I always considered myself pretty musical, so I was chagrined when my musician husband, early on in our relationship after watching a dance rehearsal of mine, leaned over and said to me, “What the heck are you counting?”
Ask any musician who has worked with dancers what the biggest hurdle is for an accompanist, and they are likely to say communication. Dance teachers may know instinctively what they want for a combination or piece of choreography, but translating that so an accompanist will immediately comprehend it, especially if you don’t have musical training, can be a challenge. Even in the age of iTunes, dance professionals recognize that working with live music can be rewarding and even exhilarating both for the dancers and the musicians. Yet it can be daunting to put in a musical request to an accompanist when you don’t necessarily speak the same language.
“The teacher gives the feeling of the exercise, the accents, the tempos, when he or she demonstrates,” says Carl Landa, who’s accompanied dance full-time since 1996. “I try to let the students hear that in a spontaneous musical environment.”
As a faculty member and accompanist at Skidmore College, Landa not only plays for modern classes, but also composes scores for students, faculty and guest choreographers. He started playing for dance by accident in college, when a teacher who had seen him in concert convinced him to fill in for a missing pianist. “She went ‘5-6-7-8,’ and as soon as I played, I could see the music lifted what they were doing to a whole new place.”
Worry less about vocabulary and more about rhythmic intent.
“For me the most important thing is the rhythmic clarity and communicating what tempo you want,” says Patrick Gallagher, a classically trained pianist and accompanist at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, Ballet Tech and Mark Morris Dance Group and Dance Center. “It’s easiest when the teacher can show the rhythmic intent of a step, either by singing it or demonstrating.”
Gallagher, who collaborated with New York City–based teacher Matthew Powell on a DVD/CD production about classical ballet called Find Your Fifth, notes that teachers can sometimes feel apprehensive about using the correct musical terms.
“Make it simple. Is it a triple or a duple meter? That’s the crux of things,” he says. “I know teachers are often self-conscious about this, but I describe it as deciding if you want an exercise to have a generous triple or a slightly more urgent duple feeling. Once a musician knows that, then there’s a lot of wisdom and experience they can rely on. Instead of getting into counts or meters, I like to ask what is the pulse? Does it feel swing-y, or do you want it to feel more square or rigid? For instance, in grand battement, some people like a duple meter, while others like the swing of a triple meter.”
Beyond giving the count
Specific imagery can be helpful for an accompanist who is trying to set the mood along with establishing a rhythm and tempo. “‘I want something dark and sparse,’ for example,” says Landa. “I love it when a teacher gives me a metaphor, like ‘running through a field of daisies.’”
Gallagher adds, “And if you don’t like something, it’s important to identify why you don’t like it, of course in a respectful way, always understanding that the musician is scrambling to come up with an alternative. We need to know why you didn’t like it, so we don’t make the same mistake again.”
San Francisco–based composer and musician Albert Mathias has worked for 20 years with postmodern dancer and choreographer Kathleen Hermesdorf. They met in 1995 in the well-known San Francisco dance collective Contraband and have evolved together as they developed their classes. Mathias explains that, although the relationship of teacher and accompanist is often based on the teacher leading by requesting certain rhythms and counting off a combination, he and Hermesdorf created a more collaborative method in which he creates music that continues throughout the class, with no pauses, relieving her of the responsibility of dictating counts.
More than “that person in the corner”
Knowing what a teacher likes to hear—I really enjoy opera—or doesn’t like—no drums, please—enables Mathias, whose musical setup is usually a combination of a laptop drumkat and Zendrum, to create a sound environment that fits what the teacher is trying to achieve.
“I know what Kathleen likes, and I try to inspire her,” he says. “It’s more important in a way to inspire the teacher than the students, because when she is inspired, the rest of the room will follow.”
From Mathias’ point of view, the accompanist can shape how effective the teacher is in the classroom. Experienced accompanists are also keen observers with one eye on the teacher for cues and the other on the students. Because they don’t have to focus on any particular individual student, they can often have a very objective sense of the overall wash of energy in the room, as Mathias puts it.
“We both have the common focus of trying to make what’s happening in the room better, and the more the accompanist understands what a teacher is trying to do, the more focused it becomes,” says Mathias.
For that to work, though, it’s key to allow the accompanist to be more than “that person in the corner.”
“The teacher must respect that there is live music being created and not talk over or give a ‘play-by-play’ during the exercise,” says Landa. “Some teachers get used to treating a CD as music to constantly talk over. When the music is live, how can the dancers possibly internalize the sound when the teacher talks? The dancer gets out on the stage to perform and has no idea how to internalize it when the teacher is not talking.” DT
Mary Ellen Hunt is a former dancer, now dance teacher and arts writer, based in San Francisco.
Photos from top: Thinkstock; by Kyle Froman; Yvonne M. Portra, courtesy of ALTERNATIVA