How to best work with a live accompanist

Accompanist Della Enns in class at Cincinnati Ballet

In this age of iPods and CD players, it can be easy to forget about the joys of working with an accompanist. Having a live musician in class offers a chance to enhance students’ musicality—and for teacher and accompanist to create a true partnership.

But not all teachers know how to take advantage of that opportunity; they forget that accompanists can be more than just background music. Just as a dancer has to put her faith into her partner, teachers and accompanists must trust that the other is committed to creating an exhilarating classroom experience. The following advice can help you avoid common pitfalls and build a creative, fulfilling environment for your students.

Staying in Tune

Communication and respect are the key ingredients to a productive teacher-accompanist relationship. “One day, my drummer, whom I used to introduce to the kids as Mr. Grant, pulled me aside and told me he preferred to be called Brother Sean,” says Andrea Markus, who teaches African-based modern dance at New York University. “I was glad that he felt comfortable enough to tell me that.” The simple change made both of them feel more at ease in class.

Be sure to let the accompanist know what you need, too. “Many teachers are reluctant to communicate because they are not used to working with accompanists,” says Della Enns, an accompanist with the Cincinnati Ballet for the last 13 years. “Don’t be afraid to tell us what you like and don’t like.”

Otis Gray, an accompanist with Dallas Ballet Center in Dallas, Texas, and the Chamberlain School of Performing Arts in Plano, TX, adds that teachers sometimes need to be patient with accompanists.

“There is really no place for musicians to train for playing in dance class,” Gray says.

Sometimes teachers are insecure about working with accompanists because teachers’ musical knowledge is limited. Enns suggests that, if possible, teachers take an introductory music theory course at a local community college. Knowing some music basics can help both your relationship with your accompanist and your teaching in general, since music is the root of most dance. But if you’re unsure about how many measures are in a phrase or what tempo you want, accompanists recommend singing out loud before beginning an exercise. “Singing is the best way for teachers to communicate music when they are unsure about what they want,” says Jay Harragin, music coordinator for the New World School of the Arts in Miami.

Building Students’ Musicality

One of the greatest benefits of working with live accompanists is that they can help young dancers hone their musical skills. But teachers should be sure not to stand in the way of that process.

“Counting out loud during an exercise, while usually intended to increase clarity and energy, is actually destructive in several ways,” says Robert Benford, associate professor and music director for the Rutgers University dance department in New Jersey. “It represents a missed opportunity to increase the dancers’ abilities to perceive challenging rhythms in music and respond to them deeply. Also, when the instructor is clapping, she’s really functioning as the prime accompanist, with the musician reduced to the role of supporting the instructor’s voice with background music.”

Benford suggests that there be at least one exercise where the instrumental music and the movement are allowed to flourish with no comments added from the instructor. “In these moments, you can let the music carry the dancers away, and vice versa,” Benford says. During the center adagio, for example, hold all your comments and corrections until the end of the exercise, allowing the students to get lost in the music.

“Today, music seems to be all about simple, heavy beats,” Harragin says. “It’s easy for people to lose their sense of lyricism.” That’s a trend teachers can sometimes unintentionally perpetuate.

“Frequently, teachers ask me for uncomplicated, repetitive meters and tempos,” Benford says. “That prevents dance students from fully engaging in the subject of rhythm.” Instead, work with your accompanist to draw out the more nuanced sides of your students’ budding musicality, by occasionally requesting tempo and style changes that force students to adapt their movement to what they are hearing.

“When you’re planning your class, make sure you include the accompanist in the plan,” Markus says. Once a true bond between teacher and accompanist is formed, the dynamics of the class change. “When the musician and the teacher are both enjoying what they are doing, the kids really pick up on that energy and it shows on their faces and in their movement,” Markus says.

“If everything goes right,” Harrigan says, “you can have a wonderful experience that can move everyone in the class to a higher artistic level.” DT

 

Katie Morris is a freelance writer and dance teacher based in Dallas.

Photo: Accompanist Della Enns in class at Cincinnati Ballet. (courtesy of Cincinnati Ballet)

The Conversation
Dance Teachers Trending
Photo by Quinn Wharton, courtesy of Forance

While Teddy Forance admits that performing with commercial artists like Lady Gaga and Madonna, and in front of 30,000 people, is exhilarating, he is personally drawn to more abstract music when he choreographs. It's a preference that sometimes confounds his contemporaries. "Some of my friends will ask, 'How do you choreograph to music that sounds like silverware fighting?'" he says. "I just tell them one sound at a time," he says.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Dance Teacher Web
Courtesy Dance Teacher Web

Dance students aren't the only ones who get to spend their summers learning new skills and refining their dance practice. Studio owners and administrators can also use the summer months to scope out new curriculum ideas, learn the latest business strategies and even earn a certification or two.

