Tag Archives: dynamics

Young beautiful dancer in beige swimwear dancing on lilac background

Developing My Creative Practice: Cunningham Technique

The first part of my DYCP activity kicked off with learning  about the Cunningham dance style from Rosie Price  at the Kings’ International Ballet Academy. And quite a shock to the system it was! After 15 years of being a ballet musician and tailoring my music to fit the dynamics of the steps, the Cunningham aesthetics challenged most of what I knew about music for dance:

…”counting is an aid toward freedom, rather than a discipline towards mechanization. A use of time-structure also frees the music into space, making the connection between the dance and the music one of individual autonomy connected at structural points. The result is the dance is free to act as it chooses, as is the music. The music doesn’t have to work itself to death to underline the dance, or the dance create havoc in trying to be as flashy as the music.”  Merce Cunningham (Space, Time and Dance - Trans/Formations 1, pp. 150-151, Wittenborn & Co, 1952)

Yes, Merce is giving dance musicians a carte blanche. No pre-conceptions for mood or dance dynamics needed, only some co-incidence of tempo and counts. Dancers were challenged to jump, create sharp accents or fluid movements often without the aid of musical support - a polar opposite to the relationship between movement and music in ballet.

I have spent some time over the years collating ideas that dancers and dance teachers have about what they consider to be suitable music for contemporary dance class. These range included:

- something totally different to what you hear in ballet class

- NO tunes

- some tunes are OK

- I don’t want to feel like I’m doing ballet.

As a musician, this used to stump me.  Being at Kings, I made more progress in simply by learning about the Cunningham aesthetic itself and not worrying about the genre of music used. According to Cunningham, ANY genre of music was fair game  and therefore usable – but every dancer  / teacher / choreographer will have their personal preferences. In Merce’s own words:  “I don’t care what you play as long as the rhythm and phrase …is clear”

My 2022 New Year’s resolution is to spend 20 mins every Monday watching a video from this very useful series “Mondays With Merce”Video #5: Company Class  has helpful takeaways to dispel myths about what music is suitable for Cunningham class and we get to hear from both Merce Cunningham himself as well as Pat Richter, his long-time pianist.

For those who are interested there are some enlightening articles about Cunningham Technique on Merce Cunningham Trust website.




Things which made significant development to my development as a dance musician: Vocal accompaniment

There are a great deal of parallels between being a dance accompanist and a vocal accompanist. Both dance and the voice use the body as expressive instruments. Substitute choreography for words and the differences between singers and dancers start to narrow. Having a basic vocabulary of dance steps would be the equivalent of having a working knowledge of French phonetics or German diction.

Before becoming involved in the ballet world, I worked as a vocal accompanist and spent much time accompanying singers in French Song, Lieder, or Italian arias. As I was born and bred in Malaysia , European languages were not what I left school with. I spoke a basic Cantonese by virtue of being born into a Chinese family, had passable Bahasa Malaysia from being schooled in the national language, and thanks to books and American TV had decent English  as well.

So, when I started accompanying singers as a young student at music college, there was a very steep learning curve for me to add French and German to my repertoire. Mind you, there was no need to rapidly become a  fluent speaker, but it was expected for  serious vocal accompanists to have a working  knowledge of various languages and the ability to coach singers in those languages. For example, a good accompanist would be well equipped with an arsenal in the form of German, French, and Italian phonetics as well as an understanding of vocal technique.

As well as learning the accompaniment to a song or aria, the best  accompanists would  also study the text of the songs , translate if necessary, anticipate where to allow time for tricky words/ breaths, or anticipate any technical needs which might arise from singers needing to use the chest voice , perhaps, or to float a high note – all the kinds of considerations which have nothing to do with playing the piano but had everything to do with being a specialist in vocal accompaniment.

So for me, it was not too great a transition to make from accompanying singers to working with dancers. I fell back into the habit of ‘getting to know the text’. It wasn’t a strange thing to be told by my mentors at Scottish Ballet was that I needed to understand  the dynamics of dance steps.

