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Musicality in ballet - how to learn/develop


mimi66
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For the last few years I have been fascinated by this question: how does one learn/develop musicality when dancing ballet. 

 

I am of the opinion that it can be learned to a certain degree.  For instance, most anyone should at least be able to learn to keep one's tempo, rhythm, and have some feel for the phrasing (even if it is the first time you heard that music) , or to know where to start dancing (eg centre exercise) ).

 

However after that initial "musical skills" are mastered is where the real issue of musicality comes into play.   IMHO, that is where individuality - or shall we say musical talent one is born with - matters more than training. 

 

Some professional dancers are naturally more musical than others.  But what makes them differnt from the others, and could some of that be learned or developed?

 

I do have some thoughts, but then I was musically trained, so I am not greatly aware of initial learning process since that was when I was very young (we just do it...).  Also dancers way of discussing musicality is somewhat different from that of musicians.

 

Musicality, I think, is a more relevant question for non-professional dancers, for this is somewhere one could develop even one's phyisical ability is limited. Of course, technique is always necessary to be able to express one's musicality, but for instance you don't have to have your leg by your ear to be dancing musically.  However, there does not seems to be much guidance given other than "listen to the music", generally.  Most of my teachers do explain about phrasing etc, but I get the feeling that those are not necessarily being picked up by the class, most likely because they are focused on other issues, plus perhaps due to the lack of exposure to music.

 

However, my class experience is limited to non-syllabus class, so many be things are different with for example RAD. 

 

Any thoughts welcome...

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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I think a lot of it is down to the teacher and opportunities provided for children/dancers to be comfortable in showing musicality through their body.

 

I come from a 'musical' family, grew up learning to play instruments, taught myself a couple of wind instruments etc so I always assumed I was a musical dancer but the two are quite different and it wasn't until I had a certain level of maturity, a different teacher and exposure to other very 'musical' dancers that I developed an outward sense of musicality/performance. While I could dance in time, recognise changes in dynamics, speed, styles and read and play music etc as a child I hadn't 'shown musicality' in my dancing which frustrated me when I got exam reports back which showed moderate marks for musicality when I thought I was musical!

 

I think the dance world has a different understanding of the term 'musicality' which perhaps in laymans terms might be 'expression' or 'performance'?

 

I think the ISTD and the RAD have made conscious efforts to expose young dancers to many different styles of music, and orchestrations with their new tap & ballet syllabi. The RAD work has two pieces of music for each exercise and it is intended that teachers will alter the music to encourage the students to listen to the dynamics, style etc and how it changes the emphasis on the movement.

 

Discussions of music always help with kids too - just listening to it, describing it and how it relates to the movement. They're very perceptive.

 

But I do think that the 'average' teacher doesn't always have time to do things like this, or the funds to have a live musician play for class. It's a shame because things like this really encourage pupils to listen hard to music and can help to foster musicality.

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Dd used to have trouble with her timing up until 12 or 13 always the worst part of her exam marks usually a six. Until finally her dad (a musician) after much cajoling on my part to both of them sat with her and listened to lots of music, different styles. She finally got it and started feeling the music rather than listening to it she said. The next exam Adv F I think she got a 10 for musicality.

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Fascinating subject, not that I think I have much to contribute, but I've always wondered how Lauren Cuthbertson, for example, developed her musicality - she really does seem to have something extra in that respect, but I don't think I've ever read anything about it in any interview with her.

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DSs musicality has always been one of the things teachers remark on, and they appear to be talking about an innate ability to move in harmony with the music so that the exercise/sequence fits into the music eg timing. he has always had this. I have noticed that when dancers cant/dont do this (eg seem to be out of synch) it does jar even to a non dancing person like me! DS has never had any formal music lessons but has taught himself to play guitar, has perfect pitch and a nice singing voice, so seems to have inherited the family musical gene (which bypassed me!) - his sister aged 15 has just started to learn violin and according to her teacher is already approaching grade 3 level (after about 6 lessons)...

 

I don't know what other vocational schools do, but DS has classes in ballet appreciation and even when he was struggling with the rest of the academics system he always had a A in this subject.

 

So I suppose like a lot in ballet- you can learn it, but it's always an advantage to have it by instinct.

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When I was offered to be mentored into a syllabus format (Cecchetti) to teach ballet, the main reason I refused was the tie in of the syllabus to set music.  Though several set pieces of music were given for each set piece of choreography (both barre and centre) it still  was much too constraining for the way I wanted to teach.  Two or three set pieces of music per exercise was too limiting for me.  I felt the same way about set exercises - even with "free" work.  

