Rhythm is a Dancer


Remember this wicked Hip-House tune? Nearly 21 years of age now. Can you believe that? Anyway, the reason I ended up thinking about this tune was the title. I have been finding more and more of late that I want to analyse what I do most days – namely, playing for ballet classes. How do I, and all other musicians for dance, end up playing what they do? How do they translate the information they get from dancers and teachers into something from which they can create music?

For me, pretty much the fundamental starting point is the rhythm. If possible I try and beat a rhythm quietly to myself as the teacher is setting or marking an exercise. Even when they are setting steps at a markedly different pace to that which is required I try and get the rhythm settled in my own head. As my experience and knowledge has increased over the years I find I am wrong much less often, but still, unless I am confident in what I am about to play things go awry. Obviously, tempo is intrinsically linked to rhythm, but the rhythm is pretty much always the starting point for me. If I get the rhythm right, the tempo, key, harmony and everything else follow on. Obviously some exercises and steps are more often than not set to the same rhythm (eg. a tango for fondus), but even then this rule of thumb applies. As long as the rhythm is strong and the overall “feel” of the piece is appropriate, you can play/improvise anything harmonically and melodically. I recorded a video for the RAD some months back where I used a whole tone scale as the basis for a frappé exercise. Yes, the whole tone scale was the important difference from a “standard” piece of music for frappé, but the rhythm was consistent with the exercise and the tempo somewhere between about 130-140 bpm. The rhythm was the foundation upon which to be more creative harmonically/modally.

The relationship between the teacher and the musician therfore can make a massive difference to what emenates from the piano in the corner. Pretty regularly teachers get stuck on one rhythm and use it as a crutch to hang their steps on, even though it is not what is required. I have been playing a lot of catchy 6/8s recently and find that after I’ve played it a number of teachers mark their next exercise to the same rhythm, even though it isn’t what they want. At this point you have to use your experience, intuition, what you will, to come up with right result. But teachers who are clear rhythmically, even if just for a bar or two before they speed up to get through setting the exercise more quickly, make the life of a musician so much easier. And by that I mean that they make it easy for a musician to be confident, to help inspire the dancers, and feel like an integral part of the class. Personally I like working hard, but I want to work hard at bringing life, joy, passion, great music and professionalism to a class, not trying to second guess things . That just never gets the best out of a musician.

As well as all this thinking there’s lots of listening been going on over here at chez Cycling Pianist. Click on the big play button below to check out another radio show from me. Originally broadcast from the Reel Rebels Studio down in Dalston and now on Mixcloud. Hope you enjoy it.


Reel Rebels 14.11.12 by Ferretboy on Mixcloud

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