JEFF ZAHOS

Dance Musician | Audio Engineer | Sound Designer

What Does a Dance Musician Do?

I love my job as music director in a university dance department. Sometimes friends or family ask me "what do you actually do?". Every day, I get to make music while people dance! What could be cooler than that? I definitely feel about my work the way one of my mentors, audio engineer and teacher Mark Rubel, does about his: “I feel like any minute the fun police are going to show up and put a stop to all this.”

Just what does a dance music director do?  All kinds of things. In my job at the University of California Riverside, I’m responsible for most things having to do with music or sound in the dance department. Ultimately, I'm there to teach, mentor, facilitate and guide students learning about movement, aesthetics, composition, music, sound, and very generally, being in the world. Here are some of the things I might do on a typical day:

  • Play musical accompaniment for modern dance classes, usually as the solo musician.  I improvise live music on percussion, keyboards and electronics. This is typically what people mean when they say they play “music for dance”. I watch and listen as the teacher demonstrates an exercise or dance combination, and based on the movement quality, tempo, and phrasing of the dance, I create music on the spot that supports the dance. For me, the dance studio is a simultaneous space for performance, and a laboratory for creative learning and collaboration.
  • Accompany West African dance class, along with 1-3 other musicians. We play West African rhythms on hand drums called djembe, and and one person plays dunduns, which are played with sticks.
  • Provide technical support (configure, setup, maintain, troubleshoot) and user support for the dance studio sound systems.

Other things I do:

  • Perform live music/sound scores for dance concerts. Usually percussion and electronics, although in 2016 I accompanied a baroque violinist, by playing a cello part (on a keyboard synthesizer) for a 18th century dance class!
  • Collaborate with choreographers to create sound designs and compose music for new dances. Each collaboration is different and requires different approaches/skills.
  • Guest teach and co-teach classes on music/dance relationships in choreography, dance pedagogy, and dance technique
  • Consult with choreographers on music/sound score choices for their pieces
  • Hire, mentor, oversee ballet pianists
  • Manage sound systems in each of the studios - troubleshooting, maintenance, upgrades, etc.
  • Manage our inventory of musical instruments - maintenance, upkeep, repairs, purchasing new equipment, etc.

Some special projects I’ve done:

  • Designed new sound systems for installation in of all the dance studios
  • Mentored musicians in playing music with modern dance
  • Created virtual recordings of music of which there were no existing recordings
  • Created notated musical scores for musicians to play in performance
  • Performed live music and/or sound designs for dance performances

...and much more!  Every day, I face some kind of new challenge or situation, and it's always fresh. Ultimately, it's the interaction with students and watching their growth over time that is most gratifying.

The Unique Demands of Making Music with Dance

Musical collaboration with dance is different than other types of music making.  The dance studio is simultaneously a performance space and a laboratory.  Music for dance is not absolute music - It exists to serve a purpose outside of itself.  One reason collaborating with dance is wonderful because dancers are necessarily present and engaged. Dance class or rehearsal are the daily rituals where dancers grow the “knowing body”, which prepares them for other modes of knowing.  For serious dance musicians, its no different.  They use these shared daily rituals to build their practice: All the skills, knowledge, experience, and relationships that make them the musician they are.  Making music in dance class requires you to be creative and above all, courageous!

Firstly, playing music with dance requires an entirely different set of criteria for evaluating success or failure.  The dance musician must let go of the ideal of perfection - To be a successful dance musician, you have to unlearn the criteria for evaluating success or failure in music performance that you've learned in traditional music training. There are completely different criteria in the dance studio.  You must begin to understand failure not as an end but as an opportunity to make decisions and continue without hesitation.  It is the perfect arena for experimentation, risk and failure- Certainly the dancers are taking risks and failing daily.  You must do the same in order to give them what they need.  You can no longer be afraid of failure or trying to avoid it.  In order to be a successful dance musician, you have to be able to throw out all the ways of evaluating success or failure you’ve learned your whole life in other musical situations.  I have found that sometimes the music that seemed "wrong" to me (using my old ways of evaluating) was enthusiastically appreciated by the dancers, because it was "right" for the energy in that space, at that moment.

