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.