticipation of the beat, and allow the ball to bounce on the floor to the beat of the music. The challenge was to find music of the correct tempo so that all could control the tennis balls (larger balls for younger children), get relaxed with the music, and then transfer what they had learned to their ringing. One of the best songs for teaching the concept of anticipation is found on a Joe Wise recording of “On Top of Spaghetti.” The song that leads into that old favorite is “The Sneeze Song.” Teaching anticipation became much easier when people realized how the body prepares to sneeze. This song has several places where the beat slows, or stops and then returns to tempo. If folks are listening and aware of needed changes in ball bouncing to stay with the beat, they find that their energy and space needs change. Ringing a handbell piece with the same types of tempo problems, fermatas, ritards, accelerandos allows directors to draw the parallel for movement that is needed for the whole group to play together musically. This same simple ball bouncing exercise also helps directors to realize that they need to anticipate in their conducting patterns the space needed for the changes that they would like to see in their choirs ringing.
Time and Space
In handbell and handchime ringing, an awareness of beat is of the utmost importance. What is even better is that all the ringers have the same concept of the beat that the director has given. And what is even more desirable is that the director keeps a steady beat so the ringers can stay together. The feel for how much time is needed for a beat and the amount of space needed to control the tempo of the beat is a skill that takes practice whether ringing or conducting. Handbell ringing is usually a group activity, so working with a choir to read a whole note and feel the time that is needed to move through four beats of space as the bells lift together is time well spent. Awareness that the ringing space should be smaller in order to ring half notes is progress. To take it a step further, the first one in a group of two half notes would be rung low and then the handbell lifted so that the second one when rung is not accented. This type of space and energy control makes for a smooth rhythmic line. An even smaller ringing space is needed for each quarter note while lifting in a group of four. Using a circular return to the bottom of the ringing space makes for tempo and accent control that encourages an interesting melodic or accompaniment pattern. When the whole choir rings a music reading exercise together, their music reading and musical interpretation skills will grow. To help ringers experience this type of movement before they even try to ring a piece for the first time is a good idea.
Using Spandex strips or reject panty hose legs stretched between two ringers’ hands who must lift and move their fabric while reading notation cards is a fun activity. Experiment with a variety of music selections while the director changes from a card of four quarter notes (marking the beat of the song), to two half notes, to a whole note. After these notations are easily read, add eight eighth notes, dotted half & quarter, change to 3/4 time with appropriate notation cards, etc. To make it a total group activity the whole choirs’ Spandex strips could be tied together in a spoke pattern and all move together when reading. Fun and games for all! Some of my favorite pieces to use for this activity are: Music Box Dancer; Fresh Aire recordings by Chip Davis, which use a wide variety of tempos and styles; and Baby Elephant Walk. The list could go on forever. Someone could also play the bell piece to be learned on the piano while you change the rhythm cards. Remember to watch that the motion is always one of lifting whether working with fabric or handbells and handchimes.
Everyone knows that it takes energy to play a musical instrument, but to control that energy so that a musical phrase has shape is another story. Young ringers as well as older ringers may not understand how to ring accents, crescendos, decrescendos, sforzandos, or ascending musical lines so that a whole choir makes music together. It is quite a difficult concept to figure out how to listen to the one who rings ahead of you and judge the amount of energy he or she is using and then increase it a bit so that your bell sounds louder than the one that has just been rung. It is equally difficult to suddenly ring in a chord with one of your bells and have it balance with the dynamic level of the other ringers involved. The Bob Abramson game of clapping a circle of 8 beats to make a crescendo or decrescendo is a helpful listening and energy control exercise. His games of Paws on the Floor or Jump the Puddle are excellent listen/respond activities. My favorite game of Statues teaches the subtleness of accents, whether strong and/or slight. It is so much fun that you dont realize you are learning about energy control until someone points it out to you later. Listening is such a key factor in energy control for ringers. Working to achieve a balance of tone so that one bell or ringer is not always playing a solo challenges the director to listen to the overall sound of the choir. After listening comes the role of teacher with the correct suggestions so that the group can achieve the best sound possible with the ringers assembled.
I encourage you to explore the joys of music making found in the teachings of Emile Jacques-Dalcroze. There are many workshops, conferences, and college music classes available across our country. Try at least one new game a month with your ringers and notice the improvement in musical ringing as well as the smiles and stories that will grow out of your musical fun times. Enjoy!
Dalcroze Society website www.dalcrozeusa.org
Rhythm Games for Perception and Cognition, Robert Abramson, Warner Brothers Publications
Feel It!, Robert Abramson, Warner Brothers Publications
Double Bee Doo, Joe Wise, GIA Publications, Inc. FH-16CS