Archives for posts with tag: dance

Next week I am going to be accompanying the Contemporary Classes at the Prix de Lausanne which I have done this last fifteen years (with one or two exceptions). It is one of the worlds foremost ballet competitions,  here`s a link to it


In recent years they usually film many aspects of the contest ( blogs etc.)for the internet and `dub` music over the clips……..Although the filming is pretty good,  this year I intend to film  and finally have a record of myself playing class…Of course, I will not be able to film any of the dancers etc. but you can view them on the web site.

Here`s a blog following Philip Handschin from a previous year who now dancers with Ballet am Rhein, there`s even a few notes of mine here and there to be heard !


Paul Pavey ` wolf instruments`` Visual and Aural Counterpoint `. In Part 1, the previous blog, I covered my approach to commencing a dance improvisation class. This is the continuation where I will attempt to write about the use of counterpoint between what you see and what you hear.

Whereas in a technique class, the musical accompaniment  supports and follows the movement sequence, in an improvisation class the music may take on a compositional aspect. I always look for opportunities to play some `visual and aural counterpoint` which may increase the effect and experience of any given situation. For example; open atmospheric sounds against fast frenzied movement or happy and jolly musical themes against melancholy or aggressive movement.

Only using counterpoint may prove less effective than if it is used after a period where the music has followed either movement or a narrative. Counterpoint is neither easily understood by  children or inexperienced dancers/ performers and can lead to confusion. I would usually avoid it when playing for  those type of classes.

Here is a clip of Foofwa d’Imobilité interviewing Merce Cunningham discussing a point that music and dance do not always noticeably `fit` together and how and possibly why an audience is now accepting of that.

I think that aural and visual counterpoint increases the effect upon a third party/ audience providing it is used with purpose.  Definitely an effective tool in the creative box!

There may  be  an exercise during  a dance class or indeed an entire class dedicated to movement improvisation. Here are some ways that I approach music for this environment.

Possibly, whoever is leading the improvisation may give  a specific musical direction for  the music.

Quite often, the dancers are given a brief form of direction and the musician is then asked to `play when ready`.  My first response in this case, is to wait and  envelope the ambience of the room listening to the general environment for sounds. It is a very rare occasion that you will ever find silence (don`t think I ever have). I usually begin to play quietly and attempt to blend with the environmental sound scape attempting not to affect any one particular person in the space. Whatever the instrumentation, I am looking to create as varied a timbre as possible.

I may react and make a dialogue with any one of the environmental sounds and have found that this  opens  the ears and encourages sensitivity,  inspiring  fellow protagonists to create their movement from yet another dimension.

This clip shows Michael Schumacher in the process of developing a student choreography,  a fantastic performer, choreographer and teacher of Improvisation.

To be continued.

There may not be so much to play for the warm down of a dance class. If it is the first class working together with a teacher then  look for signs of how much or rather how little music there needs to be.  I would usually play this part of a class as calm as possible. It  depends upon how the class has gone and what mood  everyone is in ( as an accompanist, you need to have a sense of the general mood swings of your fellow protagonists). If the mood appears quite clinical with a simple stretching exercise, a straight forward calm piece of music will do fine. If  however, everyone in the class has just `given it their all` then it may be appropriate for the music to take a slightly emotive direction.

  Here are some instruments I use for accompanying a dance class.

Given  the underlying beat, phrasing and atmosphere have now been covered in previous blogs, the important aspect  to grasp playing for jumps and travel exercises is  Impulse.

While a clear downbeat needs to be played, very often it`s the upbeats that are the impulse for  jumps. Syncopated upbeats work well though not  played in a heavy manner.

It is very important when playing for jumps not to watch  or listen to the thuds  of the dancers ( sorry, did I say `thuds`.. I meant sounds..) otherwise keeping the tempo will be a struggle. I keep the meter buzzing in my head and in my body while playing, if  I`m still having difficulty holding on to the beat then I  sing to myself (occasionally to the entire class).

Travelling exercises (dancers moving across the floor) need to have a driving feel, not racing car style, just confident and  motivating. As in jumps, do not  play in a heavy manner but rather in a percussive style with  clear uncomplicated rhythms (what ever the instrument of choice). I do fall into the trap myself sometimes and forget that it`s not a percussion solo with unnecessary complex patterns. Getting a nice-`groove`(dance-feel) to the music makes all the difference. Do watch the dancers  in travel exercises and check that they are not `chasing the beat` or falling behind the music, keep a nice steady driving groove with nothing too decorative in the melody.

