In praise of live accompaniment

When I was in college, I took modern dance every semester I could. I had done a very very short session of ballet once when I was little, but when my feet cramped I was confused and quit. Dance counted for the physical education requirement at my college, which is why I got started in it, and I loved it so much I continued. Embodied music and art, creative expression, grace and beauty and truth and stretching, opening the heart, the parallelism of bodily systems and mental / emotional ones. Amazing stuff.

We had a piano in the studio, and a thin young man named Blanton would accompany our classes. The teacher would explain and demonstrate the combination or the exercise we were to do, and he would immediately have the most fitting music for it. Tribal sounds for moving across the floor with wide legs and arched arms. “Ashokan Farewell” for a seated stretching sequence. Always just perfectly matched to the kind of movement we were doing. And, of course, his timing matched ours — an intro to prepare us, and an ending as we finished. At the end of every class we all applauded our thanks to him.

Now my daughter takes dance, and there is no piano in her studio. Her ballet teacher uses recorded piano and orchestral music, which means she has to pause her instruction to go start it and stop it, and the piece rarely takes the same amount of time as the movement, and often enough doesn’t quite match the mood very well. Her modern teacher uses some recorded music but occasionally also uses a hand drum, which I like a lot.

We went to her grade’s spring music program, and the whole thing was done to recorded music. There’s no flexibility for adjusting the tempo to the students’ abilities or for recovering from mistakes. The recorded music just goes — it runs the show — the students simply have to keep up and go along with it.

In high school I sometimes did “special music” in church — in the beginning it was wonderful because our worship band was able and willing to take the time to learn the pieces and practice with me. After a while though they required soloists to use recorded tracks.

I don’t think it’s simply an ego thing — wanting to be supported by or in control of the music instead of feeling like one has to follow or keep up with the recording. I think it’s more about synergy — collaboration — mutuality. It’s being part of something larger, something communal, relational, human, instead of standing alone in front of a recorded background.

I wish I could play the piano, well enough to improvise and select wisely like Blanton, so that I could offer to accompany my daughter’s dance class and school programs.