Tag Archives: teaching

Dancing masters, music and memory


deliriumI’m thoroughly enjoying Eric McKee’s book Decorum of the minuet, delirium of the waltz: a study of dance-music relations in 3/4 time. There are books that you grow up with that made the world what it is for you, and other books that don’t yet exist, but they’re so begging to be written, they hang around you like literary ectoplasm. This is one of those, and it’s a joy to read. There are plenty of books and articles on works, performances, composers, collaborations, but not about how music and dance relate in teaching steps and dances. This does the job magnificently, with loads of musical examples.

This is one of my favourite quotes so far, in a section about how dancing masters composed their own music to help teach dance steps: 

“While visiting Paris in 1762, Leopold Mozart observed that “in the whole town there are about two or three favourite minuets, which must always be played, because they people cannot dance to any save those particular ones during the playing of which they learned to dance.” (McKee 2012, 21) 

It sounds like when children or teachers can’t remember an exercise in an exam syllabus until they hear the music that goes with it. But it also points out what is so different about ballet training.  Children can do the same exercise to different music. You can play a famous piece from a ballet for a company class, and dancers don’t fall over because they go into autopilot and start doing whatever ballet it was from instead of the exercise.

Playing for ballet class tips #24: Speak up – don’t act the pianist


I can’t remember when exactly I discovered this, but it was life-changing. If you’ve got a question in class or rehearsal, speak up, don’t act the pianist. If you’re going to ask a question at all, ask it loud and clear. If you act like a victim in a rehearsal or class, you run the risk of being treated like one. Conversely, if you act like you’re the professional equal of the person you’re working with, you’ll be treated as that. You may not feel like that at all, and in many ways, you plainly aren’t, but you can “fake it til you make it.”

All I’m talking about  is the volume of your voice when you ask a question, not about how to stop being a victim. You may not feel confident doing it, and you may not feel that you have enough experience to be able to do so, but feel the fear and do it anyway – just speak up.

Start as you mean to carry on

It starts from the moment you walk into a room with a new teacher. If you go and sit behind the piano sheepishly and wait for the teacher to find out your name, a) they may never ask and b) they may assume that you prefer to be left alone.  If you walk right up to them and say ‘Hello, my name is….’ and get the introductions over, you’ve established a relationship which is going to make it much easier when you have questions later. I say the same to teachers, so don’t be surprised if you meet in the middle of the studio. Much later, I discovered a great TED talk by Amy Cuddy on body language (link to transcript) that explains the problem and the solution in detail.

Only you know what your problem is: get it out there

I used to try and guess what teachers wanted if I didn’t know, or look questioningly at them, hoping they’d second guess what my problem was. It doesn’t work. And I’ve often found that even when some teachers seem overbearing or intimidating, they’ll be fine with being asked questions like the following, as long as you ask them directly, loudly and clearly:

  • “I’m sorry, I didn’t quite get that. What was the tempo again?”
  • “What kind of a 3 do you want – something butch, or more fluid?”
  • “Does it matter to you whether this is on 3 or 4?”
  • ” I’m afraid I don’t know this ballet, you’re going to have to guide me a bit. Where are we going from?”
  • “Would you mind if we just talked through the tempos of this before we rehearse, as I don’t want us to have to stop in the middle”

My theory about why this works is that teachers’ have so much stuff to deal with that they blot out whatever isn’t critical,  like someone landing a plane. If the music’s working, they won’t meddle with it. If you seem to be OK, they’ll leave you alone. The temptation for the pianist is to try not to be too much trouble, to not interrupt; to mumble the question or look needy and hope the teacher will guess what you want. This just registers as an irritation, not a call on their attention.  But if you speak up, they’ll recognize that you have an important question to ask, and they’ll deal with it.

Don’t act the pianist: the canonical example from “Stepping Out”

The clip from Stepping Out with Glenda the pianist is a classic example of how communication goes wrong in a dance studio. It’s hilarious precisely because it satirizes the wrong footing that so many classes and rehearsals begin on. What ought to be a very simple question about tempo becomes an emotional battleground and power struggle. The issue is resolved when Liza Minelli deals with the emotions. But it could have been avoided altogether if Glenda had said right from the start – ‘I’m sorry, I can’t remember what last week’s tempo was. Just mark it for me again, and I’ll try and get it back’.