One of the things  I picked up on during my year at SB  was the importance of having rehearsal marks in the musical score.  Simply being able to follow what the dancers were doing was like being able to follow the of plot of Strauss’s  lieder Für Fnfzehn Pfennige and allow a little time for different emphatic pronouncements of ‘für fünfzehn pfennige’  (not always marked in the score how one should do this, but it comes with an understanding of the text and working in partnership with the singer). So when dancers say the music for their solo variation is too fast, they might mean that they don’t have time to properly articulate their footwork /do five pirouettes/ hold an arabesque at a particular point in their solo. Just because choreography isn’t notated in a way which is readily understood by most musicians, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t offer less  artistic support .

Lucia Popp singing “Für fünfzehn Pfennige” R. Strauss



No marks – Part 2: Adage

In  my previous post, I mentioned that it was usually warm up/plié that were exercises which were frequently unmarked. WRONG! Shortly after writing that article, I played for two classes with hardly any marking from the teacher. A bit of finagling got me through the classes, but I ran into trouble with the adage.

In these situations, I aim to be like a plumber with a toolbox – not knowing what tools you need for the job, one must be prepared with a selection of the most commonly used ones. A single adjustable wrench can be far more useful than a few of fixed sizes.

With no choreography to help me choose music, I whipped out my ‘adjustable wrench’: a bog-standard  nice adage tune  of medium tempo,   suitably useful harmonic progressions to support a variety of muscular tension and releases, …..AND one which I could play in different keys! (Never underestimate the importance of this. An unseen adage could go on for 32 counts on each side. If you pick a tune that is only 16 counts long and have to carry on for a total of 64, the fourth repetition of the same tune in the same key will have dulled dancing ears and minds, and feel heavy. Horror of horrors, what if there is a second group straightaway after the first…)

It didn’t work.

As I played, I could see that the choreography called for an interesting variety of sharp and strong dynamics set as highlights amongst the usual soft movements.  My adage music (a barcarolle-like tune) was like a gentle creature of no great convictions. What was needed was more along the lines of a charismatic revolutionary with rousing oratorical skills. I changed the music to Monti’s Czardas and things finally fell into place.

Teachers frequently set steps purely from a technical point of view without reference to any particular music. They then ask for a piece of adage music in the hope that what they’ve set fits the dynamics suggested by the music . As Tamara Rojo said in the recent BBC documentary ‘Good Swan, Bad Swan: Dancing Swan Lake’- both Odile and Odette do arabesque and pirouettes. It is HOW the steps are done that differentiates one character from the other. (Perhaps another reason to practice stronger port de bras if nurturing potential Odiles…..). In this case, the same adage exercise done every day to different pieces of music should be an invaluable way to develop the dancers’ artistic responses. Vocational schools do this all the time by setting the exercise on Monday and then adding to it as the week goes on.

Other times, teachers want inspiration from music and wait to hear a musician’s offerings before setting a combination. If we know this to be the case, we musicians should rise to the challenge.  Try choosing music from different styles and eras. If you’ve already tried the usual Romantic era suspects like Quando m’en vo and O mio babbino caro, how about exploiting the stillness of the slow movement theme from Beethoven’s Pathetique Sonata, the nobly elegant qualities of Grieg’s Sarabande from Holberg Suite, or the improvisatory and exotic sound world of Bartok’s Buciumeana from  Roumanian Folk Dances?

Not all adage music are equal and there are finite amounts by which you can speed up/slow down a piece of music.  There will come a point when too much slowing down makes the music laboured and the thread of melody gets lost. Too much speeding up and dynamics/harmonic tension become ironed out of the texture. The essence of a particular piece of adage music often lies in its harmonic content. The ear needs time to perceive tensions/resolutions created by dissonances resolving to consonances. Most teachers do not know this and assume that they can simply ask for any piece of music, adjust tempi accordingly while the hapless pianist is in full-flow and then complain that the music doesn’t feel right.

