The inner dancer

By Stephan Ronner, February 2021

Music as the mother tongue of human beings communicates beyond all conceptual languages – from the hearts of those who are singing directly to the hearts of those who listen and resonate with them. It is the mission of the musical life in upper school to let people experience something of this. Everyone should experience and try out how far their own musical wings can carry them, how far they are able to reach out and touch others emotionally – not verbally.

Photo: © Charlotte Fischer

First and foremost, this always connected with trying it out: the low-risk experiment in the group, the somewhat more challenging rehearsal in a polyphonic set, and finally with the tingling moment of solo performance. Here, at the latest, we experience something of the magical potential of non-verbal communication and, of course, also the limits of its momentary expressive ability, which is still in its infancy.

We learn musical styles through listening and through trying, beginning with the activity of our inner dancer. Coming to rest externally, the dance-like expressiveness inwardly begins to take its course, following its lines and shapes, its oscillations and rhythms. This requires multiple opportunities and daily sheltered spaces. Music lessons are focused less on output and more on input and what happens inside. Something awaits to be moved inside – and externally this appears as a reflection, a sounding and an echo. All singing is preceded by listening. They key to all singing is hearing. I cannot sing what I cannot hear. That is how the hearing researcher Alfred Tomatis puts it – formulating a law of life.

Music is something quite different to the consumption of education. It is not about cognitive education and learning, it is about precise feeling and emotion! A musical motif is abundantly full of life – otherwise it fails to ignite, has no effect and thus no purpose. The direct proximity between live music and vitality is evident – it is self-explanatory in being done and does not need any comment. Compared to loudspeaker music, we experience sound that is produced live and with living warmth as quite a different category of life and reality. That is not splitting hairs but the daily experience of making music with young people, in enabling live music.

When singing together is restricted because of the danger of infection, to reduce the risk from aerosols, this can be experienced as a constraint – but it needn’t be. Because meaningful singing is always preceded by intensive listening – and this mostly falls short due to a one-sidedly output-focused teaching routine. Let us give our inner dancer space and time for their first steps and curves, let us allow them in peace and quiet to find their forms and motifs, changing from one location to another, one voice to another. A genuine listening culture is normally not very common. But genuinely learning to listen should actually be a core part of meaningful music lessons. But it is about more than listening, it is about a listening immersion, penetration with the listening, about being inside, about interest.

Listening – feeling our way forward – sensing our way in

Music lessons today have led to an immense enrichment of what music is capable of, indeed what music alone is capable of. Yesterday it was still possible to sing one song after the other by rote out of the lesson routine; today singing has to be preceded by listening, being caught off guard preempted by feeling our way forward, sensing our way into it. The coronavirus pandemic means that these often forgotten requirements come into closer proximity with human beings, become more intimate, human, significant. External social distancing and hygiene rules have in the blink of an eye enabled a much subtler way of approaching one another. Music can play a more central role in these times if the lesson format permits. The external restrictions on playing wind instruments and singing in confined spaces do not mean an end to meaningfully making music together. They mean an end to simply diving in excessively and in an unbridled way. They direct our senses towards giving greater meaning to what we are doing, more inner motivation, more content and meaningful form. They lead us into quite different hearing spaces from the ones we were until then used to traversing. Thus the picture of the inner dancer can keep helping us to find the trail, to give music an inner culture, to shift the focus from (traditional) group activity to individual activity (open to the future).

Some things will have to be heard in a new way, be absorbed through listening our way into them. Then they will awaken to resound outwardly, in alternation, sometimes here, sometimes in another place, and will become multifarious, ambiguous, multi-coloured. Much will, to begin with, sound out instrumentally, and only then, sparingly, blossom vocally. No permanent forte any longer makes itself heard in our school corridors but a conversational tone like a cultured string quartet. Because music wants to leave the stadium roar behind it and mutate into the individual incarnation of living beings endowed with reason. Making music is connected with reason, with inner measure and values, with exactness and precision, but in the emotional sphere, in inner movement. The inner dancer is educated in “precise emotion” and learns to express themselves accordingly as they dance. And some of that gradually penetrates to the outside, not loud, but essential, meaningful, expressive of self.

Many-facetted search movements

Musical styles are like styles of thinking and require to be tried out through doing and through familiarisation from the inside. The wealth of musical styles, or thinking styles, requires space and time and can easily fill the whole of upper school. Where, other than in music lessons, can I learn something about the totality of styles of music and thinking? On the street there is just supply and demand, the market and commerce. The musical life of the school is about the many-facetted search movements, and their relevance to life, in the sphere of stylistic diversity and musical possibilities of thought.

All of this takes place at the emotional level but not, it should be noted, at the level of the ridiculous limitations of what happens to be in the charts but of a comprehensive picture of all the points of the compass and world cultures, of human development and its reflection in the greatest diversity of musical cultures and styles. In contrast to the uniform background music of international airports, the diversity of thinking and musical styles in upper school lessons is full to bursting with stylistic pluralism and cultural encounters.

The measure of this remains the agility of our inner dancer whose ability to be set in motion is greatly dependent on the extent to which they are given a helping hand. Trying each day, inwardly setting ourselves in motion creates the space for the inner exploration of musical movement and how we conduct ourselves. It enables us, step-by-step, to come musically of age.

About the author: Stephan Ronner is professor of music education at the Freie Hochschule Stuttgart – Seminar for Waldorf Pedagogy

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