That wouldn’t have been funny or heartwarming at all, and I’m glad she didn’t. But unless you’re happy for your life to be like an endless loop of this scene, and unless your teacher is Liza Minelli, go for the second option and ask the question before the rehearsal starts.

It doesn’t have to be this way: update on 25/5/2016

After thirty years of playing rehearsals, something happened recently which was almost unique in my experience, and is a model of what I’d say was best practice: maybe it’s the future. A few weeks ago, a dancer began a rehearsal of a very difficult solo by saying to the coach and me “Do you mind if we go through tempos before we do it? I won’t have the stamina to keep repeating this solo, and if try and sort out the tempos first, there’s more chance I can run it from beginning to end without having to stop because the tempo’s wrong.”

For musicians, that’s pretty normal: that’s how you’d approach a rehearsal involving people who hadn’t worked together on the same piece before. But it’s rare in the ballet world. The kindest interpretation is that everyone overestimates the skills and experience of the pianist, and so doesn’t think they need help. How it comes across, though,  is that everyone’s too impatient to “waste time” on a bit of preparation before the rehearsal starts, and thinks that getting the right tempo is a kind of magical sixth sense that you get from just looking at someone. Sometimes—but very rarely—it is. For the other 95% of cases, a conversation about tempo would be so helpful.

It’s interesting that it was a dancer who initiated the sensible approach here, not a coach. It was an extraordinary case of someone changing the world for the better from the inside. It might be that “Don’t act the pianist” will be irrelevant advice in a few year’s time. I rather hope so.


The problem with reading online


Four years ago, I started an MA in music education at the Institute of Education in London. The first module was on the philosophy and aesthetics of music, and included the kind of books that I had been avoiding for 25 years, like Hanslick’s Vom musikalisch Schönen. With philosophy, there are no short cuts, you just have to read in depth and slowly.  Mid-term, I went to Malta for a short break to meet an old friend, and took my books with me, including an anthology of texts on the aesthetics of music in the original German. It’s one of my happiest memories of that time, sitting on my balcony, with nothing but a book, reading slowly, going over the same paragraph again and again until some of it made sense. Four years later, I’m still struggling to understand a lot of the same material now, but the pleasure is deep and immense when you realise that something once unfathomable has sunk in and become understood. It’s like watching a tree grow.

If I hadn’t started that MA, I would never have made the effort to achieve that understanding. Writing essays forces you to do grapple with other people’s thinking and writing, and searching, googling, information gathering is irrelevant to the task. The work is in your head. It’s deep, satisfying, and laborious.

So I knew exactly what Randy Connolly was talking about in his short presentation What’s wrong with online reading? You keep hearing about how wonderful the online world is now, how ‘everything’s on Google’ and children today are amazing, multi-tasking geniuses whose brains (as ‘digital natives’) will develop in ways that we oldies simply can’t understand because we didn’t grow up with the internet. The trouble is, despite the hype, there’s not a lot of evidence that this is really the case. What’s more, online reading is not all it’s cracked up to be. It’s causing us to skim and forage without thinking a great deal, and we lose concentration as a result. Connolly’s interest in this subject started, in part, with an article called ‘Is Google making us stupid?‘Given that this is a long article, and given our tendency to skim when things are on a screen, it’s probably best to download and print the article first.

Google can’t make us stupid of  course, that’s up to us. If we don’t take time to think, read carefully and stop scanning and foraging as our only mode of intellection, then we’ll end up – as even some academics admit – unable to read and concentrate in a sustained way. Connolly’s presentation is 141 slides long, but  doesn’t take more than about 5 minutes to go through because each slide has very small amounts of information on – which will ensure that you take it in. It’s well worth taking the time.

And if all this is your kind of thing, you’ll probably like all my rants about the myth of multitasking.