Harriet Cavalli in her book Dance and Music mentions that if she is asked to play an adage before the teacher sets one, she usually asks “What size – gentle, medium, or huge?”  I love this idea so much and have adopted it.  If the teacher is distractedly trying to remember the combination, answering that simple question almost always tells me what dynamic is needed. Ms Cavalli also discusses adage and its related issues very effectively in the same book and I thoroughly recommend it as a very illuminating guide.


Is port de bras music always pretty?

So… I’ve got a burning question.  Why do teachers always ask for ‘pretty’ port de bras music? Why not …..mysterious? Or slinky?  Or regal? Or something with a bit of attitude? Is it the great British tradition of ‘soft arms’ at work here hence the call for ‘pretty’ music?  Fair enough, teachers may want to keep it simple when teaching the basics to young students, but for older students or experienced dancers would it not be more useful to have music which inspires an urge to interpret?

For me, ‘pretty’ says ‘nice but non-descript’.  Think nice tune and bland harmonies. Non-descript music is often the worst thing a musician can produce for class (mind you, bland flavours are often very useful as a contrast to over-rich Wagnerian harmonies, for example. Like a cool breeze after one emerges from a muggy hot house). We are called on to make music that urges dancers to stretch their feet more, plié more deeply, jump higher,  rap out sharper frappes.  Why not enrich our music to help them be more generous with a circular port de bras,  give them a poignant and sorrowful tune to help make ‘sighing’ arms, or something elegantly masculine for boys’ to help them practice princely arm gestures?

Last summer, I played for Ruth Brill’s women’s class at a summer school. She marked a port de bras exercise and was expecting a stereotypical nice adage tune.  However, I had been desperate to use an Indian Classical scale as a basis for improvisation since hearing one several years ago. So, I decided to go ahead with Plan A, committed myself to some Carnatic flavouring and hoped for the best. She was startled but used the music (phew, thanks Ruth!).  At the end Ruth said it made her think of the Arabian Dance from Nutcracker. She then asked the students to try it again, but this time to take on a personality that the music suggested to them. They did, and…wow!. By responding to the mood, she saw personalities emerge from the dancers that hadn’t been there before. They just came alive!

I wonder –  how often do inexperienced pianists watching class come to the conclusion that  port de bras music  should  just be pretty? For a long time, I did.  So long as the music helps dancers to create fluid carriage of the arms, let’s not stop at…pretty.

How I became a dance pianist – an introduction

Not that many years ago, I remember floundering in the pea soup of ballet steps that made up an enchaînement.  I had only started playing for dance because of a chance remark to a young pianist to whom I said “You’re so lucky to have the opportunity to play for ballet. I’ve always wanted to give it a go but never had the chance”. Next thing I knew, the ballet teacher for whom she worked needed another pianist and my number was passed on to her.

I spent a year playing for syllabus classes without having a clue about what made certain music suitable for particular steps.  The springy steps were the easiest to identify with – springy music, please!  Improvisation was also easy – something tinkly for fairies, heavy for elephants, and hoppy for frogs.  Beyond that….zilch.  Not  a clue  about what made rond de jambe music different from plié music, or what differentiated tendus from glisses.  Dynamics – what’s that?

Seven years later (after a gruelling year of training with Scottish Ballet, complete immersion in  vocational dance training courtesy of Elmhurst, and playing for anything and everything  dance-wise  that came my way), I am writing my very first blog about playing for dance.

These scribblings are not about THE way to play for dance. They are personal ideas and observations that I’ve made in the many hours spent in dance studios watching dancers at work. Some are not even my own ideas, but those of teachers and wiser dance musicians who generously shared their knowledge (due credit given). But I think it is important to write them down as there is so little information in the public domain about dance music and its practitioners. Very few dance musicians choose to explain their choices of music, or even to help out fellow pianists trying to improve their understanding of dance music.