Shall We Dance?

By Berr, Bruce | American Music Teacher, February-March 2008 | Go to article overview

Shall We Dance?


Berr, Bruce, American Music Teacher


A few years ago, I interviewed a 10-year old who wanted to begin studying piano. Irina's family had just bought a new upright piano because they were sure her interest in music would be long-term. During the trial lesson, I was impressed with her curiosity and spirit, as well as the fact that she seemed to already know a fair amount from school music classes and from having played the recorder for a semester. I also discovered that her ear was fabulous, and that she was in her sixth year of studying ballet and jazz dance!

The lessons began, and Irina's progress was astronomical due to her natural abilities, dance experience and propensity to do focused daily practice. Her body already knew much about musical gestures from having danced. When I introduced physical phrasing, she picked it up as if she were already a veteran. She prepared gestures (breathing before playing), executed them with continuity and elegance and followed through to the next gesture--with minimal instruction on my part. This was not the first student I had taught who had already danced, but this was the first who naturally transferred so much physical and aesthetic awareness to the piano.

I was curious about her dance instruction and learned that her dance school's spring concert was imminent, so I attended. It was an impressive event staged in a large theater to a wildly enthusiastic capacity crowd, presumably family and friends. About 80 young dancers strutted their stuff in various-sized ensembles with an occasional solo, all at what appeared to me to be at a high level of quality. Irina danced expressively and with poise in several ensembles. As her music teacher, it was delightful to see her in a different artistic scenario.

I attended that day expecting to learn more about my student and pedagogy. I came home with that, plus more. Certain observations persisted for weeks, followed by some changes in my studio and recital management:

* Most students danced in ensembles of some kind. The only ones doing solos were those who appeared to be at the upper-intermediate level or beyond.

True, when trying to accommodate dozens of students in one program on a large stage, ensembles are a natural solution. But I sensed there was more to it. While driving home, I wondered how those youngest dancers would have fared if they had danced alone--probably not nearly as well. I also asked myself, "In the past why did I ask students who've played piano for barely a year to play only solo at their first recital? Or even the second one?" About seven years ago, I started accompanying my elementary-level students on most completed pieces (improvising or composing an accompaniment if none was provided in the book) so that I could enhance their musicianship with my own and lend them my pianistic and personal support.

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