A dance musician must treat their playing with gravity, however simple or uninteresting it may seem to them.  This means a change of focus from executing the skill of playing music to making music for a moment.  

A dance musician develops the ability to make musical decisions very quickly, stick with them and see them through. All of your prior musical training and experience will be employed, with only 4 counts notice.  You basically get 5-6-7-8 and your are making music NOW.  Often, there is little or no time to ask questions and the score is the movement you’re seeing. 

A dance musician must be musically courageous!  If you don’t already have musical COURAGE, you’ll develop it playing for dance class.  Have you ever HAD to play an “adagio” on djembe? Have you ever HAD to improvise as a soloist faster than you can play on an instrument? Have you ever HAD to make music on an instrument you don’t know how to play?  As a dance musician, you'll likely end up having to face challenges like these, and you’ll do so without fear.

Lastly, a dance musician must work as hard to dance the music as the dancers have to to dance the dance.  

MUSICAL CONCEPTS FOR ACCOMPANYING MODERN DANCE: 1. DESTABILIZING

 

In order for a body to move, it cannot be completely stable.  To me, stability implies perfect balance, and when something is perfectly balanced, it is not moving, or at least not changing. Only when something is destabilized, imbalanced, does it start moving, or falling.  Destabilization leads to moving, moving breaks down rigidity in the body, and this leads to controlled falling, which is one fundamental approach to understanding dance.  Music which alternately emphasizes the pulse and has syncopation (notes or emphases which fall between pulses or beats), destabilizes the pulse and propels the moving body. Here's an example:

Consider the 3-3-2 rhythmic pattern.  It is common or at least present, in one form or another, in pretty much every musical tradition that I know of, especially in music that people dance to.  In fact, it is /central/ to many types of dance music.  Listen to some Calypso music from Trinidad and Tobago, or the music of Cesaria Evora or Lura from Cape Verde. You'll recognize the "long, long, short" pattern.  Try clapping it. The Xs are claps and the -s are rests*:

 ||: X - - X - - X - |  X - - X - - X - :||

... try counting out loud while clapping:

 ||: "1 2 3 1 2 3 1 2" | "1 2 3 1 2 3 1 2":||

 

Why is this rhythm so common in dance music?  I think it's because it has a perfect balance of stability, destabilization, and propulsion.  Let's take a tour through one cycle of this rhythm, with a little analysis:

STABILITY: The first note is fully stable and grounded. It is the "big" beat and has the least potential energy.

DESTABILIZATION: The second note is an upbeat, it's syncopated, unstable, and has the most potential energy, which is released and drops us from the furthest height on our way back to landing on the stable downbeat of the next cycle.  The syncopated second note causes an undulation in the body, around the beat.  I feel like it has an "up-ness" and movement "bounces off" this note.

PROPULSION:  Headed back toward stability, the third note, a somewhat stable note, propels us towards "home" at the downbeat of the next cycle.

...and there you have it.  The cycle begins again, and people dance!

Of course, there are other rhythmic structures that destabilize.  Various types of claves (Rumba, son, African 6/8 clave), West African, Indian, and Middle Eastern rhythms contain cycling patterns of upbeat and downbeat emphases, and are delightfully destabilizing.

What rhythms DO NOT destabilize?  Though 3-3-2 patterns are often present in rock music (i.e. the bass and guitar strumming rhythm on R.E.M.'s Man On The Moon), the music is usually firmly grounded by the kick drum on the downbeat, and especially by the backbeat on the snare drum.  For this reason, even though it's some of my favorite music, I tend to find rock music and rock drum beats to be very stabilizing, and not very inspiring, propulsive in the dance studio, but maybe I just haven't worked out how to make it work yet, and it's actually a treasure trove of dance-inspiring sounds!

*You'll notice I don't use European music notation.  There are a few reasons for this.  European music notation is a very effective shorthand, useful for getting a musician to play a very specific thing. The 3-3-2 or "long, long, short" pattern can come in all kinds of rhythmic flavors, (swung, straight, something in between, uneven, etc.), many of which would not be represented accurately by two dotted eighth notes and an eighth note.  Additionally, not everybody reading this knows how to read European musical notation, and the improvised music that I play in the dance studio has more in common with musical styles that have the body or voice as the point of origin, rather than an idea or the written symbol (a shorthand) used to represent it.