At Dance Teacher Web's Conference and Expo, attendees will spend July 29–August 1 in Las Vegas, Nevada learning everything from new teaching methods to studio management software. And as if the dance and business seminars weren't enough, participants can also choose from three certifications to earn during the conference to help expand their expertise, generate new revenue and set their studios apart:

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teachers Trending
Photo by Julianna D. Photography, courtesy of Abreu

Although Rudy Abreu is currently JLo's backup dancer and an award-winning choreographer—his piece "Pray" tied for second runner-up at the 2018 Capezio A.C.E. Awards, and a variation of the piece made it to the finals on NBC's "World of Dance"—he still finds time to teach. Especially about how he hears music.

Keep reading... Show less
David Galindo Photography

New York City is a dream destination for many dancers. However aspiring Broadway stars don't have to wait until they're pros to experience all the city has to offer. With Dance the World Broadway, students can get a taste of the Big Apple—plus hone their dance skills and make lasting memories.

Here's why Dance the World Broadway is the best way for students to experience NYC:

Keep reading... Show less
Getty Images

Q: Our dancers' parents want to observe class, but students won't focus if I let them in the room. I've tried having them observe the last 10 minutes of class, but even that can be disruptive and bring the dancers' progress to a halt. Do you have any advice on how to handle this?

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Getty Images

James Payne, director of The School of Pennsylvania Ballet, starts class each day by asking students how they feel. "If they're collectively hurting, and I know that the day before they were working hard on something new, I might lessen the intensity of the class," he says. "I won't slow it down, though. Sometimes it's better to move through the aches and get to the other side."

A productive class depends, in part, on how well it is paced. If you move too slow, you risk losing students' interest and creating unwanted heaviness. Move too fast and dancers might not fully benefit from combinations or get sufficiently warm, increasing their risk of injury. But even these guidelines may differ depending on the students' age and level. Good pacing is a delicate balance that can facilitate mental and physical growth, but it requires good planning, close observation and the ability to adapt mid-class.

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Owners
Getty Images

Running your own studio often comes with a pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps mentality. After all, you're the one who teaches class, creates choreography, collects tuition, plans a recital, calls parents, answers e-mails, orders costumes—plus a host of other tasks, some of which you probably don't even think about. But what if you had someone to help you, someone who could take certain routine or clerical tasks off your hands, freeing you up to focus on what you love?

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teachers Trending
Derek and Julianne Hough via @juleshough on Instagram

Here at Dance Teacher, we LOVE a talented dance family. Something about parents and siblings passing their passion for dance down to those who come after them just warms our hearts.

While there are many sets of talented siblings across all genres of dance, ballroom seems to be particularly booming with them.

Don't believe us? Check out these four sets of ballrooms siblings we can't take our eyes off of. Their parents have raised them right!

This is far from a comprehensive list, so feel free to share your favorite sets of dance siblings over in our comments!

Keep reading... Show less
Courtesy of Roxey Ballet

This weekend, Roxey Ballet presented a sensory-friendly production of Cinderella at the Kendell Main Stage Theater in Ewing, New Jersey, with sound adjustments, a relaxed house environment and volunteers present to assist audience members with special needs. The production came on the heels of three educational residencies held at New Jersey–based elementary schools in honor of Autism Awareness Month in April.

Keep reading... Show less
To Share With Students
Shared via Dance Teacher Network Facebook

I'm a part of a popular group on Facebook called Dance Teacher Network which consists of dance teachers across the country discussing and sharing information on all things dance. Yesterday morning, I spotted a photo shared in the group of four smiling young boys in a dance studio. And I couldn't help but smile to myself and think, "Wow, I never had that...that's pretty damn amazing."

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teachers Trending
Photo courtesy of Marr

When Erica Marr discovered ballroom dancing in her late teens, she instantly fell in love with the Latin beats and strong drum lines that challenged her musicality. After shifting her focus away from contemporary and jazz, she began studying with elite ballroom coaches in New York City and quickly earned a World Championship title in her division.

Keep reading... Show less

mailbox

Get DanceTeacher in your inbox