 

From the beginning, I used any and every piece of music I could find for my students.  In addition to a pianist, I compiled my own tapes - dozens of them.  My students grew up with all the nuances of music - tempo changes, rests, arpeggios, grace notes, etc., as an integret part of their dance training.  None of the music I used for class was intentionally composed and selected for ballet class.  I used orchestrated music, solo instrumental music as well as musicals, opera, modern, classical, baroque, choral,   Anything and everything to keep the student's attention on the music.  

 

Often in class I would take a piece of choreography - simple for the beginners - more complex for the advanced - and set it to a piece of music.  Then we would dance it differently to the same music: within the music, on top of it, through it, on the beat, off the beat, - play with it - feel it differently.  It was an interesting study to take the same music and choreography and see how many ways it could be felt and danced.  

 

For those with an innate ability to do this it came more easily but for those for whom it was not innate -  they also profited.  They learned to see and dance these variant possibilities.  

 

I felt that using a constant change and variety of choreography (exercises) and music kept everyone on their toes.  It never became rote.

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I think that playing an instrument helps a lot! Some children have a natural sense of rhythm some don't. Nursery rhymes with clapping and stamping etc are fantastic and many children learn a lot thanks to these songs. But playing an instrument and listening to classical music teach them not only about the rythm but also about melody," feel", style, emotions present in every piece of music.

I personally think that there is no difference between dancing and playing an instrument - musicality is musicality! I agree that it's not just the rhythm, it's also expression, performance etc. But then if a pianist or violinist with perfect technique, pure sound and excellent rhythm plays without "soul" or "feelings" is not good enough, is it, same like with ballet dancer.

So I think that term "musicality" covers a lot and is equally important for professional dancers and musicians.

In my opinion if there's is "lack of musicality" in a dancer playing an instrument (having a good teacher!) helps a lot.

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We were listening to the radio in the car the other week, and the conversation went like this:

 

DD "Oh, this is Tchaikovsky".

 

Me "Is it? I don't think I've ever heard it before"

 

DD "No neither have I, but it is"

 

Me "It's not one of his ballets or anything though - how do you know?"

 

DD "It's obvious - it just sound like Tchaikovsky, the rhythm and everything, the way it goes - can't you tell?"

 

Me "No..."

 

She was right. :)

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I think like anything, it is partly something you are born with, partly learned. I'm not entirely sure what "musicality" even is to be honest, but I think I know it when I see it!I was talking to DD about this recently in fact, and she defined a musical dancer as someone who can change your emotions. She said that some dancers are technically superb, but "could never make you cry" - those being the ones with less musicality I guess.

I think some people have more intrinsic musicality than others but probably everyone can improve on what they have by learning more about music, practising, learning from others and so on.Both my sons are learning to play the piano. My elder son is naturally much, much more musical than his brother. He seems to somehow understand and "feel" music, and he plays with emotion, whereas his brother, even though he is playing the right notes in the right order, just doesn't have the same sparkle. However, he is tenacious and works hard and i can hear something developing. i don't think he will ever have the flair of the elder one, but he will develop as he gets older I am sure.

It's the same with dancing I think. Some dancers have a natural empathy with music, and can express emotion easily as they dance. Others don't find it comes naturally, but most can work on it.

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taxi4ballet that made me smile - my Mum and I used to play 'guess the composer' all the time listening to Classic FM in the car! Some composers have very familiar traits, Tchaikovsky is certainly one of them but there are many others. It becomes easier to recognise them the more familiar you get with more of their work - your DD has been exposed to a fair amount of Tchaikovsky through her ballet training so can now recognise his musical 'style'. Think of it another way: Anyone familiar with a lot of Andrew Lloyd Webber, can spot another of his songs a mile away the first time they hear it!

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For some years I was a student assistant to a teacher of young children in the US. She taught the way she had been taught. Her youngest students were about 7 years old. The very beginning students were taught about simple time signatures like a march and a waltz,  etc., how to draw them on a music sheet, how to count them, how to conduct them and then how to do simple steps like a march etc. to them. This was of course in addition to things like pointing feet, keeping backs straight and so forth. The pianist would help at the beginning by playing a piece, for instance a march, with particular emphasis in different places to help with counting etc. It was pretty effective.

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I'm not sure if this fits but DD is very good at rhythm - but she can only sing (well) when she dances; so in choir she 'dances in her head' :rolleyes:

 

She played the piano for 4/5 years and moved on to percussion - her history with ballroom & latin have affected her ballet somehow (not necessarily improving it) but her musicality seems good

 

But with a strong beat and a tune she knows her improvisation is great.  & generally her improvisation is better when the beat is strong.

