Is one dance class better than another because it has a live musician? Not necessarily. Any dance class can be a great opportunity for a student to learn and grow; there is no “better” in this case. However, working with live musicians can provide additional advantages for your students. While financial constraints can prevent smaller studios from regularly employing live musicians, even occasional exposure to live music in class can be beneficial. Here are some tips for both musicians and teachers on how to work well together and create the best possible experience for your class.
• Communicate well with your musician. If you haven’t worked together before, or your musician is new to playing for dance, take a moment to be sure your instructions are clear and that your musician knows what style and tempo of music you want.
• Really listen to your musician’s questions, and answer clearly. Your interaction with the musician will engage students in the importance of musical choices and will also serve as a model for those students working toward a teaching career.
• Develop a series of hand signals that you and your musician mutually agree upon so that you can communicate about tempo or volume, or request a stop from afar without having to project above the sound. For example, ballet teachers generally clap when they want to stop an exercise part way through.
• Remind your students that the musician is contributing to the class as much as they are. You all feed off each other’s energy and respond to each other’s participation. Ensure students stay aware of the location of the musician in the studio and don’t block his or her view of the teacher or the group currently dancing. This visual connection is important.
• Consider your language and what that conveys. Although commonly used, “accompanist” suggests a different relationship to the class than that conveyed by “musician”.
• Communicate well with your teacher. Be sure you know what they’ve asked of their students and that you understand what a specific exercise requires from you.
• Learn lots of music, in many different styles, by memory. For pianists, it can be fun to surprise your students with the occasional song they recognize as a current pop hit.
• Familiarize yourself with the movements of the dance form you’ll be playing for, so you understand what style or styles of music are the most appropriate fit.
• Listen to and watch the teacher and also the students. Teachers may not always be able to articulate exactly what they mean when they describe the music they require for a certain exercise. By listening and watching you’ll be able to meet their request regardless.
• Remember: it’s not what you play; it’s how you play it. Be flexible and creative in your approach and make the music come alive.
• Consider asking the teacher if you can present a small lecture within their class. If they agree, take the time allotted to talk about music, help students hear what they should be listening for, clap out rhythms and explain time signatures so they can begin to understand musical structure.