A&HHE Special Issue August 2016AHHELogo-300x300

Becoming music: Reflections on transformative experience and the development of agency through Dynamic Rehearsal

Karin Greenhead

Royal Northern College of Music


Dynamic Rehearsal (DR) is a way of clarifying interpretation and improving performance influenced by the ideas of Jaques-Dalcroze and developed experimentally by the author. It has been demonstrated internationally with singers and instrumentalists of all ages, beginners and elite performers who frequently describe it as a transformative experience. The underlying premise of DR and Dalcroze Eurhythmics (DE) out of which it grew is that music originates in the body and bodily movement and that musical participation of all kinds is a foundationally corporeal, personal and social event. These claims relating to the nature of music and musicmaking are supported by a wide range of philosophers, psychologists, educationalists and neuroscientists. In this paper a brief description of DR and an account of the experience of one performer are followed by the author’s reflections on the contribution of various elements of the DR process to its perceived effectiveness.


musical performance, actual and imagined movement, rehearsal techniques, Dalcroze, embodiment, flow, inner hearing and feeling, agency, sensory awareness, personal knowledge


The notion that experience, perception, action and cognition are grounded in the body has been asserted by both philosophers (Merleau-Ponty, 1962; Sheets-Johnstone, 2011) and neuroscientists (Damasio, 2000). According to Wayne Bowman (2004) the nature of music and musical activity offers support for these assertions that is both unique and compelling. Sound strikes the eardrum and penetrates the body tissue through to the bone. With or without our permission it vibrates within us, reminding us of our living, sentient nature; in the presence of music we are by music ‘ensounded’ (Greenhead and Habron, 2015:104). In daily life we gesture; we walk and breathe in rhythms of walking and breathing; we communicate and converse with others in dialogues that have phrase, cadence and structure (Malloch and Trevarthen, 2009). To our ‘musicking’ (Small, 1998) we bring the experience of our senses, nerves and muscles and recall sounds and rhythms experienced elsewhere. Philips-Silver (2009) claims that music’s audible and bodily motions are, in fact, constitutive of one another.

Given music’s innateness and ‘profoundly kinaesthetic’ nature (Rabinowitch et al, 2012:113) one would imagine that performing music would come naturally to everyone and in some cultures this is evidently the case as Blacking’s study of the Venda shows (Blacking, 1973). Paradoxically, however, many who aspire to perform in the western classical tradition suffer from muscular tension and pain and feelings of shame and inadequacy typical of performance anxiety (Kenny, 2011; Steptoe, 2001). Kingsbury (1988) observes that the pressures of training at an elite level may result in a loss of joy in music-making, while according to Gaunt (2010) the intensity of one-to-one tuition may inhibit the development of self-responsibility and an individual, artistic voice. Difficulties with musical perception, rhythm, ensemble and communication are common experiences of even highly trained students (Greenhead, 2008), all of which suggests that for many, musical performance has become disconnected from the musician within.

This paper presents a way of using music’s innately motional, kinaesthetic and social nature to address musical performance issues. An outline of the approach, some techniques used in a first lesson and the response of a participant for whom it was a life-changing experience are described, followed by observations and implications for the education of musicians.

Dalcroze Eurhythmics (DE)

The corporeal and motional nature of music and musical participation provides the basis for DE[i] – the method designed by Emile Jaques-Dalcroze to tune up and tune together all the faculties, corporeal, emotional, intellectual, and volitional of his students with a view to their combined artistic, personal and social development (Jaques-Dalcroze, 1921). In the context of this article, the influence on him of the Belgian virtuoso violinist Eugène Ysaÿe (whose accompanist he became in 1898) is particularly interesting. On one occasion Dalcroze found him in his room jumping and punching the air with his fists in an attempt, he explained, to get Vieuxtemps’ Polonaise inside him (Christen, 1946:78, footnote). ‘The sound vibrations must penetrate us entirely right down to our viscera and rhythmic movement must enliven all our muscular system, without resistance or exaggeration’ (Ysaÿe in Jaques-Dalcroze, 1942:44).

