In the fall semesters of both 2018 and 2019, I lived in Geneva to work toward the diplôme supérieur, which I earned in June of 2020. In this article, I’ll share my experiences and reflect upon a memorable period of my life.
Geneva holds mythic status in the minds of many in the Dalcroze world. It is the spiritual center of the practice; the mothership; the Big Bang. In conversations among practitioners from United States, Geneva plays a range of shifting roles. It can be the domineering, neglectful, or benevolent parent depending on the time of day and the teller of the tale. But when Dalcrozians speak of Geneva, a city located in southwest Switzerland near the French border, we are really talking about the Institut Jaques-Dalcroze, the IJD, a thriving community music school begun over a hundred years ago by Emile Jaques-Dalcroze in, yes, Geneva.
Before I spent time in Geneva, I had the impression that Emile Jaques-Dalcroze was some kind of patron saint of the country. He may be for some, but certainly not the majority. Professional Dalcroze teacher training is a large part of the school’s mission, but the school runs many kinds of programs and serves many different populations not only within the school walls, but by sending teachers into schools throughout the city.
Many Genevans know the school as a place for children to study music. In any given week, throngs of people pass through the doors of the IJD: in the mornings, the building is full of seniors and young children with their caregivers; afternoons, older children come for music classes and lessons of all kinds. Their families wait for them throughout the building. There is no school on Wednesdays in Switzerland, which allows children to pursue extracurricular activities and education. On these days, the IJD is filled with children of all ages until about 2:00 p.m. Children play on the circular staircase as they wait for their older siblings. Dads are scattered throughout the building, staring into cell phones. Like any community music school, there are times during the day when the building is quite alive, and others when it naps.
There is a café near the entrance frequented by professionals for lunch, and parents and caretakers for coffee. Seniors spend time with each other after their weekly classes. Children are rewarded with a chocolate crêpe after their lessons. The café gives the school a warm and welcoming atmosphere.
The logistics of studying for the diplôme are considerable for anyone coming from outside of Switzerland. My wife Laura came to Geneva with me for both residencies. Geneva is nestled within several chains of mountains, and there is natural beauty everywhere you look. Laura and I took a few spectacular trips during our time there and made some close friends. During our first trip, we shuttled around to various Air BnBs to get to know the area. On our second stay, we settled down in one apartment. Geneva is surrounded on three sides by the French border, and the rent is definitely cheaper across the French border, which is easily accessible by public transportation.
In the spring of 2018, I visited the IJD for a week alongside my good friends Bill Bauer and Mimi Hsu. The school arranged a schedule of classes for us to observe and participate in, at no cost. After this trip, I decided to return in September to stay for four months, and used the intervening time to prepare for the entrance examination, which I would take as soon as I arrived. Bill and I returned in the fall of 2019 and took the exam together. (I strongly recommend having a partner to work with if at all possible!) The exam has four parts: eurhythmics, improvisation, and solfège, and piano performance. There are specific items to prepare on the spot: sight reading, a short plastique, harmonizations, and other improvisations. Candidates are given only one hour to prepare everything. The piano performance can be done via video. The other three exams must be done in-person at the school. I can say without hesitation that it was the hardest exam I have ever taken, but somehow, we both managed to pass. Bill returned home, and I stayed to begin my studies.
There are no further personal examinations in eurhythmics or solfège beyond the entrance exam, so, in a way, the entrance exam is the same as the exit exam for these branches. There is one further personal examination for improvisation. The other examinations include teaching and plastique animée. Once admitted, the diplôme committee works out a course of study with the candidate.
Students admitted to the program must complete at least one examination per calendar year. During my first year, I wrote and defended a paper, which they call a memoire. Often, this is the final thing that candidates complete, but it was the best option for me as I needed to return to the US that spring.
In my second stay, the fall of 2019, I worked on and completed my “stages,” which are like what we call practicums. Diplôme candidates are required to teach at least three practicum classes for each branch (eurhythmics, improvisation, and solfège). For each class, candidates work with one upper-level class of students enrolled in the professional training program, which the Haute École de Musique of Geneva runs at the Institut in collaboration with the IJD. Candidates teach under the observation of a mentor from whom they receive feedback after each session. After finishing a stage, candidates must teach two hour-long lessons in front of a three-person jury. In the first, the candidate chooses the subject of the lesson; in the second, the jury chooses the subject. The exams are spaced two weeks apart.
