Thursday, April 6, 2023

The Reverse Plastique Animée

 Plastique Animée — What's it all about?!

Jaques-Dalcroze practices include a whole category of exercises under the title of Plastique Animée. These lessons ask the students to move and experiment and search and vet specific gestures in an attempt to pair bodied motion to musical motion. Through the process we come to learn about the music and build a very personal/visceral connection to a given selection of music. 

I wrote about the ways that I use the traditional exercise in my university courses in the 2023 Fall edition of the Dalcroze Society of America, Dalcroze Connections. Plastique Animée —The Dalcrozian Analytical Technique. Here I thought I'd describe a set of experiences that are inspired from plastique, but serve a complementary role. 

I spend many hours and many many smaller exercises building a group of 20 year olds up to a point where we can talk about Plastique Animée as a named category of Jaques-Dalcroze practice. In advance of that, we do all sorts of bodies-in-motion, expressive gesture, and movement vocabulary classes. The basic mechanics of "bodies move like this", and "here are some simple motions we might rehearse together" are obvious enough attentions for a good eurhythmics class and critical experiences for all students working toward a future Plastique Animée. In addition to those outward expressions of musical motion, I spend a significant amount of time asking my students to consider their own experience of inner gesture. How does music move on the inside of you? What skills of the interoceptive have you gained through our time together?

As a significant stop on the interoceptive skill journey, I often find time to lead my students through an experience I think of as the Reverse Plastique Animée

In a traditional Plastique Animée, a selection of music is chosen, and the student uses the motion of the music to inspire outward gesture, searching for the greatest congruence between the intention of the music and interpretation of the performer/student. In the Reverse Plastique Animée, we go about it in the other direction. We start with silent gesture, separate from any pre-composed works or ideas, and then see what music is generated from the pure motion. 

The basic class usually goes like this:

(keep in mind that we spend many hours getting to this work. I would not offer this class to a beginner group)

1. "You have 20 seconds to choose 4 'poses'." 

These can be anything. i.e. stand tall arms above; squat down and hug your knees; lean far forward on one leg; bury your head in your arms in a small ball on the floor.

2. "turn each of these poses into a gesture phrase of its own."

We have spent weeks working on the notion of "phrase" and on simple gesture. We have explored the difference between basic motion and directional, trajectory-filled gesture. We have built up a movement vocabulary that includes gesture high-middle-low, gesture that collapses the body vs gesture that expands the body, and gesture that leads from hands vs gesture that takes any part of the body as the initiator of the motion. 

3. "Find a way to link the four phrases together to make a 4-phrase gesture 'song'."

4. Step 4 is split between classwork and homework. We do some of this together over about 15 minutes and then the students are to spend significant time at home to continue the exercise.  

"now take a breath, rest your thoughts, and take some time to move through the silent gesture song. Over the next 10–20–30 repetitions your song will start to sing to you. Listen to the sounds and images that start to appear as you settle in to the motions. Take notes on what starts to bubble up. These notes might contain specific bits of melody or harmonies or rhythmic patterns...or you might hear more abstract sounds like leaves rustling or traffic or children laughing, or who knows?!. It is all valid. Repeat your phrases again and listen to the music that comes out of the gesture. You do not need to compose anything. Instead, just listen to your inner song and take notes."

5. The 4-phrase gesture song above is the first section of an ABA form. For homework, the students are required to repeat the steps with contrasting gestures to then make the B section, taking notes on the sounds and images that occur to them as they go through the process. After a few days of checking in with their ABA songs in silence, they are instructed to compile their notes and turn them into a piece for their major instrument. 

6. Roughly a week after the initial experience, the students all come back to class with their major instruments. They each take a turn first showing us their ABA gesture songs in silence. We watch, and listen to our own inner songs, trying to think, "how does this music sound?" They repeat the silent ABA gesture two times, then they get out their major instrument and play their songs two times — no gesture, just sound.

