I took a Eurhythmics class at Oberlin taught by a magical, mystical, musically in touch woman named Inda Howland who was a student of Jacques Dalcroze. Barefoot, wearing a native Indian garment–embracing an exotic percussion instrument from Bali as her trademark, she entered our classroom as a spry, sagacious woman in her 60′s. As she introduced a series of magnificently free spirited “beats” on her native drum, you’d wonder if she had grown up in a tribe that fed her this rhythmic language by pure imitation.
Even with her natural talent for playing a variety of percussion instruments collected from all over the world, she could produce the same musical magic at the piano because of her unique sensitivity to every note and its relationship to the next. She was the most attentive listener that I’d ever met, and it was her mission in life to pass down this ultra “awareness” of sound, rhythm and phrasing to her students.
At sun up, three times a week, we joined her celebration of music and movement that included aural training and improvisation. We “moved” to her drum beats, piano playing, anything that sprung extemporaneously from her heart and soul. It was a “being in the moment” experience cloaked in Eastern Philosophy.
Howland, our Zen master, modeled a way of life unencumbered by wayward thoughts. We were “focused” on every nuance of sound for 90 minutes, translating it into movement. As she “danced” around the room to one particular work that nearly brought me to tears, I watched her long arms “breathe” through the music, and her body sway to and fro, reflecting its shape and contour.
She would then have us interact with each other in two groups, as we translated what we heard into a counterpoint of treble and bass lines. We were relating to each other as “voices” in the music, not as fixed notes on a page. I could “feel” the bend of a phrase–the “volume” or density that permeated it. She used these words, interspersed with her native movements.
Here was one particular composition that drew us into a love affair with the composer’s music. Bidu Sayao, soprano, performed “Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5,” by Hector Villa-Lobos. The cello line, played by Leonard Rose and seven others, weaved and undulated through an impassioned reading by the vocalist. The string ensemble provided a bed of harmony, melody and rhythm intertwined. We “lived through the music” with our bodies guided by our ears.
The class was without hand-outs or superfluous course outlines. It was Inda Howland’s view of the cosmos in sound and silence that we absorbed by osmosis.
Sometimes, a student was asked to play a current piece, being put in the hot seat for about five to ten minutes while Inda would make us listen to every note. She’d simultaneously break out her skins (drums) intoning the rhythm with attention to “color.”
A quarter note followed by a half note could not be played in the same way. She talked about “inner speed motion,” and “delayed entry” into the longer note, a consciousness I’ve absorbed and taken with me along my musical journey.
It was a world unto itself that Inda Howland inhabited and shared with her students. We were never the same thereafter, having been touched for life by an inspired mentor.