Teaching Tips

Kelby Brown's Music Choices for Class Were Influenced by His Teachers

Kelby Brown in class. Photo by Chris Coates, courtesy of Brown

Teaching artist Kelby Brown prefers simple piano accompaniment with long sustaining chords. He finds this helps dancers to concentrate and fill in the space with the steps. "I need fewer notes, less music," he says. It's an approach he learned from his teachers at the School of American Ballet, like Stanley Williams, and from his longtime beloved accompanist, Alla. "Her music in Stanley's class was meditative and transforming to me," says Brown, who recalls she used music as a metronome that provided a steady beat and simple chords without imposing too much. "The dancer needs to figure out the music and how to dance within a phrase," he says.

As a performer, Brown has danced with The Metropolitan Opera, Ballet Chicago and Pacific Northwest Ballet. He's danced beside Lady Gaga, Usher and Madonna, and with Celine Dion's A New Day and Cirque du Soleil's Mystère in Las Vegas. Despite this versatility, as a ballet teacher Brown, who is certified in the American Ballet Theatre National Training Curriculum, adheres to a classical pedagogy, occasionally mixing up his music selection. In New York City, he teaches at Pace University and The Ailey School.

If he's choreographing a contemporary ballet piece for a company or a competition studio, Brown is drawn to artists like Max Richter or Ólafur Arnalds. "Once in a while, I might treat dancers to a pop song," he says, "and by once in a while, I mean once a year." He might teach a combination with a contemporary flair to work on expression, but he doesn't recommend using commercial songs in ballet class. "Traditional ballet music can seem rigid, but it's part of the discipline," he says. "It trains the dancer to bring life to the movement."

Artist: Lisa Harris

Album: Let's Dance

"For teaching classes on Zoom, I have my go-to recordings. Lisa's an accompanist for SAB and has some great traditional music, but also plays Broadway standards."

Artist: Nancy McDill

Album: Music for Ballet Class with Suki Schorer

"McDill is another pianist who's played for SAB and New York City Ballet and is a staple when I use recorded music. Her music captures that simplicity I like that gives dancers a guide."

Artist: Ólafur Arnalds

Album: Found Songs

Song: "Faun"

"All of Arnalds' music is great for contemporary ballet. The strings in this particular song are sorrowful and chilling. It's like musical therapy for me. You have to surrender to the music."

Artist: Max Richter

Album: Memoryhouse

Song: "Sarajevo"

"I choreographed a piece to this. It's heavy, emotional, and puts you in a trance. It gives the dancers everything they need."

Artist: Nicholas Britell

Album: If Beale Street Could Talk

"I've used 'Eden' and 'Agape' from this album for choreography. The sounds are primitive and soulful, and it creates this sensory excitability. I see running through fields! The whole album is beautiful."

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