FEELING AND COUNTING TIME IN THE DANCE STUDIO

WHAT IS FELT

Sometimes in the dance studio, musical confusion arises between dancers and musicians.  To help, I believe it’s helpful to begin with one thing we all share, the pulse. Pulse has to do with what is felt. To me, the pulse is an emphasis of the body, usually a point of weight or momentum, an impact, a maximum (or minimum), the onset of a sound or of light. In music and dance, the pulse often occurs periodically (an even amount of time or space between each occurrence) and each sound and movement exists in relationship to it – with it, against it, weaving in and out of it. On the most fundamental level, I imagine music and dance sharing the pulse, coded deeply within us from our ancestral past. As bipeds, when we locomote, there is a pulse, from step to step, which is both felt in the body and audible.

WHAT IS COUNTED

Often, musicians and dancers bring the pulse into the conscious, numerical/analytical mind by counting it. Musicians call the pulses "beats", and generally, dancers often use the term "counts".  Beats and counts are synonyms - That is, they mean the same thing. Musicians have usually learned a very specific way of counting beats, subdivisions (smaller rhythms which fit inside the beat), and other rhythm units (such as measures and phrases), and it is very helpful for dancers/dance teachers to have some language in place to help when communicating with musicians. Both musicians and dancers count rhythm using numbers (for the counts/beats), and some combination of other syllables for subdivisions (“and”, “ah” are common for subdivisions).

CONNECTING FEELING AND COUNTING

Sometimes difficulty arises in communication about the feeling of movement and the specific counts in a dance combination. From the start of their training, most musicians count verbally and work in relationship to a constant beat (often using a metronome to train in a sense of steady pulse). Dancers are often more adept at sensing how movement feels, sometimes in relationship to the beat, and don’t spend as much time verbalizing.

Meter can be understood as the link between what is felt and what is counted.  It is a way of describing the feel and counting the number of notes between counts.

There are three types of meter - Simple, compound and complex, in music theory parlance.  I prefer to use the terms Duple, Triple, and Complex, because they are a little more intuitive. Duple meter groups notes by two and multiples of two and has a “straight” feel. Triple meter groups notes by threes and has a “round” or “swinging” feel. Complex meters are counted in odd numbers other than 3, such as 5, 7, 10, 11, 13 and up, and often feel “uneven”, “lopsided” or “like one leg is longer than the other”, although if you encounter/use them enough, they can begin to feel totally familiar and natural like duple and triple meters.

  • Duple meters are usually counted: “One-and-Two-and-Three-and-Four-and-Five-and-Six-and...”
  • Triple meters are usually counted: “One-and-ah-Two-and-ah-Three-and-ah-Four-and-ah…”

From a musical counting standpoint, a phrase can be understood as the way that counts are grouped, to correspond with a segment of movement.  The most common type of musical phrase of any meter, in a dance context, has 8 beats or counts. However, a phrase can have any number of counts.

…and here’s where things can get a little tricky. Often dancers will say “this is an 8” to mean a phrase with groupings of 8 counts, in duple meter: “One-and-Two-and-Three-and-Four-and…”. And similar terminology could be used for a phrase with groupings of a different number of counts, in duple meter: “a nine”, “a twelve”, “a six”, etc., all counted “One-and-Two-and-Three-and-Four-and-Five-and…”.

However, the terms “a nine”, “a twelve”, “a six” could also be used to indicate a phrase with a triple meter feel with one third as many counts (pulses) as its name. For example:

  • Three counts subdivided by threes (triple meter), resulting in nine total subdivisions could be called/counted as “a nine” (3X3=9)(pulses or counts in ALL CAPS): “ONE-two-three-FOUR-five-six-SEVEN-eight-nine”
  • Four counts subdivided by threes (triple meter), resulting in twelve total subdivisions could also be called/counted as “a twelve” (4X3=12): ONE-two-three-FOUR-five-six-SEVEN-eight-nine-TEN-eleven-twelve”
  •  Two counts (triple meter) - “a six”, etc.  

In these cases, the numbers 9, 12, and 6 refer to the total number of subdivisions in each phrase, not the number of counts.