Dance rhythms fight back: the 9/8 hornpipe


The Serag's Hornpipe, from 1721 (17th edition) Playford

A while back I started collecting examples of ‘dance rhythms to annoy your music teacher with’. Nothing makes me more frustrated than the term ‘dance rhythms’. There are several generations of dance teachers who’ve been told somewhere along the line that a hornpipe goes like this, a waltz goes like that, and a tango goes like that. One of the reasons that music for ballet classes is so often as terrible as it is, is because pianists try to recreate music based on these formulas, and then this music becomes the model by which the theory is ‘proved’ and exemplified. For some reason, whoever started this decided to ignore all kinds of uncomfortable truths about dances that were really danced, as opposed to being clapping exercises.

For this reason, one of my favourites pastimes is to collect examples from the real world of dances that buggers up the theory. Here’s a nice one from the 17th (1721) edition of Playford’s Dancing Master, a hornpipe in 9/8. Stick that in your hornpipe and smoke it.

Change deafness, multi-tasking and ballet teaching


I was talking to a friend recently about scams and conmen. Our conclusion was that anyone who says ‘it would never happen to me’ is deluding themselves.  The thing with conmen is that they know how to deflect your attention from what they’re up to, and so this idea that you’ll always be as alert as you think you are now to the trouble looming round the corner is wishful thinking. Our conversation was just idle banter and comparing experiences and half-remembered things about psychology.

But it turns out there’s a whole field here in psychology called  ‘change blindness’  – the phenomenon whereby people are seemingly unable under certain conditions to detect even large  changes in what they’re  looking at.  The experiment in the video shows just how extreme this effect can be – and that’s under relatively normal circumstances. What happens is so absurd, I burst out laughing – yet 75% of people didn’t notice, and I bet I’d be in that 75%.

What interests me is the related phenomenon of ‘change deafness’ – the likelihood that we won’t notice major changes in sound. An article in Current Biology in 2005  (Directed Attention Eliminates ‘Change Deafness’ in Complex Auditory Scene) suggests that in a complex auditory setting (i.e. where there are lots of sounds and sound sources) we only overcome ‘change deafness’ by directing attention to one source at a time. The concluding sentence goes like this: “Whatever the mechanisms, our results indicate that auditory perception is limited by attention and that our experience of a rich and detailed auditory world may be largely illusory.”

As I’m fond of saying, so much for multitasking. Next time someone says to you ‘I am listening’ while they’re doing something or trying to hold another conversation with someone on the phone, you can more even more justified in disbelieving them.  But what really interests me about this is the implications it might have for dance teaching. There’s a certain kind of teacher that manages to speak with the music, so that their voice becomes part of the music, another line. In doing so, they draw attention to the music. Even if there’s residual noise in the room, or from an adjacent studio, they’re still pulling the dancers towards the music and vice versa:  if they don’t do this, then teacher’s voice & the music become competing signals, and it will be hard for dancers to take much notice of either.

It’s not always the way that you do it, sometimes it’s what you do


Fascinating article from the Journal of Experimental Psychology, I like the sound of your voice: Affective learning about vocal signals‘.  We’d all like to think, wouldn’t we, that having a ‘musical’ voice is what counts, and that – to paraphrase the old song – ‘It’s not what you say, it’s the way that you say it’, a kind of vocal sugaring of the pill.

But it seems from this research that while it’s true that the mere sound of a voice can induce different affects in us – hear laughter, and you have a general sense of wellbeing, hear a scream, and you begin to worry – that’s not the whole story.  The results of this study suggest  that hearing a speaker say negatively charged words (like taxes or divorce) would influence your judgement of the acoustic qualities of their voice to the extent that even if that person were to say relatively nice things at a later date, your experience of the content of what they said earlier has coloured the perceived quality of their voice. The opposite applies – someone you heard talk about love and kittens yesterday could tell you you’re fat and for a moment you might think they’d said something nice.

This seems to have enormous implications for teaching in the arts. However ‘musical’ your voice may be, if what you say is negatively charged, then your listener’s perception of those musical qualities will be overridden by the content. And conversely, it goes some way to explaining something that is beginning to puzzle me in my own research – why is it that the people I know that seem to me to be very ‘musical’ often have very quiet, perhaps even subdued and not necessarily highly expressive voices? Could it be that what they all have in common is that they’re nice people, and that their voice is ‘music to my ears’?