Why is musicality considered hard to teach?

RainyDancer

New member
Hi everyone!

A dance teacher recently commented that musicality is one of the hardest things to teach. I didn't get a chance to ask for details so I've been trying to wrap my brain around why that would be ever since. Finally, it occurred to me this morning to ask you guys! So here are some of the more specific questions/ponderings that have come to me..

Is it the middle eastern component? Needing to translate the interpretations of middle eastern music in a way that makes sense from a western view point? I know many fusion dancers like me often dance to western music, as well, so I wonder if that is even still difficult to teach..

Is it the general complexity of all music? It can get pretty mathematical and scientific at times and I know a huge majority of dance students just want to go to class to move to some music, get a little exercise and have a little fun while doing so. So, perhaps, breaking out the numbers and charts and new vocab is probably not the best thing in all situations?

Is it a common lack of confidence in musical understanding? A lot of people *love* music is a sense that they love *listening* to it, but I think a lot of people don't really want to think to think too hard about it. Also a lot of people seem to be resigned to think they are "not musically inclined" or "tone deaf" etc. and are afraid they won't understand (or maybe I'm just projecting on that one, lol.. no matter how much I study I, myself, often feel that way..).

Is it hard to break it down in to exercises that teach specific elements? Or maybe it's not, but hard to explain how these exercises are important and will be helpful for improving improv in a way that motivates students to practice them?

Or! Maybe it's not hard for you to teach and don't know why it would be hard for someone else. In that case, great! Tell me more.. ;-)

(Pardon me as I continue to blab on for a sec..) Recently I have been writing up what I would teach if I were a teacher, both as a future plan and a learning tool for myself. Musicality and coming up with ways to improve my improv both have become a huge part of what I'm working on. (I bought several DVDs on it. Still have a few more to get.. Must.. learn.. everything...) When I heard the teacher say it was hard to teach, it made me wonder if there is something that me, having no experience as a teacher, was completely ignorant of. :think:

Sorry for the length and thanks for reading! :D
 

Darshiva

Moderator
From what I understand, it's because it's a vague concept and it requires students to listen and to do a lot of home practice. You can give people the basics with which to understand, but after that they are pretty much on their own to use what you've taught them to learn musicality.

I don't think of musicality as being hard to teach, but as requiring work to learn. It's easy to understand once you know how, but applying that knowledge takes time & practice and often students don't unless they are in the classroom. I like teaching musicality. I teach it at the same time as improv, because that way students are actually listening to the music and eventually greater understanding will happen.
 

Sophia Maria

New member
You say you are a tribal fusion dancer? This will make somewhat of a difference because mostly I hear tribal fusion dancers performing to Western produced music. Even still, musicality is important for everyone. I think it is hard to teach because quite simply it's hard to put into words. I think it might be especially difficult for Western dancers (in particular those with little dancing experience in any style), because dancers here tend to be taught choreography, choreography, choreography. Whereas the most important part of musicality to me is the feeling of the music.

Musicality means understanding the composition, instruments, and phrasing of the music, as well as drawing on the emotion of the piece to really connect with the music. The first elements were hard for me to learn (and I'm still learning) because Middle Eastern music is structured differently. So that takes a lot of immersion in the music and sometimes research and asking questions on this forum. What's also important is to know what movements to do to what musical components of the song...if you hear drumbeats, what should you do? If you hear zils, what should you do? What about a qanun? An accordion? etc etc.

But I think musicality is fundamentally hard to teach because it's about the dancer fully connecting with the music and embodying the song...and how can you tell someone specifically how to do that? A dancer can learn as much choreography and master as many steps as he or she wants, but where is the feeling of the music in their body? Is there one right or wrong way to "feel" the music in your body?

If you're looking for musicality in a tribal fusion context, I'd say watch Rachel Brice. Sometimes I am disappointed that ATS and Tribal dancers look blank and emotionless to me (I like the dances, but Egyptian is more my style :redface:) But Rachel Brice is one dancer I love who seems to retain that composed Tribal Fusion look, while still 100% embodying the music.

This performance is beautiful.
 

mahsati_janan

New member
I don't think of musicality as being hard to teach, but as requiring work to learn. It's easy to understand once you know how, but applying that knowledge takes time & practice and often students don't unless they are in the classroom. I like teaching musicality. I teach it at the same time as improv, because that way students are actually listening to the music and eventually greater understanding will happen.
I agree with this. I start teaching concepts of musicality very early in my classes, but I hide it inside other exercises for a while so that students don't realize how much they are learning. Later, I teach different aspects individually, but, the difficult part to me isn't finding ways to teach it, but getting the students excited enough to spend the massive amount of time necessary to learn not just the music and a set of rules, but to learn how the different items are interpreted emotionally and physically different. As a quick example, if you put on music and ask everyone to mark the beat, most US students tend to toe-tap and hand flick, but if you ask the same to a classroom of students from another culture, they may mark it with the heel or their shoulders or chest. Teaching to find the beat is less difficult than teaching how different styles of dance will react to it. This goes even more so for more complicated concepts like interpretation of different lines of melody or rhythm in performance. Musicality only starts with understanding the structure of the music itself; the hard part is learning a new way of listening and experiencing it. Then, we add the layer of lyrics which can confuse it even more. For example, just because you know the lyrics to the song and it sounds ok, do you know the meanings behind the meanings of the words? Is something in your song actually referring to something scandalous? For me, those are the kinds of things that make teaching musicality a long, long process in many cases. It is very worth it, though. I love seeing dancers inside of their music instead of dancing on top of it.
 