 

When she did contemporary at one school she was completely lost - whether it was the music choices or not I don't know but it was visible.  She is now doing Cunningham ,Graham, Horton & Release (at various places) and adores the Horton & Release and is better generally at it.

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[....]

 

Often in class I would take a piece of choreography - simple for the beginners - more complex for the advanced - and set it to a piece of music.  Then we would dance it differently to the same music: within the music, on top of it, through it, on the beat, off the beat, - play with it - feel it differently.  It was an interesting study to take the same music and choreography and see how many ways it could be felt and danced.  

 

For those with an innate ability to do this it came more easily but for those for whom it was not innate -  they also profited.  They learned to see and dance these variant possibilities.  [....]

 

 

 

I think this is an excellent way to develop one's musicality!

 

Reminded me the way we used to "play" with piano, taking a nursery rhyme and playing it in differnt way - a la jazz, a la latin, a la concerto (here you can then go further by a la composer of your choice (Bach, Tchaikovsky, John Cage... etc)).  This was a good game because it also encouraged to capture the essence of differnt style of music.

 

Obviously, in an ideal world, everyone who study ballet should also learn how to play a musical instrument, and learn the basic music theory.  But obviously this does presents a slight problem of having to develop basic skills specific to playing the chosen instrument before one can get on to any training for musicality... on top of ballet.

 

I find singing out aloud a rythme or melody also helps a lot, at least in understanding the accent or phrasing, but again, some people would put off by having to sing, I guess.

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I think like anything, it is partly something you are born with, partly learned. I'm not entirely sure what "musicality" even is to be honest, but I think I know it when I see it!I was talking to DD about this recently in fact, and she defined a musical dancer as someone who can change your emotions. She said that some dancers are technically superb, but "could never make you cry" - those being the ones with less musicality I guess.

I think some people have more intrinsic musicality than others but probably everyone can improve on what they have by learning more about music, practising, learning from others and so on.Both my sons are learning to play the piano. My elder son is naturally much, much more musical than his brother. He seems to somehow understand and "feel" music, and he plays with emotion, whereas his brother, even though he is playing the right notes in the right order, just doesn't have the same sparkle. However, he is tenacious and works hard and i can hear something developing. i don't think he will ever have the flair of the elder one, but he will develop as he gets older I am sure.

It's the same with dancing I think. Some dancers have a natural empathy with music, and can express emotion easily as they dance. Others don't find it comes naturally, but most can work on it.

 

Pups_mum, I think your younger DS will probablly be just as musical in a few years...  I have seen plenty of young people who were not excessivly musical and then suddenly blossom a year or so later.  :)

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A lot of fascinating thoughts on musicality! As a lot of people commented above, one need to dance "with" the music. If you move only after you hear that certain note, then your movement is already too late. Being able to "anticipate" the flow of the music (and the choreography) is essential. 

 

I thought I would list some of the elements which I think is prerequisites for dancing with musicality.  Someone who is " just born with it" is doing these things without consciously thinking about them.

 

  • basic understanding of musical structure - for example, that most classical and pop music (4/4 or 3/4) will have 4 beats in a bar, and most often 4 bars can be considered one unit - though a phrasing could be 8 bars, and that most basic "chank" is 16 bars etc.  Music is very logical. Once you understand this logic , it allows you to know, even without actually knowing the particular music that is being played , where certain cycle of movements, mood, or dynamics is likely to end, and where the new motif is likely to be intruduced.  (Also this helps with picking up choreography so much easier.)

 

  • relating to the above point, listenning to a wide style of music and recognise the characteristics of these styles.  Even within classical music there are many styles (baroque, romantic, impressionists, etc), so for ballet I would start experimenting with clasical music. Then there are many styles in jazz (blues, abstruct, charlston swing, funk, bossa nova, fusion..), latin (rumba, chacha, mambo, samba choro, tango...) or rock (blues, shuffle, ballads, folky...).  Then again, one can pick up the charactoristics of music (without necessarily knowing that particular music) and know where the accents tend to come, or how the melody line (or counter melody) is likely to develop and end.

 

  • that one could hear different "voices" and recognise each of them.  It is rare that music is solely composed of single notes throughout (even then there are other "contra-melodies going on, in theory).  For dancers, it is more useful to be able to listen to music polyphonicly. When dancing, one does not always dance the melodic line, but also contra-melody and other voices.  More often, upperbody may be "playing" melodic line and lowerbody may be "playing" basic beats.  In PDD, man and woman may have emphasising different voices (melody and countermelody, for instance).  I think listening to Prokofiev's "Perter and the Wolf"  is a very good introduction to this aspect of listening.

