How to best work with a live accompanist
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,” Harragin says, “you can have a wonderful experience that can move everyone in the class to a higher artistic level.”
Katie Dravenstott is a freelance writer and dance teacher based in Dallas.
This piece was first published in the September 2010 issue of Dance Teacher magazine.