Throughout the exercise we are looking for congruence between the gesture and the sounded music. The students are reminded that we are not trying to "compose a little song and then choreograph a little dance." Instead, we are working hard to find sparks of the inner artist, space where we can hear the music that is already in us. The exercise is less about flexing our composer muscles than it is about listening to the inner song that was already there. Many of the compositions that are shared were surprises to the student movers. They report how the process permitted music that they would not normally have conceived. "The music is already in you."

I will write another day about the differences between inner hearing, or audiation, and inner feeling or interoceptive gesture — a serious component of deep musicianship. The Reverse Plastique Animée is intended to focus our attention on this inner feeling, and recognize the music found there. 

[some pictures from my Spring 2023 Eurhythmics II class. used with permission.]

Arilyn brought the harp to class — so great!

Preston in motion. 

Zach in motion. 

Will in motion. 

The new electronic music major at CMU has opened all sorts of doors and forced me to think differently about a number of my biases. It is amazing what our students are capable of. #humbled

Monday, February 20, 2023

Hanging with Jack Stevenson

Nothing like spending a weekend with one of the greats. 

If you have not had the opportunity to take a class with Jack, I highly recommend searching him out. Jack is definitely one of the most influential and beloved teachers of the Jaques-Dalcroze method working today. We had a blast tag-teaming at the CMU Winter Workshops this February. 

You can find Jack here:

You'll see a few pictures from Anthony Molinaro's children's demo class at the bottom. He continues to be so inspiring. You can follow him here:

and join us for the next Winter and Summer Workshops here:

Thanks JACK!

Mr. Mo in action. 🤩🤩🤩

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Late Night Silent Disco Eurhythmics (or how I learned to teach with my eyes closed)


I love my job. Have I told any of you that lately? 

This last Friday evening we realised one of my latest dreams: to host an outdoor – silent disco – FM radio – late night in the dark – Eurhythmics class with 75+ students (and a few guests) – COVID socially distanced – and yet – musically connected – all while playing with glow sticks, light-up balls, and sparklers!!

It took a fair bit of planning + a special university permit (!) + the patience and good will of all involved and yielded a really fun time. 

We started the evening set-up around 7:30 PM just as dusk was really setting in. By 8:00 PM it was pretty dark and we ran some tests to see what we could actually see, and to test the technology for last minute tweaks. 

Students arrived at 8:30 and were given two thin bracelet sized glow sticks and two rubber bands. They were instructed to pocket the rubber bands and to experiment with the glow sticks throughout the opening exercises. Some students made them into bracelets, or halos, or necklaces. Others used them as conductor batons or frisbees. 

The lessons of the evening included classic conducting and stepping in varied meters, specific attention to the ensemble's collective 'shifts of weight', 'time-space-energy' games with ball tossing, a pre-plastique anime exercise where we improvised gesture phrases that became amazingly personal, and a fair bit of time playing in the 'straight 5'.

We started with glow sticks in all variations, then when we moved to the t-s-e ball games, we looped the glow sticks into bracelets and used the rubber bands to tie the sticks to tennis balls, and voilà(!) – we had light-up tennis balls that looked amazing in the night sky. 

I spent a fair bit of time the prior week, thinking about the evening, planning my activities, and considering how I might help the crowd get our collective groove-on all while working in very low light. It occured to me that the students would likely not be able to see me very well, and so I thought of lots of ways that I could use the FM technology to talk directly into everyone's ear and keep us together. What I underestimated was how hard it would be for me to see them! I was not really able to see anyone's faces most of the evening! It was like teaching into the abyss, but with just enough feedback to not be able to ignore anyone. If I were teaching in a truly dark cavern, then I would just go with what felt right to me. But to the extent that I could see anything, I attempted to adjust to my class to the participating students, but I was trying to adjust with only 10% of the normal feedback (no eyes, no expressions – only moving glow sticks, laughter, and outlines of bodies in motion). It was a challenging class for me to be sure. I absolutely underestimated that part of the formula.

All that said, I think we all had a grand time and built some lasting memories to boot. (The highlight of the evening was when I pulled out a blow-torch and 150 bamboo rod sparklers. The students were over the moon to play with the bright lights and make some great sparkler trails in the night sky.) Late Night Silent Disco Eurhythmics was a success and I will look for some special circumstances to improve on my attempts and share the glee with more students in the future. I'm just glad it is not my normal gig. 

