DRUMMING FOR DANCE
There is a little known tradition of non-jazz improvised music
in America, made everyday by musicians who love to play for dance.
You can find them across the country in studios, concert halls
and universities, creating music on a daily basis to inspire choreographers,
dance technique instructors, and professional or aspiring dancers.
Most of these musicians are either keyboardists or percussionists,
with some guitarists and lap top specialists as well. The best
players in the field tend to be skilled on several instruments,
with percussionists using the piano as a secondary resource, and
the keyboardists doubling on a few selected drums. Many also play
recorders or melodicas, and some sing as well.
As far as drumming for modern dance goes, there is a common misconception
that this type of playing is a watered down version of African
drumming. I have actually heard on more than one occasion that
“you can just play anything for modern”. In truth,
this kind of drumming relates to traditional African forms in
a way that is similar to the relation of jazz piano with classical
European piano: same instrument, same technique, different approach
to making music.
An obvious difference exists at the outset. African
diaspora drum forms tend toward an ensemble basis, with a number
of interlocked and consistent parts accompanying a more varied
master drum lead, or vocalists or other melodic instruments.
In drumming for modern dance, the musician is virtually always
playing alone. This means they must create a complete musical
texture on their own. Simply playing one part of a traditional
ensemble is not going to work any better than playing 18th century
piano music. Modern dance has its own aesthetic and kinetic
language, and the music must respond to it with precision and
I have spoken elsewhere in this website about why I enjoy playing
for dance. The idea of the musician serving a useful function
in a particular setting I feel is a good one. Playing for class
is the most relaxed form of public performance possible. When
I watch movement, I get good ideas for making music. I love this
Different players use different sets of instruments. My choice
has evolved to the following: marimba, tabla, boddhran, a pentatonic
set of 4 congas and a djembe, and piano. I use various shakers
and bells on my ankles. Hi hats also work great.
These instruments allow me to create a lot of variety in the
class, both within a single class, and day after day.
When you play a class, there are several things to keep in mind.
1. In class, there is no
audience. It’s just the music
and the dance, the musician and the dancers. Your music therefore
exists to help the dancers execute their phrases as well as possible.
How this is done varies from class to class and from exercise
to exercise. More highly skilled dancers can work with more subtle
music. Beginners need something more straight ahead. A good analogy
is either a conductor or a drummer in a group. The conductor of
the elementary school orchestra will be mainly keeping clear time
with his stick and giving really obvious cues to keep the group
together. If it’s a highly skilled orchestra, the time with
the stick is much more subtle, and the conductor’s gestures
and body language are devoted to interpretation, articulation
and phrasing. With drumming, if you are playing set in a garage
band where the other musicians are easily confused, you will
have to play a certain way. A drummer in a jazz group, where
the other players are not relying on the drummer to keep their
place, will be able to play in a very different manner.
2. Because you are playing
for the dancers, and not an audience, your phrasing and accents
should center on the moment of greatest effort, not the greatest
visual result. A perfect example is the leap. The greatest
visual moment is the apex of the leap, but that’s not
when the dancers need you to play. They need a strong and
deep accent to help them propel themselves off the ground,
and even before as they prepare themselves for that action.
So there is often a sense of anticipation involved.
3. Balance variety and repetition.
You will wind up repeating yourself. It’s impossible not to, because you will be looking
at the same movement from day to day that will logically elicit
a similar musical response. However, it’s important not
to simply play the same measure over and over, which is one of
things that can happen when people “plug in” inappropriate
folkloric forms minus most of the parts. Instead the drummer
should think in terms of little songs that are constructed
of various rhyming schemes. So a sense of phrasing is quite
important, both in terms of duration, and in terms of accents
to support movement execution.
At the other extreme, if there is no predictable
audible structure in your playing, the dancers will be lost.
Remember that when people are dancing to rhythm, they are basing
what they are doing not just on what they hear but what they
expect to hear, and they expect the music to continue in a
dependable and consistent way. They don’t expect the
pulse to disappear from the music. They have other things on
4. Take note of whether the class is doing something which is
familiar to them, or new. If new, you should play simply and not
too loud, allowing them to concentrate on learning the movement.
Once they have it under their belts, you can stretch out more
and play with more energy and more subtlety. However, my personal
preference is not to allow the dance/music relationship to become
completely contrasting or random. I like to keep a kinetic thread
5. Remember that your class
is at least 80 minutes long, and possibly more. If you just
beat the hell out the djembe drum the whole time they won’t
really hear you anymore after about 10 minutes. Use contrasting
dynamics and a careful building up of volume and density
to construct a clear arc from the beginning of the class
to the end. The idea is to keep people alert and involved,
not impress them with your speed and power.
6. Never allow yourself
to play unmusically, even if it seems like that’s what
the instructor wants.
7. If the instructor counts
over your music, find a time in private to remind them politely
that this interferes greatly with the student’s ability
to hear the music, and therefore makes the technique class
less valuable as training for dance performance.