Change, both physical and mental, is a given for new dance majors. But some changes are harder to embrace than others. Ask a freshman choreographer to replace Radiohead with a John Cage soundscape, for example, and you’re likely to run into some serious resistance.
Weaning student choreographers off of Top 40 picks and getting them excited about a broad variety of music is a challenge faced by many college faculty members. Some dance programs go so far as to employ musicians to help expand dancers’ musical awareness. The result? A deeper musical knowledge enhances dancers’ creativity.
Meet students where they are
Arthur Solari, senior dance accompanist at Hofstra University, says that accepting what students already listen to is an important step toward getting them to listen to something new. Once they trust that you are not dismissing their musical tastes out of hand, “students are more open to making an appointment so you can advise them,” Solari says.
Tigger Benford, musician, accompanist and associate professor of dance at Rutgers University, agrees. “I am never going to tell [students] not to like something that they currently like,” he says. “But I am going to work very hard to get them to like things that they currently dislike.”
Expand their ability to hear
One challenge teachers must overcome is the pervasiveness of music. Most incoming college freshmen hear it constantly—on their iPods, at Starbucks, in stores. But too much of a good thing dulls the ears. Students tend to listen to music to relax or while they “shake it” at the club, says Benford. As a result, they listen passively, letting the sound slide by as a series of undifferentiated audio events rather than distinguishing the relationships between its parts.
To activate listening skills, Benford engages students in environmental listening; he has them lie down, indoors or out, and guides them as they listen to ambient noise. Benford uses imagery, asking students to think of how the pupil of an eye dilates and contracts in response to light, and then to imagine that their ears have pupils that can open or close to accommodate different amounts of sound. “The sounds that are easiest to miss are the constant ones,” Benford says. “I always mention the hum of refrigerators, because almost everyone has had the experience of being unaware of the sound until the moment it suddenly turns off.” He says this exercise heightens acoustic sensitivity and a fundamental level of receptivity that is important for all artists to maintain.
Free them from musical crutches
Young dancemakers tend to be drawn to a piece of music because it holds the meaning and content that they hope their dance will express. So how do you convince a dancer that over-reliance on a song’s emotive content puts the dance in danger of becoming superfluous?
Richard Woodbury, music director and associate chair at Columbia College Chicago, has developed an exercise to help his students see how dance can (and should) be more than a visual depiction of music. Woodbury gives his students CDs containing 10 one-minute songs. The students choreograph to a track of their choosing and perform their solos for one another during class. Directly following an individual’s performance, Woodbury plays a different track from the CD and challenges the student to renegotiate the same movement to the new music. Invariably, he says, his students realize that their second performance is more compelling. Students report that this exercise deepens their dancemaking by demonstrating the power of juxtaposing music and movement.
Help them find new sounds
Convincing student choreographers to consider a wide array of sound options is one thing, but it can leave them feeling uncertain of where to find new music and how to make a selection. Woodbury works with dancers one-on-one at this stage. “When a student comes to me wanting to create a sound design,” Woodbury says, “we have conversations about what purpose the music is trying to serve.” Once they have identified the intent, Woodbury selects a stack of CDs for the student to investigate.
To give students a sense of different styles they might choose from, Benford creates a mix CD and requires students to listen to and journal about what they hear. He chooses pieces that are about four to five minutes in length, not “too bizarre or strange,” but that have enough depth to withstand repeated listening and still reveal new aspects of their character. And he only includes vocals if they’re written in a language other than English.
Benford also encourages students to explore a music resource few use these days. “There is something to be gained by going to a record library where there is no financial risk if you don’t like something,” he says. “A lot of kids don’t realize that, despite the seemingly infinite amount of music available on iTunes, there is a lot on vinyl that never made it to CD.”
As rewarding as it is for these musicians to share their knowledge, it’s equally gratifying to witness its impact on the dancers. “I have noticed such a difference,” Solari says. And his dance department colleagues agree. “They tell me how differently the dancers are working as their knowledge of music has been raised,” he says. DT
Alyssa Schoeneman is pursuing a BFA in dance at The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She recently completed a communications internship at the American Dance Festival.
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