Heartfelt thanks to all of my students who ended up taking two classes with me in the same day (the required morning class and the optional late night class). Thanks to my administration for your support in technology and permits. Thanks to all for your patience and encouragement allowing us all to PLAY and EXPERIMENT and try some zainy ideas with no guarantees of success. Thanks for the connections and the relationships and earnest work and generous spirits. I am thankful for you all. 


Dr. N

"Hug your knee...Hug your other knee..Hug your neighbor's knee (no, not during COVID!)"

no ceilings to bump into in this classroom. toss the balls higher!

Crazy thing about Silent Disco Eurhythmics is that outsiders cannot hear the music!
Ya gotta be 'in the club' to hear it.
It is all being broadcast through the FM radio station into everyone's headphones.

"I can't really see anybody's face!?!!"

"Hop Hop Hop!"

Saturday, October 3, 2020

FM Eurhythmics! (or Silent Disco Dalcroze)

A quick primer on the Eurhythmics classes at CMU School of Music
The Carnegie Tech Department of Music adopted the required four semesters of Dalcroze Eurhythmics coursework in 1921. Since then, nearly 100 years of music undergraduates have spent roughly 150 hours of their Freshmen and Sophomore semesters studying musicianship through the somewhat irregular methods of the Eurhythmics classes. The course places a high value on the inner game of music performance, and utilizes improvisation, gesture, clapping, stepping, singing, small and large group projects. The classes are traditionally led from a large piano in an open space with shoes-off, in close proximity to other studying colleagues. 

The Eurhythmics classes challenge the students to not only think and see music notation, and to not only hear and perform music, but above all to feel music. We build attention to the viscerality of musical experience through four semesters of participatory exercises that make the study of music personal and intimate. One way that this intimacy is encouraged is that the course is normally taught in a studio where the 9’ Steinway concert grand piano is so close that the students can literally feel the vibrations of even the most pianissimo of melodies. Another part of the winning recipe is that the Eurhythmics classes are always taught in participatory group settings. Everyone in the class is part of the ensemble; we learn from each other, singing, moving, sharing, and adjusting together, in real time, based on the musical choices of the participants. 

New times require new plans
When the magnitude of the COVID-19 pandemic became apparent, all of the faculty and administration of the School of Music scrambled and brainstormed for solutions for continuing the richness of our study in a new, spatially distanced environment. This posed specific challenges for the Eurhythmics classes. 

We are normally very close together, in a room with a big piano, creating quite a stir. The move to full-time Zoom would require nearly all of the collaborative, in-the-moment, creative work to stop, leaving us with a shell of a course. After doing some soul searching and some investigations to non-traditional interaction possibilities (THANKS VDM!) I ran across two interesting projects, both outside of academia. The 1st is from a NYC based group called Improv Everywhere. They are a large-scale theatrical improvisation community who have mastered the art of the no-rehearsal flash mob (among other things). They have a recurring event called the MP3 project where they invite their mailing list to a certain hill in a park on a named day and time. The participants are instructed to download a playlist and an app and to bring their headphones. Then at the assigned time, they push play in the app and the technology synchronizes their playlist to every other of the 500+ participants on the hillside and everyone can then magically hear the exact same playlist at the same time. A narrator named Steve offers instructions and provocations and hilarity ensues while everyone in the club learns what to do next. Of added interest is the experience of everyone else at the park who are forced to  guess at a how 500 people can move together and all seem to all know what to do next. 

A second interesting event I found is called Silent Disco. Silent disco is an alternative dance club format, where participants show up to a dance club, pay the cover charge, and are immediately handed a set of headphones and a receiver belt pack. The club is silent until one puts on the headphones and turns on the receiver. Once on, the club is as loud as the attendee chooses to turn up the volume. Everyone in the club can hear the music, and everyone has the option of returning to silence at any point by just taking off the headphones. Everyone can dance fully, feeling immersed in the music without the aggressive sensation of amplified sound that one can not get away from. 