Those contemplating this course of study should know that the program is not free. Fortunately, there are ways to minimize the costs. Though the fees for time spent with mentors and jury members are set by the government, the IJD graciously allowed me to observe and participate in many hours of classes at absolutely no charge. And while Geneva is an expensive city, there is a network of hosts that can help with housing (which were not as accessible for us since we were a couple staying for a long period). There are also various sources of funding, including scholarships and grants offered by FIER (la Fédération Internationale des Enseignants de Rythmique, an organization of international eurhythmics teachers). The DSA has a history of supporting candidates for the diplôme. I was a recipient of a generous grant from the Robert Abramson Foundation through the Dalcroze Society of America, and this fellowship will continue to be available for diplôme candidates from the U.S. To help make the trip affordable, Laura and I sublet our Brooklyn apartment and my separate teaching studio. Rent in Geneva is comparable to New York City. The trip would have been impossible for us without this step.
In my first extended stay it was decided that I would participate in classes without the pressure of having to plan lessons and teach. Almost any class was available to me with, of course, the permission of the teachers. I participated in the upper-level eurhythmics, solfège, and movement classes (Bachelor III and the Masters level classes). I was allowed to observe the improvisation classes at all levels, but mostly did not participate since the students needed the time to play. I created a weekly schedule and mostly stuck to it. In my two semesters at the Institut, I was at the school Monday through Friday and often went in on Saturdays to practice. I was so happy to be there, I didn’t miss a day! After working for many years as a teacher, it was thrilling to be a full-time student again. Right before I went to Geneva for my first fall semester, I had just completed a doctorate at Stony Brook University. Because I was also teaching full time, my time on that campus was limited, and that was frustrating. In the performing arts in particular we learn by interactions with others. Presence is key, and it was a luxury to be able to be in residence at the Institut full-time. From the perspective of life in a pandemic, the daily opportunity for creative in-person interaction seems even more magical.
But I also spent many hours at the IJD by myself: playing, singing, moving. That was another gift that I wish everyone of any age could periodically have. The facilities are well-maintained and well-equipped. Each room has a full complement of props familiar to Dalcroze teachers. The floors are always spotless, and there are excellent sound systems in each room. The pianos are in good condition by and large, and kept in tune. The possibility of an afternoon or morning to myself, processing all I had seen, exploring new approaches, was absolute heaven. I could feel myself growing and changing by the day.
And I observed. I observed teachers. I observed students from all ages and levels of experiences. I observed myself observing. What was I looking at? What was I looking for? How did the training these students were receiving compare to my own? Of course, I wrote down what they did in class, the activities themselves. Like many, I have notebooks full of activities from other teachers. Though I am glad to have these notebooks, it remains to be seen how I will use them in the future. I often think that the value of note-taking may be simply the act of writing itself. Rarely do I comb through old notebooks for ideas before my own classes, preferring almost always to create something new. Knowing this, I tried to resist filling my notebooks with too much writing. I saved the lesson plans that were handed out, and I have found myself looking through them for inspiration on more than one occasion.
My style of note-taking went through phases. In the beginning, I wrote down everything: what the teachers said, how the students responded, the activities themselves, my critiques of them. I made practice lists for myself. I observed the differences between the teachers, a perennial pastime for Dalcroze students. I wrote down things I heard the teachers say. (Or at least that I thought I heard, my French being far from functional.)
The closer I got to my own examinations the fewer details I wrote down. In fact, by the end I often found myself drawing! I am not a practiced visual artist by any stretch of the imagination, but I found something about this act to be very satisfying. I will bravely share a page from my notebook.
When I returned in the fall of 2019, I began to complete the exam requirements. At first the pace was leisurely; I had weeks to prepare a single class. The classes I taught were recorded. After each class, I met with my mentor. I was hungry for feedback for myself as a teacher, though it was often just as nerve-wracking as you might expect to receive it. My mentors, Sylvie Morgenegg and Hélène Nicolet, discussed (in English) the students themselves, their strengths and weaknesses. If there were technical problems in my playing or the execution of an activity, we acknowledged it, but they left it to me to solve those problems. We all have them at every level of teaching, and I found my mentors to be very understanding of these types of problems.