 

I think dancers with good musicality are the ones who have a very good over-all image of the music and dance while they are dancing. One needs to know, instinctively (or trainied to be able to know it instinctively), where one is going all the time, as it were. 

 

After all, dancing is to play music, with their bodies. I sometimes watch video of very musical dancers (not just ballet) without the music (mute!), and I can actually hear the music !

 

The above list is just a few points that came to my mind now, and I am sure there are a lots more.  Also, I am very much interested in the views of those who studied ballet before music (or at the same time) -  as I came to music much before I came to ballet, I think I see and think more like a musician!

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And here is one example of how someone with extraordinary musicality would move "with" the music.

 

No, not a ballet dancer (in order to avoid heated discussion that may take us away from the topic ;) ) but a figure skater - Daisuke Takahashi.  His musicality is, IMHO extraordinary even among the top class figure skaters. He had neither musical training nor no ballet training at all....  yes, some people are just born with it.

 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2yv5SRgU2uk

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Well the question would be .....do they realise they are behind the music!!

 

Sometimes when concentrating on technique or a difficult piece one is learning one does get behind the music but usually I know that I am behind and it is my technique (or lack of!) which is causing this. If Someone was continually dancing behind the music then that might show a lack of awareness but sometimes it's just getting everything together just as with playing a piece of piano music.

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Our ballet teacher also taught musical timing as part of our ballet class when I was a child.

 

Fiz, musical timing would be the first thing to learn, isn't it... Do you remember how your teacher explained the vaules of various notes?

 

Since I started this thread, I have spoken to my mother (who was my first piano teacher) and have been trying to remembered how I learned note values.  It was very very at the beginning of my piano lessons that I learned notes values as well as notes names (as in a, b, c...or do-re- mi etc). 

 

An apple was the whole note, then half an apple was half note...down to eighth note at that point (I have just turned 3) - as I would imagine it would have been very difficult  for me (or even for my mother) to draw a sixteenth note or tripletts :D

 

Why an apple, I don't know....  it could have been a pizza or a chocolate cake, I guess!

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When a lot of students are learning good technique, they can lose their musicality due to them concentrating on the steps. They can find themselves dancing behind the music.

 

I can understand that when concentrating on learning a good technique, one could be dancing a bit "flat" i.e. just keeping the count on the dead beat.

 

But if someone gets behind the music, doesn't that mean that particular bits require a bit of practice? 

 

When that happens in piano playing, my teacher would make me practice the peice (or that particular bits) very slowly (slower than I was comfortably playing at that time) first, then gradually increase the speed until I can keep up with the required timing.  I would do that with my ballet, as well.

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Regarding develpment of musicality when dancing, one of my Cuban trained teacher said an interesting thing.

 

At that time, she was teaching  beginners' level open class (in reality beginners plus level).  When doing adagio, she would often explain to the class that she would only mark once or twice when setting the enchainement and did not dance with the class, as 1) all the components in that adagio were already taught separatly, and 2) this is to pracitice develping one's own musicality - how one connect each steps to the music in the way one hears. 

 

She would also tell us that always depending on teachers to show the set enchainements dancing full-out  (while one is dancing, or even as a demo) is detrimental to one's learning ballet - from early on, one needs to practice how to hear the music and how to acually dance (i.e. how to put together correctly the steps already learned to the given music and making it a "dance' - to sing with one's body, she would say.).

 

Interestingly, she would dance full out when we were doing technical exersice, such as going across the floor with just sissone ferme, pas de chat, just plain chaine, or plain en boite. 

 

This was an ah-ha! moment for me.  Although I never questioned this, I think all ballet teachers teach on this principle - though noone say it.  The teachers will show full out the technical aspect, namely how to execute each steps, but unless it is beginners' class, they would not demonstrate enchaiments full out. 

 

This is why, in an open class setting - elementary level upwards - teachers will just mark (in more advanced levels, they will just sing out the enchainement by words only with occational mark) when they set the enchainements for centre work - assuming that basics of how each steps works are already mastered at the beginners' (and beginner's plus) level. 

 

It is acutally the same in playing instruments - as one progress to a competent beginner, teachers don't play full-out (may be a just difficult passage or two, but never more than 4bars). May be this was why I didn't question ballet teachers just marking the enchainement.

 

 

We had already been taught the musical value of the notes at school, Mimi.

 

 

touche... Yes, of course. Do every school teach basic musical theory nowadays, I wonder?

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