JEFF ZAHOS

Dance Musician | Audio Engineer | Sound Designer

SETTING UP THE MUSICIAN'S AREA IN THE DANCE STUDIO

I've gotten to play music with dance in all sorts of situations, surroundings, locations, and physical arrangements.  I've accompanied dance in gymnasiums, from behind bushes next to a busy (and very noisy) street, and in a barn.  I've played sitting, standing, walking, running, and dancing, in grass and on dirt, on stage, in the audience, and under the stage of a theater.  I've played in parks, parking lots, and plazas.  And, of course, I've played in dance studios, where things really should be ideal for making music with dance.  But, even in the studio I've found that it usually takes some thought (and sometimes some politics) to get your musical equipment arranged for successful collaboration.

COLLABORATIVE CONSIDERATIONS

There are a few important musician-centered priorities when situating the musical area.  From where they're situated, the musician must comfortably/easily be able to:

  1. See the dance from the point of view which it is intended to be seen
  2. See and hear the teacher when she's demonstrating movement
  3. Play their instrument correctly/optimally while doing #1 & 2
  4. Hear what they're playing
  5. Enter and exit the music area to access the dance area  

I prefer to have my music area set up in the "front" of the studio, by the mirror, so I can see the dance from the intended point of view, and so I’m near the teacher when she's demonstrating - It’s important that I can see and hear her vocalizations while demonstrating or direct verbal communication. If the teacher is concerned that you'll be blocking the dancers' view of themselves, the musician can be off to the side, tucked in the front corner to minimize the amount of mirror space they take up. A pianist who reads music during class will need to be able to see the dancers and the teacher over the piano’s music tray, and will need to have the piano oriented such that the teacher and the dancers are visible while the piano lid is open.  This usually means that the piano is "Downstage Right", with the pianist's back to the mirror.  My setup is usually built around a drum set, I have found it effective to have the drums face the dancers at 45 degrees and the piano face the mirror at 45 degrees, so I can see the dance no matter which instrument(s) I’m playing.

"WEATHER"

I have had a studio that "rained" on my drums (leaky roof - it got fixed ... eventually), but that's not what this is about.  It's about HVAC (Heating, Ventilation, Air Conditioning).  It's helpful to keep pianos (and drums) away from radiators, heating/AC vents, or doors which lead directly outdoors.  Changes in temperature and humidity, especially rapid/drastic changes can wreak havoc on tuning of drums and pianos, and very dry conditions can even cause splits in a piano's soundboard.

TECHNOLOGY

Don't forget power!  If you use computer or mobile devices, electric/electronic instruments, you'll need power nearby, and if you send signal to a sound system, you'll need to be near an input.  For computer and mobile device-based sound sources, monitor speakers can allow you the potential to set up in more places, but if you don't have a monitor, you'll need to be positioned so you can hear the main loudspeakers. 

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.