Music and Dance Part 1: What we can learn from other performing arts forms

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Learning from Other Performing Arts:

Using dance to explore phrasing Part 1

We have a long tradition in the musical world of learning concepts and exercises from our teachers and from generations before us so we don’t have to reinvent the wheel to improve. For some reason though, we don’t take the time to learn from artists outside music (or even sometimes outside our instrument) and much of our training is how to improve on our instruments rather than how to explore becoming artists. Performing artists who work in theater and dance have the same rich tradition of passing down exercises and learning techniques, but they also have ways to practice emotions and artistry in ways that we as musicians don’t.  The exercise I find most helpful in accessing great musicality is actually creating dance choreography. This post describes why dance is a good fit and what it can bring to your practice. The next post is instructions for how to actually start using movement in your practice.It is intended for people, like me, who have no dance or theater background.


Why should we be doing these types of exercises?

We are voice actors. Other disciplines spend a great deal of time practicing how to express emotion along with other technique basics. That seems obvious because they are onstage using their whole bodies as their instrument. But we are not so different from voice actors in that we must convey everything those artists convey but only with sound.  Voice actors don’t sit there with their bodies perfectly still in search of perfect resonance while emoting with only their voice. They plunge their whole bodies, entire beings into the character and the world, and we can do the same.

Try this activity. Just say something like, “hello,” and try to sound happy and genuine with a serious or unhappy look on your face. Then try it while smiling. How much easier was it to convey that emotion when you committed just that much of your body to it? Dancers and actors get to work with methods and exercises designed to help them access emotional expression in ways that we as musicians never see in our training. And just like we learn technique and pedagogical strategies from our teachers, we can take the practices passed down through other arts communities as well. The point of everything we do is to convey something musical to our audience, and if there are more tools available for us, it can only benefit us and our audience.


What Should we Do about That?


One type of exercise that I find particularly productive for musicians is experimenting with dance and choreography. Dance as an artform parallels music particularly well because it is abstract, yet precise, and moves in real time so that it matches with a specific moment and progression in the music. That means your choreography can parallel your musical line exactly.

An example of work I performed using these practices:

Dance practice can be used to build a multi-media project like the one above, or as tools for accessing artistry from new angles for traditional performances.


Why Dance is a Good Medium

Thinking Creatively

When you have to assign choreography to something, you have to create, otherwise nothing will happen! Getting yourself into this curious and exploratory mode is so important in presenting a piece and when we work so hard at our technique it can be difficult to find that place again. It’s been said that practicing has three parts: conceptual, mechanical, and performance. This helps us first with part, finding what exactly we want to say with a piece that no one else has said. Then we can figure out how to perform it technically and mechanically, and how to do so on demand in a performance.

Thinking Creatively and Specifically

Dance can help you be conscious about linking emotion to your playing by embracing it with your full body and getting yourself into a creative mode as you explore a piece. But it has forces you to be specific and detailed with your interpretation after you finish that exploration.

We are always conveying something, even if it is not a literal story.  We talk a lot about stories and adjectives and what we want to convey in our pieces. But dancing allows you to be specific both in the energy you want to convey and the precise moment in the music you are using to say it, without being too literal or limiting. I sometimes found that words or stories oversimplified the music and made the emotions or story feel mundane, limiting the abstract “universal” nature of music. And yet, it was vague with respect to the nuances of a phrase. We can’t have words for every note and for the connections between each note.  We used words to represent what we want the music to say because those were the tools we had with which to conceptualize it. But I think movement is a better tool. It’s the reason you can watch a great conductor make a motion, and know exactly how to play.

Example: Look at these releases. Even with no context, there are innumerable ways to release a note. These were just some of the first ones I thought of. We use words like “lift,” “pointed,” ect. But I often find that we are using words to evoke an energy, when movement is more accurate and easier to understand.


Gaps in Musical Decisions

Dancing can help you think about the types of musical decisions most good musicians already consider or naturally do, but makes you be much more specific, accountable, and confident in my decisions. You can’t give every second a word description, but you can give it a movement. And you can make that movement relate to the movements of notes before and after just like you do with your instrument. But that is hard to do if you are not 100% sure of your artistic intention in a phrase. Being accountable for motion at every second from start to finish makes you much more accountable for your interpretation. You can say you know this phrase is building to a particular note, with some kind of emotional description (eg “longing,” or “building intensity,” etc), but when you go to make a movement, you might realize how general your plan is.

When answering questions like, “Is this the right movement for this note?”or, “Does it make sense in context?” and knowing Why or why not, you will have to be fully committed to your interpretation. Again, if you don’t make an artistic decision about how to move, nothing will happen and slight gaps in musical ideas become very obvious.


For instance, look at these two versions of choreography, the high note is important in this phrase, but in what way? Which version of choreography expresses how you think this tiny section is phrased? How are they different? Both movements show tension and release, but which one is the exact tension you want to express? Which one relates to the notes before and after in the best way? Or maybe some other movement is more accurate of your interpretation. Working through this process gives me tangible clarity of my interpretation and confidence that I chose phrasing I can back up with reasoning that makes sense to me.

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Recallable Intention

Have you ever found exactly how you wanted to phrase something and then struggled to write yourself notes so that you can access that again next practice session? I mentioned dance helps with the conceptual component of practicing (finding your interpretation), but I also use it in my performance component (being ready to access a piece on demand). Having a motion gives you a physical, experiential manifestation of the energy you want to convey, and when you are ready to perform, you call on this more tangible and recallable representation when you think of the emotion and energy you want to convey with the line. It’s still important to recall the sound before you play, but good tone is different than good phrasing, and having a motion and a sound to recall can help you imagine both. Think about what good tone is as well as how it feels to move with that energy to access good tone and a musical message.

Bonus: General Stage Presence

Dance can make you more aware of your whole body and everything you have at your disposal as a performer. I said we are voice actors, but often we are voice actors that people still get to see. We are so focused on our sound, we forget that people usually watch us when we perform. I can hear that dance helps me find my interpretation by listening to recordings, but it also happens to give me a stronger stage presence by reminding me that my whole body is part of the performance.

Whether you actually move during performance or just use it as a practice tool to refine your interpretation, committing with my whole body–eye contact, breathing, posture and stance–not only creates helps me find the right mood for my own playing, but provides a better atmosphere for the audience.


This post was about what we can learn about emoting and exploring artistry through dance. See the next post to get examples of exercises and instructions for one way to start incorporating these tools into your musical practice.


Jessica is a classically-trained clarinetist based out of Florida and Ohio who loves cats, vegan chocolate chip cookies, psychology, and working with as many different types of artists as possible. She has a BA in psychology and BM in clarinet performance from Northwestern University and began her MM in clarinet performance at BGSU in fall 2017.

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