`Support` is a key word as far as  musical accompaniment goes, especially for the center exercises of a dance class. Here the dancer is building strength while working at both core stability and flexibility requiring  secure musical accompaniment.

Given that the  correct meter and underlying rhythm for the exercise is known (guidelines found in the previous blog), it is then important to gauge the amount of  lightness or heaviness that each exercise requires within the music. This may well be determined from the voice of the teacher as they show the exercise or deliver the introduction.  Here are a few rules of thumb (avoiding dance and music terminology where possible) that I generally apply when figuring out what to play for an exercise in the center.

exercises focusing on feet:  Music that is light and precise with clear rhythms. Avoid using too many notes or complicated cross-rhythms.

exercises with lunging movements:  Music that has a good strong downbeat with both lighter and driving recovery beats.

balancing exercises (legs in the air etc.):   Music with a steady and continuous  rhythmical  pattern.  A simple melody can help to `ease the dancers strain` over a full, rich harmonic progression (though not too heavy-handed).

floor rolling exercises:  Keep a clear beat to the music.  A drawn-out swing beat works well as it has both an underlying 2 and  3 within its  rhythm.  Not too loud and more harmonic than melodic in approach.

leg and body swing exercises:   Music that has both a driving upbeat feel and a strong downbeat. The upbeats can be slightly syncopated.

twist and tilt exercises:  Music that has a good clear beat and a supportive  continuous rhythmical pattern.

It is worth remembering that while music for a dance class exercise  is not a composition, it is  a piece of music that someone is both listening  and dancing to.  So, once you have figured out the underlying rhythm and tempo, the meter, the phrasing, the atmosphere and how many times the movement will repeat, enjoy it!

Usually a dance class commences in a calm manner,  likewise the music should also. As  the musician watches the teacher `marking through` an exercise it`s important at this stage to determine if the underlying rhythm is a 2 or a 3, (regardless  of  the  movement phrasing which thus determines the overall musical phrasing). The smallest division of beats break down to either 2`s  or 3`s  or combinations thereof  (I only ever count in  very fast 1`s occasionally playing Eastern European music). There you have your underlying rhythm for the exercise.

Now give attention to the phrasing. Watching the dancers `mark through` an exercise while listening to the  teacher, helps an accompanist grasp the phrasing,  feel and atmosphere of the music.  It`s always worth watching the movement (just in case you get lost, which happens sometimes in long phrases), so you will know when the exercise has finished. Ideally, an accompanist  plans how many musical phrases one has to work within  to help create a rounded piece of music. Quite often, an exercise will repeat as  dancers take the movement to  the opposite side or  different positions and it is a good idea to develop the music slightly with each repeat.

In a modern/contemporary class, the teacher usually counts in (or down) the exercise (this is called an introduction). It helps when the spoken introduction  is in the correct tempo and rhythm and here, I also feel the general atmosphere for the music from the tone of  the teacher`s  voice. It does not always work out as clearly as one would like so a musician must be ready for subtle tempo changes when the exercise starts.  Like in many situations, it`s important to build a relationship with the people you work with to gain understanding and trust. If something is unclear, just communicate in simple terms until it becomes clear what music is needed. (I will make a list of basic dance terminology that a musician is going to hear in  class later).

Sustained melody and comfortable supportive rhythm is a good basis for approach to music in the warm-up and I would advise nothing too discordant in the harmony either. Providing a clear downbeat is essential, especially for younger dancers or if you are unfamiliar with the teacher. Work within the boundaries of each exercise and make music!

As a musician for dance, you must understand the need, purpose and function of a dance class. Here I am attempting to give the general environment that you may well experience from a contemporary class.

Essentially, a dancer takes a class in order  to develop the body and mind enabling them to perform incredible athletic feats or subtle movements while at the same time not becoming a broken wreck (over the last 30 years so much more care has gone into developing  dancers training, allowing  an increased work span and much less injury). A standard class usually has  warm up exercises, centering exercises which lead to small jumps, movement across the floor and more jumps. Other class exercises that a musician may play for include choreographic sequences, improvisation and a warm down (I will cover these elements singularly in due course). A class is usually around one and half hours.

A musician has to ‘work out’ what music suits a teacher best on the first few classes working together, attempting to build a relationship of mutual taste towards the music.You should be able to communicate with spoken word, occasionally it is necessary to judge from the body language of the teacher if they enjoy the music you play or not. There are three elements or protagonists within a class situation, Teacher, dancers and accompanist.  It`s the musician`s ( accompanist) job to give the rhythm and atmosphere that the teacher requires in order to communicate their lesson to the dancers. Usually, I find when that works the dancers enjoy the class and can give more focus to their bodies.

