Beat generation

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 08 July, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 08 July, 2012, 12:00am


Playing a lively tune on the keyboard, Chu Sui-ming tells a group of youngsters to follow her instructions. She asks them to imagine that they are rain. They can run in whatever direction they like, but they must follow the pace of the melody.

This will change from fast to slow or from loud to soft to indicate heavy rain or drizzle. The barefooted children dash about in a squash court in the Mui Wo Municipal Services Building, running faster as the music speeds up and stomping when Chu strikes harder on the keys.

Then she cries, 'Freeze!' The music stops and the children strike a pose to mimic an icicle in whatever shape they picture it. When the music starts again, it's to depict the sun that comes out and melts the icicles. So the children slowly fold their bodies, descending to the floor as human puddles.

The exercise is among several activities that music teacher Chu has incorporated into the eurhythmics classes she conducts in Mui Wo. This is an approach to musical education that was developed by Swiss musician Emile Jaques-Dalcroze. It aims to enhance a person's sensitivity to rhythm, structure, and musical expression through gaining physical awareness.

Chu, who trained at the Guildhall School of Music in London, was introduced to the Dalcroze method in 1995 by a former professor. She was struck by how it heightened musicality and personal expression, and soon became a Dalcroze devotee, taking time off teaching to attend various courses abroad to deepen her understanding.

After completing a degree course at the Institut Jaques-Dalcroze in Geneva, she decided to return to Hong Kong two years ago to popularise the approach that so fascinated her. She started using the Dalcroze method to teach music to dancers at the Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts before starting her own venture in January.

Props such as hoops and balls are used to engage younger children. For instance, Chu may ask the children to use a tennis ball to tap their body from their toes all the way up to their head as the music plays from lower to higher pitch.

For older students, she introduces more challenging exercises to raise their awareness of musical notes. At a recent class, the group is asked to form a moving train while Chu plays a melody. Whenever the tune is interrupted by a repeated low-pitched note, the last person in the line must move up to the head of the train.

The lyrics and gestures are incorporated into different rhythms and children are taught to sing or move to the beat. Once they're familiar with them, she plays a piece comprising of those rhythms. The children are asked to pick them out from the musical score and colour the appropriate sections.

Born and raised in an artistic family - her father is a playwright and director and her mother a music teacher - Chu has been immersed in music and performance all her life. But one thing that has bothered her since she was eight was how to make a work her own.

'When I was younger I would just act and imitate. But then I started thinking about my identity. I'm interested in discovering all the elements that contribute to a good performance. Many veterans say sensitivity and imagination is very important,' Chu says.

'For me, to have your own interpretation of something is very important. An actor has to have the personality and character [to make a difference] and musicians have to interpret the music in their own way.

'That's why Dalcroze eurhythmics struck me. His creative, interactive approach means that every musical element has meaning for the individual. It becomes different for everyone who hears it.'

The interactive exercises used in Dalcroze eurhythmics are a relatively new concept in Hong Kong, where music education is dominated by a formal approach.

Lai May-tan, chairwoman of the Dalcroze Society of Hong Kong, says music teachers like herself often learn about the theory of Dalcroze eurhythmics as part of their studies. But they rarely get to understand how it works in practice.

'Many have said eurhythmics are not for Hong Kong. They say we don't have enough space for the children to move about, and that Asians are so conservative they're not good at expressing themselves through physical movement. It is also very demanding for teachers, as it requires them to play very good piano, and be very observant and spontaneous.'

Lai was 17 years into her teaching career when she attended an 'eye-opening' Dalcroze workshop in Taiwan in 1999. 'I fell in love with it after the first hour. I thought to myself, this is the way to teach music. I felt so shocked and ashamed to be finding that out after teaching for such a long time,' says Lai, who has now retired.

'Dalcroze eurhythmics suggests we use our whole body to express music, and that music learning is about training the body's sensitivity to music. It makes a person very musical as it emphasises training the ear to listen and the body to express.

'Music is sound. It shouldn't be learned just by reading textbooks or learning how to count the beats. Many know how many beats there are in a time signature, but they may not be able to catch a piece simply by hearing it. It's like learning to appreciate a painting with closed eyes,' she adds.

Besides training the ears, she says, the advantage of Dalcroze eurhythmics is that it helps people 'visualise music'. Rolling a ball that's caught by someone else precisely when the music stops teaches students about the relationship between time, space and energy. This is essential to singing and instrument playing.

So Lai started the Dalcroze Society with some like-minded friends in 2008. The idea was to spread the concept to more music teachers, a crucial step to pass the knowledge to a younger generation.

In Mui Wo, dance teacher Eva Guidi's two children - three-year-old Azia and six-year-old Lucca - have been getting into the beat at Chu's classes.

'They both like it. It's about the love of music, free movement and imagination. I peek inside the class sometimes. Chu makes them do movements and recognise music. It's good for their musical ear and free movements,' Guidi says.

The exercises seem to stimulate young minds in many spheres. 'Azia loves dancing, but [in a dance class] she has to copy what we show her. But here, she does what she wants. Chu gives them an idea and then they express it,' Guidi says.

'The major difference I notice in Azia is that I hear her humming a lot. The children have become very responsive to music. This imaginative approach works quite well. They like to talk about what they've done, and my little girl likes to invent stories.'