Thoughts on Musicality

Thoughts on Musicality

Ah. . . music.  It holds some kind of special magic. Want to liven up a party? Put on some music. Want to relax? Put on some music. Want to feel motivated at the gym? Put on some music. Nearly every scenario in life is intensified or made better with the addition of some good music. We love it. We crave it. And, often, when we hear it we automatically begin moving to it.

Why Teach Musicality?

Here are three reasons as a start…

  1. One of the defining elements of a skilled dancer is their musicality. Part of a dancer’s artistic signature lies within their individual interpretation of music. How the music informs their movement and impacts the choices they make within choreography can set a dancer apart from the rest and score them the contract or the role.
  2. Having a refined skill set where music is concerned can help a dancer make wise decisions when it comes to very challenging choreography or highly advanced steps. Many problems concerning stamina and technique can be resolved or made more attainable simply by approaching the music in a smart way and allowing it to have a relationship with the movement.
  3. A musical approach to dancing can help organize a dancer. Adhering to the musical phrasing and tempo can actually have a beautifully freeing effect. Much like guidelines and expectations build a sense of safety in children, musicality builds a sense of safety in dancers.

When Should Musicality be Taught?  

From the very beginning of ballet training and moving forward. (See Music and Memory in Pre-Ballet). So, basically, musicality should be always taught. Because it has such a heavy influence on a dancer’s success as an artist and a technician, musicality should not be neglected. Within any given ballet class there are so many things on a teacher’s radar that must be discussed/taught/confronted/defined/clarified/expected/etc.  It is easy to see how giving precious minutes to this one skill can be “saved for another time”.  But the time is now.  The music is here. We must teach it.  We must demonstrate to our students the value of this skill by teaching it to them continuously. Just as we insist on proper alignment or clear beginnings and finishes, we must insist that music play a role in their dancing.

How Should Musicality be Taught?

As everything else is taught.  Methodically, patiently, consistently, and clearly.  The first step is to be sure you, as a teacher, have a basic understanding of music. (See 6 “Must Haves” for Teaching Ballet.) From there, you meet the students where they are and build on what they already have. Some examples:

    • 3-4 year olds can be taught how to match music with movement.  High notes can be tippy toe walks; low notes can be crawling.  Slow music can be swaying sleepily in the breeze; fast music can be running a race.  The ideas are pretty much endless when it comes to these little guys because their world is based on simple concepts and simplicity is the breeding ground for ideas.
    • 5-6 year olds can be taught about the measures that make up the introduction before the dance actually begins.  They are able to do 4 points, 4 jumps, and port de bras in sequence and in time with the music.  They should be encouraged to listen to different music and create stories based on what the music is telling them.  This age adores stories.
    • 7-8 year olds have the capacity for a much more technical understanding of music.  This is a perfect time to introduce concepts such as “We count this music 1-2-3 and then we start again at 1.  And do you hear how the first beat is always a bit louder than the other two?  This is what we call a waltz!”.  This age can be expected to create their own short dances in time to the music.
    • 9-10 year olds should be learning how to dance within the music.  Meaning, if we are doing plié in a 3/4 and we take 2 measures to lower and 2 measures to recover, it is important that they can hear not only 1-2-3-4, but all the beats within those counts (1-2-3, 2-2-3, 3-2-3, 4-2-3).  They should also be given time to explore their own musical instincts.  Split them into groups and have each group create a class exercise.  This will reveal where they are musically and what they need help with.  
    • Intermediate dancers should have a class that enforces musicality and stretches their comfort zone.  There should be a plethora of time signatures and an array of demands on their ability to hear the music and dance with it. Choreography should be composed in a way that challenges their technique musically. Always choosing straight-forward music that can be easily counted to 8 is a disservice to their training. At this stage technique and musicality seem to work against one another. But be persistent.
    • Advanced dancers should be instructed on how to make personal choices with musicality while remaining within the guidelines of the given exercise. By the time a dancer reaches the advanced levels it is no longer beneficial to always dance to the music. They must find their voice within the music and dance through it. Here technique and musicality begin to merge and help one another. When this happens, it is a thing of genuine beauty and an artist suddenly emerges in full splendor.

Ah….the magic of music.  Within the full scope of everything we teachers must fit into a class period, we must absolutely not forget musicality.  The music demands to be heard; so let’s teach these young dancers how to hear it, how to dance with it, and how to be musicians through their movement.

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