What Your Accompanist Wishes You Knew

June 25, 2017

Live music is an essential part of any dance class. But aside from a polite “thank you” afterwards, dancers—and teachers—often don’t give enough thought to the musician who’s making the magic happen.

I worked as a dance musician for over three decades, and was fortunate to play for some of the field’s greatest artists. I now teach musicians how to play for ballet, modern and contemporary dance in my Accompanying Movement class at the University of Michigan.

I train my students to know the ins and outs of dance classes of varying styles. In return, we sometimes wish our collaborative partners understood more about what we bring to the studio:

1. Don’t feel like you have to use music vocabulary to describe what you want us to play. We want to get to the combination as much as you do, so don’t feel you need to show us “what you know” about music. Sing, hum, or demonstrate what you want. We can manage the rest.

2. If a musician comes in with additional instruments, be patient and give yourself and your students the opportunity to work with different musical colors and textures. Remember, Petipa set his ballets to the accompaniment of one or two violins, not a piano.

3. Tell us how you like your preparations played. Do you want two counts or four counts? Do you prefer silence? Do you nod to the musician to start, or do they come in with your counts? The options are endless, and the more we know, the more confidently we can play.

4. If you are setting choreography, please don’t give us a recording and ask us to “play it just like this.” It is impossible to play like a recording, and if you want us to sound like a recording, use the recording. Realize that working with a live musician can provide you with more possibilities for how you can work with the music.

5. Don’t use the piano as an ad hoc desk. I teach my students appropriate studio etiquette. They will not wear shoes in your studio, talk while you are teaching or leave their belongings lying about. Show them the same courtesy.

6. Know that no musician is an expert in everything. An excellent improviser may have no idea how to accompany a pas de deux. A veteran ballet pianist may not know how to create an electronic score. Ask us if we can “play in style x.” If we can’t, we may be able to help you find someone who can.

7. If we are new to your class, be patient until we get a handle on your individual style. Let us know what you like and don’t like to hear in class. We want to make this work as much as you do.