Dynamic Rehearsal

DR is an application of Dalcroze principles and practices to the rehearsal and performance of repertoire that I developed experimentally from 1992. It has been demonstrated internationally with a wide variety of instrumentalists and singers and consists of four phases. During the first, preparatory phase (DE: rhythmics), the perceptions and techniques to be applied in DR are learnt in rhythmics classes. These include the study of music and its elements (such as rhythm, phrase, dynamics), ensemble skills and projection (Greenhead, 2013, 2014; Greenhead and Habron, 2015) through movement of the whole body in space and the use of materials – in particular the RG ball.[ii] These materials afford different kinds of sensory experience, provide instant feedback to the user and assist in the development of co-ordination and sensations important to interpretation, such as dynamics, emphasis, rebound and sustained line. Next, the performer is taken through an iterative process of rehearsing a chosen piece while standing on a trampoline (or sitting on a ball), and then improvising with an RG ball (or other material) in silent movement in the space of the room. During this process decisions must be made relating to how the music begins and how and where it moves as the performer hears it. This interpretation is shown with the moving ball to the audience. Thirdly, the piece is played again standing on the trampoline while imagining the movement done in the room. Finally, the process is repeated and new questions may be asked and variations in the rehearsal techniques applied after studying the score more attentively. The listeners (class-members or a wider public) are invited to say what they hear or feel and may be more aware of changes than the performer, who may find describing new sensations challenging.

My aim is to enable performers to connect with and clarify their own inner hearing and feeling of the music and its movement and to project their ideas, feelings and intentions about the piece into the dramatic space to co-performers and to the audience. The ball is a tangible vehicle through which the music, heard in imagination, is expressed.

By way of a concrete example of this practice I turn now to the experience of a 43-year-old, professional violinist from Hong Kong, Lee Chui Tan, whose approach to musical performance and interpretation and experience of herself changed profoundly during and following performing for 30 minutes in a DR workshop on August 3rd 2012. The vivid experiences she relates contain many features commonly found among the responses of participants in these sessions, whether expressed verbally or in writing. (Bowtell, 2012; De Snoo Korsten, 2005; Dooner, 2007; Mathieu, 2013; Mayo, 2005; Orton, 2015; Spillman, 2005).[iii]

Lee Chui Tan: encounter and transformation

Chui Tan began training aged 6, first in Hong Kong and subsequently in New York. Her training was ‘very traditional’, focused on rote learning and technical perfection with a view to taking part in international competitions. She is left-handed and connects tension problems in her right (bowing) arm to being forced to write with the right hand and to being given pieces to play that were technically and musically very advanced. Only while studying in Toronto for a Bachelor’s and then a Master’s degree, did she begin to sense that there was ‘another side to music’. Throughout her life she has been plagued by the feeling of ‘being a fraud and nagging questions concerning playing the violin and the meaning of music which she ascribes to missing out on the enjoyment of music-making when young (Lee, 2015). These issues were to be addressed in unexpected ways when she started studying DE and especially in (DR).[iv]  Of her first Dalcroze experience she reported suddenly understanding what music is and learning its language for the first time. In Dalcroze classes her movement gradually gained flexibility and fluidity and the difficulties with left/right-handedness diminished until she felt there was ‘no more right and left’ (Lee, 2015).

Chui Tan began her first DR lesson with a beautiful rendering of Elgar’s Salut d’amour. She jumped joyfully on the trampoline, but no sooner had she started playing again than she burst into tears. She felt as if she were ‘falling off a cliff into the violin’ and was amazed at the vibration, the sudden, warm and colourful sound and a new tempo that ‘made sense’. Finally she said “I was in sync. I was the music” and, anxiously at the end: ‘Will I find it again?’

Chui Tan’s account: interview and emails

Four months later I interviewed her and asked her to describe how she felt about her playing before standing on the trampoline. Out of her bag she pulled a photocopy of Picasso’s Harlequin with violin ‘si tu veux’ (Picasso, 1918). For her this represented being precise and recreating as accurately as possible what was written on the page while trying to ‘be musical (Lee, 2012).

To illustrate her feelings when playing on the trampoline she produced The triumph of music (Chagall, 1966) to convey colour, movement and fluidity. Previously, she had struggled to bring out the beauty and passion of the music, Now there was a sudden ‘very scary’ increase in vibration, volume and tone colour. Everything shifted. She could both forget and be herself, free from the compulsion to obey the page. ‘Tears of joy’ followed the sensation of movement and sound ‘in sync’ with what she felt (Lee, 2012). Later she was able to return to the score and produce ‘a more living  . . . instead of a forced interpretation’ and to ‘have a conversation with the pianist instead of just trying to be beautiful’.