There are four main class based techniques ( contemporary dance) for which each require a completely different approach to the musical accompaniment style. That is not to say there are no other movement techniques that have  developed, but these really are the main four used to describe class style. Many teaches these days are combining ideas from different techniques and styles to suit their own work and doctrine towards a dancers health.

Graham Technique : a passionate, spiritual and physically strong technique based on the original method developed by Martha Graham ( see ).

Cunningham Technique : an architectural style of movement through space developed by Merce Cunningham ( see ).

Limon Technique : developed upon the work of Jose Limon this technique demands  the use of gravity, weight and energy ( see ).

Release Technique : uses breath and fluid movement to minimise muscle tension and many exercises associate with therapeutic movement research ( see a great British exponent of this work ).

The adjectives used above for the movement styles can also be applied to describe the musical style of accompaniment. I will go further into describing my thoughts and experience on playing for these different techniques in later blogs.

The basic prerequisite to accompany a contemporary dance class is to have a decent level of technical competence with ones chosen instrument (or instruments) and to be sensitive to the fellow protagonists i.e. the dance teacher and dancers taking the class.  An awareness of the space where the class is held is very important and it is essential to use the acoustic of the dance studio to regulate the dynamic and amount of musical sustain used for certain dance exercises.

As the musician is quite often in a corner of the studio, one should take care not to be playing louder than the teacher is talking. Equally, one does not want to be too quiet so that the dancers find it hard to feel the music. I use the word `feel` because sometimes music for class can have a lot of space to it.  For example, leaving gaps between musical phrases can really take the dancer deeper into feeling the movement, but this should be done only when the teacher and dancers have competence and confidence with the musicality of the exercise.  Otherwise,  everyone loses the beat and confuses the movement, looks over at the musician….occasionally funny, but usually not.

As far as instrumentation goes, a contemporary class may be played by an experienced accompanist on virtually any instrument ( and I of course include the voice in this category). Although, I do find that certain teachers have preferences towards certain instrumentation and style of music.

Instruments that give a choice of dynamic and sustain are very useful as it is necessary to play a range of styles from smooth (legato) to choppy (staccato) and at varying levels of volume (dynamics). A piano has an excellent range of choice, a guitar also. Within a collection of percussion instruments, there should be an instrument that can sound a sustained note. Likewise, a range of timbre i.e. some low sounds, some high sounds, some soft, some hard etc., are essential. One should also consider how to carry the instruments from class to class, studio to studio as time between classes may be limited. Whatever the choice of instrumentation, I recommend to add Indian ankle bells or something similar to help keep the beat `ticking along`.

What I am about to write is off the top of my head and as much as I can remember from the facts. It’s certainly a close enough version of the truth to give you an idea.  I would recommend that  you dig around on the net should you require absolute accuracy with dates.

Robert Cohen, an ex-principle dancer from the Martha Graham company, with the financial support of Robin Howard, formed London Contemporary Dance Theatre School ( the PLACE) in 1966.  They placed an advert in the Evening Standard, a London newspaper, looking for any pianist that might be interested in playing for a contemporary dance class (I believe they may even have advertised nationally). There was  one single response by a woman called Judyth Knight who had previous experience in playing for church and arranging music for choirs.  She attended the Graham studios, New York, to gain some knowledge of class playing and then continued to play and manage the accompanists at the PLACE  for many years. Apparently, although I have never found them, she  notated two books on how to play for a Graham Class and composed music for at least one choreography. I think its fair to say that any dance student, teacher or fellow accompanist that ever came across Judyth, was left with a lasting impression!

I should mention that a very important British company and school, Ballet Rambert, although founded in the 1920`s, started to change from classical repertoire to more contemporary choreographies in the 1960`s and they have always performed and work with live music. Many other companies and schools began to immerge from the 1970`s  and this led to a need for more musicians who could play with an understanding for dance. There were ballet pianists who turned their hand to play for modern class and pianists, guitarists and percussionists  were able to find work playing for a contemporary class.

I think the height of popular demand, as far as Contemporary Dance goes, was  during the 80’s where companies were performing everywhere to full theatres. Nowadays, there are fewer supported companies but dance schools always have a contemporary dance programme and so there does remain work for an accompanist.

here is a  clip of the late Judyth Knight  playing for a class of very early dance technique