My summer 2020 teaching was all through zoom and some of my adult students who had good cell reception started taking the classes outside in their yard or even at the park. The zoom version of Eurhythmics actually works better outside than inside as the audio is the same but the room to move is so much better. It was a revelation to me because we have always joked about taking Eurhythmics outside but have never found a good way to overcome the many obstacles. Thinking about the success of zooming in the park + the MP3 Experiment and Silent Disco I started obsessing about ways to combine these projects: the great outdoors + sound receivers + headphones + broadcast instructions. All that was left was to find a technology that permitted live instruction instead of pre-recorded playlists and the answer was a time-tested technology, FM radio (Thanks Jesse Stiles!). 

A successful new routine
Since the beginning of the fall semester 2020, the Carnegie Mellon School of Music Eurhythmics classes have met outside on The Cut, the large lawn in front of the College of Fine Arts building. The school purchased FM receivers for each of the 100+ students enrolled in the Eurhythmics classes. The students arrive to the Cut donning headphones and their small FM receiver and I have a full rig set-up to both broadcast video and audio over Zoom for the students working remotely and a second audio feed for the students on the field. The FM broadcast allows the students outside on the field to receive a close, intimate, high-fidelity audio support directly into their ears. This allows us to bypass the rock-concert aesthetic and permits me to perform with a full range of dynamics and articulation. The passers-by are somewhat mystified as to the goings-on as none of the sound is amplified outside of the FM radio feed. They can see the students moving around but are often at a loss as to how they know to synchronize and collaborate on what appears to be a silent field. The students are close enough to feel the community and the shared experience of chamber music, yet distant enough to reduce fears of infection in the fresh air. The plan is to continue as many outside FM radio classes as possible until the weather makes the experience too cold to be productive. 

The next plan is to host LATE NIGHT EURHYTHMICS. I am looking at a date this week where we will all meet on the lawn in the dark, glow sticks, sparklers, and light-up tennis balls in tow....stay tuned for some pictures!!

Here we are working on a simple right-hand/left-hand 'follow'. The students are attempting to step the rhythm of my left hand and clap the rhythm of my right hand. I repeat patterns independently in each hand and then evolve the patterns without any cue. The students have to listen, entrain, and adjust as the rhythms in my hands evolve. 
Here we are working through a classic echo game. I sing and play a one bar pattern, the students conduct the meter, sing the echo, and step the rhythm that they are singing. 

the set-up

the rig!

my classroom

the College of Fine Arts building (1903, Henry Hornbostel architect)

my classroom (Pitt Cathedral of Learning in the distance) 


The weather in Pittsburgh is ALWAYS sunny and 72°.

Thursday, October 10, 2019

Eurhythmics for Artificial Intelligence

How can one EXPERIENCE complexity? In what ways can/might one interact with new intelligences? What are the possible societal impacts of these technologies? And In what ways can our bodied understanding of experience inform or aid in these burgeoning technologies of Artificial Intelligence?

I am spending a few days learning and thinking about these questions while hanging out with researchers exploring the forefront of intelligence in complex human-artificial and digital-physical ecosystems. (!)

I was invited to come to the DESFORM2019 conference and offer the workshop “Soma Literacy of AI” (i.e. Eurhythmics for Designers) and tomorrow I will present a paper, “A Pedagogy for Noticing—Soma literacy and the designer”.

Thursday, October 3, 2019

Virginia Symphony Chorus

Such a great time with a super group of dedicated musicians! Thanks to Maestro Robert Shoup and the singers of the Virginia Symphony Chorus! We had a wonderful two evenings of music–movement–learning–collaboration. It was a real joy to work with you all.

I was also humbled to learn of the amazing work that Robert is doing with the Norfolk Street Choir. The NSC "envision[s] a caring city where vulnerable persons are encouraged and affirmed through the arts." They work with people in various forms of housing insecurity and provide services and community in a joyful, affirming and safe environment.