Working with materials

Working effectively with the ball takes practice. Supporting and controlling its weight, bouncing and throwing or guiding it smoothly through space requires coordination of the larger muscles as the performer tries to create the moving sensation of the music heard inwardly. The simultaneous tactile, kinaesthetic and visual feedback received while working in this way confirms whether or not her actions correspond to what she intends and enables instantaneous adjustments. The awakening of all Chui Tan’s senses and her awareness of different parts of the body helped her to pay more attention to arrival points and the pace of the music (Lee, 2012) As she started to see the piece as a whole instead of note-by-note, bow-shake diminished and the tonal and dynamic range acquired many different colours. Colleagues said she had become “a completely different person!” while playing a Beethoven Sonata in which the marked dynamics and articulations seemed unnatural, she had an ‘epiphany’ realising that ‘there must be a meaning, a gesture to each of these markings. She used DR techniques to investigate the music and the bowing and markings in the score made sense (Lee, 2013).

Personal knowledge and transformation

Leading to joy, feelings of freedom, agency and self-confidence seems confirmed by Chui Tan who was able to approach the written score ‘in a new way’ and to experiment for herself. A change in her priorities put music and phrasing at the head of the list. During a public performance she suffered neither physical pain nor feeling of inadequacy, the music made sense and she felt a strong connection with the audience (Lee, 2013).

‘I felt present . . .my touch was awakened . . . little by little I became the piece and it was like an improvisation . . . I forgot myself. I was in the action (Spillman, 2005).’

Becoming and agency

‘ . . . you are the music while the music lasts’ (Eliot, 1963:213). The epiphanic experience (McDonald, 2008) of ‘flow’ (Csikszentmihalyi and Custodero, 2002; Custodero, 2012) Chui Tan describes  – of simultaneously becoming music, free and herself brought her both experiential knowledge of her own body and the realisation that the resources she needed to perform the piece were within her: she did not have to worry about losing them.

The events described here lend credence to Van Manen’s observation that practice does not ‘think’ the world but ‘grasps’ it, pathically, and consists of experiences that are primarily ‘relational, situational, corporeal, temporal, actional’. (van Manen, 2007:20-22). Such pathic[v] knowledge, he asserts, is the chief source of professional competence. The experience of a short DR session instigated a process of ongoing change in which Chui Tan was able to overcome both technical problems and performance anxiety. She became an independent learner and applied the DR techniques combined with her own insights to teaching and learning new pieces. She took ownership of her professional practice and improved it. Her account seems to confirm Maxine Sheets-Johnstone’s assertion of self-movement as ‘the originating ground of knowledge’ (Sheets-Johnstone, 2011:113) and that effective tapping into that resource may resolve many problems of a musical nature and beyond.

DE and DR offer practical and effective ways of addressing musical performance issues to those ‘who are willing and receptive to change, challenge and new learning.’ (Orton, 2015:5). In my experience significant factors that determine the range and depth of experience for performers in DR also include 1) sufficient previous experience of DE; 2), their current musical perceptivity and 3) their ability to focus on process and experience. Participants’ accounts suggest that DE and DR engages students with the embodied nature of music in a highly personal way that puts them deeply in touch with their own feelings and sensations, bringing them into the present moment and that musicians would benefit from training in tactile and kinaesthetic awareness and movement expression. As participant’s accounts of DR show, this is particularly effective when allied to aural perception, ensemble skills and creative decision-making.


[i] A tripartite method consisting of Rhythmics, Solfège and Improvisation (Le Collège de L’Institut Jaques-Dalcroze (CIJD) 2011). Rhythmics is at the heart of the method.

[ii] Rhythmics Gymnastics ball.

[iii] All citations and quotations of Lee Chui Tan are used, as is her own name, with her permission and come from an interview conducted in Kowloon in December 2012 and subsequent email communications in 2013, 2014 and 2015.

[iv] Following graduation she freelanced in Toronto before returning work with the Hong Kong Philharmonic (1996-99) and Hong Kong City Chamber Orchestra (1999-2005).

[v] Pathic, from ‘pathos’ (Greek) meaning both suffering and passion, refers to that which is undergone and ‘reside(s) or resonate(s) in the body, in our relations with others, in the things of the world, and in our very actions’


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