Plastique Exercise from Emile Jaques-Dalcroze
Originally posted October, 2006.
This is an interesting exercise from Jaques-Dalcroze’s “Exercices de Plastique Animee,” Vol. I.1 Piano accompaniment for the melody is contained in his previous Marches Rhythmiques,2 and I’m also including that music here (with free PDF download).
Let’s start with the main exercise from the Plastique volume, with rough translation and some notes and analyses.
Roughly translated: The students are lined up and numbered. The even-numbered students move forward from the line stepping the first rhythmic fragment, then stop while the odd-numbered students realize the second fragment, and so on.
It’s immediately apparent that this isn’t a study in long phrase lines, but rather an exercise in short “fragments,” with rests. Much of Jaques-Dalcroze’s music seems to indicate an interest in this idea. He often used short phrases with unexpected rests and rhythmic interruptions in a playful, humorous way. (More on this later.)
The initial exercise has some limitations. If all are facing the same direction, the furthest-forward students have no experience of others’ movement behind them, unless they turn to look. Some possible modifications:
- Have the even-numbered students begin by facing the opposite direction and stepping backward; when/if the odd-numbered students advanced further ahead, all turn again to remain facing each other.
- Have the students perform the exercise in a circle formation instead of a line. This way, all can see the ‘opposite’ students.
- Have the students hold hands or link elbows, either in one line, small groups, or pairs. This will give them a kinesthetic sense of the others’ movement.
Variation a). Each student sings the entire melody and at the start of each phrase, raises the same foot that ended the preceding fragment. (left-right-left; left-right; right-left; etc.)
To me, this is the most interesting of the variations. The directions are not entirely clear, in that the exercise could involve shifting weight at the end of each phrase, or not. It’s informative to try it both ways:
- Shifting weight: Take all the steps of each “fragment” as you would if stepping normally, so that you end standing with your weight on one leg (in Jaques-Dalcroze’s example, begin walking left, right, left, with weight fully on the left leg at the end, such that your right leg could lift). To lift the left leg again and step on it again, what do you have to do (short of jumping into the air and landing on it again)? You’d have to shift back to your right leg, during the rest. In this case, the rest becomes an active shift of weight and preparation.
- Not shifting weight: Place the foot on the last step of each “fragment,” without shifting weight onto it. (In Jaques-Dalcroze’s example, step left, right, then place the left foot in front while keeping weight on the right, such that you could easily swing or lift the left leg.) Lift the left leg during the rest in order to step on it again for the next “fragment.” Here again, there’s movement during the rest, but the weight remains stable and the directional momentum has repose (as opposed to continuing forward, then backward, then forward again).
You’ll find there is something in-between these opposite approaches, where weight is equally distributed between left and right. (Dancers might think of this as “fourth position.”) There’s still a slight weight-shift involved in the exercise, of the kind dancers often practice — moving from two legs to one.
In any case, the exercise arrests movement by restricting the “follow-through” or duration expressed by the “working” (non-standing) leg. It presumes that the last “step” of each phrase-fragment leaves the free leg in its original place. It can’t move forward if the other leg is to lift and step again, unless the next “fragment” moves backwards, and/or another step is taken. (Think about it! Or rather, DO it, and you’ll understand!)
Variation b). The student sings the entire melody and marks the first note of each phrase fragment with one of the 20 gestures, alternating the left arm and right arm.
In the same volume, Jaques-Dalcroze listed 20 arm positions or “gestures” which could be memorized and then combined in various ways. Referencing positions by number made an efficient way to establish and work with a specific movement vocabulary. (They are found on page 24 and 25 of the volume referenced.)
Variation c). The teacher plays the melody at the piano and the students, without singing it, perform the phrases with inhalations and exhalations.
Needless to say, this would be easier with longer phrases rather than the “fragments” used here. (Forced “breathing exercises” like this cause some of us to become dizzy and faint!)
Here’s the Marches rhythmiques2 score referenced. I’m also supplying a PDF for you to download, here.
In comparing this score to the melody and its treatment in the later Plastique volume, it’s interesting to note differences in notation. There are no breath notations here, nor are there phrasings in the vocal line.
In the Marches rythmiques overall, Jaques-Dalcroze delineates melodic phrasings with breaths rather than the phrase markings found in the piano parts. Moreover, when his rhythmic design involves rests, even those minimal markings are absent for the singer. He seems to be saying that the rest itself suffices as an indication of phrasing.
His treatment of this melody in Exercices de Plastique Animee reinforces that notion. There we see phrasing notations added that group and isolate brief ideas, and exercises that emphasize their separation more than the continuation of their line.
What exactly was he after?
Earlier, I mentioned observing a tendency of Jaques-Dalcroze to play with rests and unexpected rhythmic interruptions. He seemed to like alternations of “excitation and inhibition” in his compositions — never in a bombastic, confounding puzzle that throws you off balance and onto the ground, but rather in a playful logic that catches you off-guard and makes you laugh.
(I’ve found some of his piano music so much fun, it’s literally made me chuckle aloud. I think aspects of his personality are imbued in such music — clever, entertaining, and playful. You think the next thing is “this,” and he says, “Aha! It’s that!” You think you’re going forward, and he says, “Hoop! Repeat that, stop, and now go foward!”)
Further, I’ve noticed that his use of rests seems to coincide with an interest in the subtleties of short durations. With some consistency, he prefers a shorter rhythmic unit, with rests following, over a longer duration marked staccato or “non-legato.” In my view, he’s not only asking, “How short this short?” I think he’s often addressing the distinct differences — in articulation and musical/physical energy — between “staccato” and a carefully-performed short duration.
It’s the difference between placing a soft landing from an appoggiatura, and punching its release, even pianissimo; the difference between touching and lifting vs. bouncing or rebounding; it’s the difference, for both the dancer and the musician, between a fully-conscious brief moment vs. one thrown away abruptly, conscious only of its end (rather than its duration).
Obviously, I can’t know what Jaques-Dalcroze was after in this exercise. Perhaps he and those around him weren’t thinking in such detail at all; perhaps they were, but the exercises weren’t fully developed, refined, or clearly communicated. In any case, I consider it no waste of time to spend a moment consciously and carefully contemplating such things, before another rest, and the start of the next momentum.
1. Emile Jaques Dalcroze. Methode Jaques-Dalcroze: Exercices de Plastique Animee, Vol. I. (Lausanne: Jobin & Cie, 1916) pp. 59-60.
2. Emile Jaques-Dalcroze. Methode Jaques-Dalcroze: Marches Rythmiques, Vol. I. (Lausanne: Sandoz-Jobin & Cie, 1906) p. 77.