The Exam Process
The teaching examinations are strictly limited to an hour. This is a much shorter time than most of us are used to teaching for eurhythmics. Candidates submit a lesson plan and are expected to adhere to it as much as possible while remaining flexible to the needs of the group. The challenge is to keep the class moving while demonstrating command of the various skills: improvisation, ability to play for difficult technical exercises, the ability to observe how the students are responding, and to offer them helpful feedback to encourage their growth. In the beginning I found this time limit to be very restrictive. Over time, I learned how to plan and execute an hour lesson. It was one of the most useful skills I learned during my time there.
In my meetings with my mentors, we spent a lot of time discussing “what the jury would need to see” at the final teaching exams. Candidates do not know in advance who will be on the jury at their teaching exams. Stage mentors are present for the exams but cannot serve on the jury. The jury members are likely seeing the candidate teach for the first time, and so the candidate needs to demonstrate competency and mastery of a wide array of skills. This can be challenging to manage while still serving the needs of the students who happen to be in front of you.
I wondered if the transition from student to teacher would be difficult. Would the students accept me as a teacher after I had participated in their classes as a fellow student? But that turned out not to be a concern. Without exception, they were a delight to work with, eager to learn and willing to try almost anything.
I hadn’t expected that the connections with the students in the bachelor and masters programs would turn out to be such an important aspect of my time there. I grew attached to many of them. They adopted me as a kind of mascot or pet, it seemed. For many of them, I was almost three times their age! I hung out with them and learned first-hand which classes they loved and which they dreaded. I heard their gripes: exasperated students failing exams, critical of this or that aspect of the program or teacher. They were curious about Dalcroze in America. Some, particularly among the Swiss students, were only dimly aware at first that there was an international community of Dalcrozians. The incoming bachelor class I observed in 2018 was extremely quiet and shy in their eurhythmics classes with Sylvie Morgenegg at first. By the time I left after my second stay, the transformation was remarkable. I watched them open and flower. Credit for this goes not only to the nature of the Dalcroze work itself, but also in the way that it is manifesting in the Institut now. The faculty encourages risk-taking, exploration, and innovation, and I watched many students accept that invitation. It was a remarkable bird’s eye view and I carry a warm place in my heart for these young people who will become part of the Dalcroze family. It has altered the way I see my own students back home.
The language barrier was a challenge. My French was not good enough for teaching. Many of the students spoke excellent English, but not all. The biggest hurdle in teaching these students was understanding what they knew and didn’t know, even with all of the observation I had done of them. Their backgrounds and kinds of experience were different from typical conservatory students in the US, and having full command of French would have been very useful. Somehow, I managed. At least it prevented me from talking too much!
The way I prepare for my teaching has been forever altered. As mentioned, at first I had weeks to prepare to teach a single class. What a luxury! Without the pressure of time, I was able to spend an hour moving, singing, playing as I liked. By the time I began to brainstorm for a lesson plan, I was fully warmed up, in the moment and connected to myself as a musician and artist. Even though I have to now plan for multiple classes each week, I don’t skip this step. I realized it is essential to keeping my teaching alive and vital for myself. This was one of the biggest gifts of the process for me.
There were many hoops to jump through in this process, and, yes, some of them were on fire. While I am sure that my skills improved during my time there because of the sheer number of things I was asked to do, I received a gift much more valuable to me: I now feel a much greater sense of freedom in the Dalcroze classroom than I did before I went. This is partly because I received a stamp of approval from the institution, but that is not the only reason. Throughout the process, I was encouraged to be myself. I went to Geneva largely knowing who I was as a musician and a teacher, but not so much as a mover or a singer, and those, too, are essential components of a Dalcrozian. By the time I left, I had developed habits that would allow me to begin to have a relationship to those other fields, which had always seemed like foreign worlds to me. I will never be a dancer, or even a singer, but I have a curiosity about the way I move and the sounds I can make with my voice that I did not have pre-Geneva. I am happy to report that the seeds are beginning to sprout now that I have returned home. I can confidently say that the diplôme is for me a beginning, not an end. And I give credit to the IJD for helping to plant those seeds at this stage of my career.
And who knew that when Laura and I returned home in December 2019 the world would be so utterly transformed in just a few short months! I was lucky to have completed my studies before we all were forced to retreat and ride out the pandemic. But my experiences there have given new life to my work as both a teacher and an artist, and I can feel the change and growth even in this strange and temporarily restricted world. I hope in the coming years that I can use my experience to encourage many more from the U.S. to find their own path toward the diplôme.
Dr. Michael Joviala
Brooklyn, spring 2021
This article was originally published in the Spring 2021 issue of Dalcroze Connections, Vol. 5 No. 2.