I was so impressed with this initiative. I hope everyone will click on the links below and consider making a donation to this most impressive and critical service.

Norfolk Street Choir website

Emmy-winning feature on PBS affiliate:

National Association - hosting our first conference in Atlanta in January:

Thursday, May 30, 2019

Introduction to Soma Literacy

I wanted to post a little introduction here as a way to introduce my music colleagues to a dissertation that was conducted in and written for a School of Design. 

A short introduction to the dissertation:

My main gig for the last 30 years has been as a student and teacher of the Dalcroze Eurhythmics course work. Spending well more than 10,000 hours in the Eurhythmics studio I started to notice patterns and applications of the work to environments outside of music, that is, I started to notice how I was using my Eurhythmics knowing in the extra-musical moments of my life. As a result, I began to critique mundane moments of life relative to their musicality. 

Take conversations for instance. Some conversations possess the phrasing–pacing–tension/relaxation–build-up/decay–consonances and dissonances of a rewarding piece of music, while others are so awkward that they fall flat, not even accomplishing basic cohesion, let alone providing the payoff of a serendipitous piece of art.

Or road trips...Some road trips zoom along with an easy and rewarding flow while others feel like drudgery. We can experience the flow or the drudgery in both long trips and short errands around the block (not unlike some performances of music)...

Or even in discreet gestures like taking a single step forward, inhaling a breath, or riding a single swoop on a playground swing...these all possess the potential for beauty and we (often subconsciously) strive for the most beautiful performance of each of them, immediately recognizing when any of them fall short.

All "happenings" (or Design would say, all "interactions") can be analyzed for their flow. The Eurhythmics class does just this: it aids the musician in recognizing and then fostering "good flow" (eu-rhythmics) in music: music making, music performing, musical participation. 

Here in my PhD course of study, I doubled-down on the extra-musical happenings and interactions of mundane life and used the same kind of Eurhythmic knowing to assess, critique, and then offer a path to improve everyday, mundane, extra-musical experience. 

Performing musicians spend a lifetime trying to eliminate the awkward and enhance the good flow in their music making. Designers spend careers trying to eliminate the awkward and enhance the good flow in everyday interactions. Eurhythmicians spend a lifetime aiding the student is recognizing that the proving ground for beauty and good flow is in their feeling, pulsing, dynamic body. Soma Literacy is merely the codifying, categorizing, and skilling in this attention to the visceral/felt/aesthetic of the living body.

In the following dissertation I do my best to share Eurhythmic knowing with a community who knows nothing of Jaques-Dalcroze and who has no need to care about music or music making. The Interaction Designers, Experience Designers, Service Designers, and those working in Design for Social Change, Transition Design, and Architecture are looking at awkwardnesses in everyday life (well off of the performance stage) and trying to offer value to these "happenings" or "interactions" by designing and redesigning the experiences. By taking a few pages out of the Jaques-Dalcroze playbooks, combining this with philosophy of Dewey, Shusterman, Merleau-Ponty among others, and pushing it through the forge of Design discourse, I present Soma Literacy and Corporeal Design as new fields and topics for debate within the design (and hopefully within the music) communities. 

While working to add value to the design fields, the study has transformed and clarified so much of what I believe as a practicing musician and Dalcrozian that my teaching will forever be changed. In truth, it is not only my teaching that has changed, but also the ways I go about assessing my everyday life.

A Bartok selection for the young pianist is not merely a succession of notes for the pianist to hit in the correct order and tempo. It is an aspiration for a complete and fulfilling experience, an interaction that we in the music community would deem "musical" or "artful". Having completed 30 years of Dalcroze studies + these five years of study in Design theory, I now look to all of my interactions (with my peers, my spouse, my environment, with the things and artifacts around me, and even the ways that I interact within myself) and see these as aspiring to a musicality. The PhD began using music as an example of beauty and finished with music being a model for artfulness in living. 

This is what I attempt to describe and demonstrate for the Design fields in the dissertation and what I continue to describe and demonstrate for my Eurhythmics students every day, the potential for an artful life, both on and off of the concert stage.