Kashmir

New member
It's hard because it is art not science - breaking things down often loses the whole point. You have to grasp whole phrases and see how each fits into the whole. At the same time you need to know how to appropriately interpret the music for its particualr style - while still communicating and performing as a dancer. And it is the bits between the beats - the reach that looks like you won't make it back before the accent - but you do. All without looking stressed.

It's also hard because it is partly subjective - and to teach it you need to model and give lots of examples and then actually correct people. I've been doing an exercise over the last few weeks where the students do simple moves to just a few bars - each week one or two sets. Then I pick the one thing that clashes most for each of them and the student redoes the exercise. The reach was a real example where the student wanted to be "safe" to tackle the next phrase and lost the moment by arriving a split second too soon. The result looked mechanical.

And if you have the luxury and time to work on such stuff, you need small classes and students who can let go of their ego and take changes in timing, style and gesture on board. (And who are willing to buy performance DVDs and sit down and actively watch in their own time)
 

Farasha Hanem

New member
But I think musicality is fundamentally hard to teach because it's about the dancer fully connecting with the music and embodying the song...and how can you tell someone specifically how to do that? A dancer can learn as much choreography and master as many steps as he or she wants, but where is the feeling of the music in their body? Is there one right or wrong way to "feel" the music in your body?
It's hard because it is art not science - breaking things down often loses the whole point. You have to grasp whole phrases and see how each fits into the whole. At the same time you need to know how to appropriately interpret the music for its particualr style - while still communicating and performing as a dancer. And it is the bits between the beats - the reach that looks like you won't make it back before the accent - but you do. All without looking stressed.

It's also hard because it is partly subjective - and to teach it you need to model and give lots of examples and then actually correct people.
And this is why I almost always get quietly upset when we have "freestyle dancearound time." About the only two songs we "freestyle" dance to is either "Lady Marmalade" or "Hips Don't Lie." Very seldom do we ever get to improv to even remotely Middle Eastern Music. :mad::mad::mad:

sorry, venting again...
 

Amulya

Moderator
I always used to trow in musicality from day one with students, if not they fix too hard on what I do and never devellop their own style. (I am for pro improvising from the beginning for students so they learn to actually dance and not copy)
It is very hard to teach because as said before its such a personal thing. Everybody 'feels' the music differently. You can't say that one way is necesarily wrong and another right. If a certain melody feels like a figure 8 for one person it might feel like a hip circle for another.

Farasha, when I let my students improv it's always to proper belly dance music :) I got the idea from my first two teachers, they always let us improv the last 10 minutes of class. They would just turn on music and order us to dance which was great! And again, just proper belly dance music.
 
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Sophia Maria

New member
Musicality only starts with understanding the structure of the music itself; the hard part is learning a new way of listening and experiencing it.
Exactly. That's essentially what I was trying to get at--musicality is how the dancer experiences the music.

Farasha Hanem said:
And this is why I almost always get quietly upset when we have "freestyle dancearound time." About the only two songs we "freestyle" dance to is either "Lady Marmalade" or "Hips Don't Lie." Very seldom do we ever get to improv to even remotely Middle Eastern Music.
Could you request more variation? I suppose in your class the teacher is trying to get students' musicality to come out early because they are familiar with these two songs and can, I guess, "let themselves go". However, maybe you can suggest to your teacher that different people connect to different types of music, and that she switch things up a bit. I think it's probably good to force yourself to dance to something you don't normally like, but also it's essential to try new things. Especially considering this dance requires considerable going out the comfort zone. You have to listen to Middle Eastern music! :naghty: (Then, Middle Eastern music becomes your comfort zone! I am so much more comfortable dancing to Warda now than to Shakira haha)
 

Yame

New member
I don't think it's hard to teach, so much as it's hard to learn without proper guidance, and unfortunately not all teachers out there bother with it.
 

Aziyade

New member
I don't think it's hard to teach, so much as it's hard to learn without proper guidance, and unfortunately not all teachers out there bother with it.

I agree, and I think in part the problem is that there are so many "teachers" who ... well, it's not always that they don't bother with it, but sometimes that they are just so clueless themselves that they CAN'T teach it.

I've actually been in some quasi-local classes and workshops where the "instructor" (and I use that term loosely) is not only not on the beat, she's nowhere in the vicinity (and not in the cool Egyptian way.) Or she counts some weird way, that is inconsistent both with what she's demonstrating and what she's telling the students to do. Her students have all the musicality of Navin Johnson in the movie "The Jerk" and I blame her entirely for that.

In my own experience, I've seen "teachers" try to break down a waltz or 6/8 into 4-beat measures (which sometimes can work yes, but not in these cases) because they can't wrap their brains around a 3-beat phrase.

I've seen teachers switch back and forth between accenting the up and down beats (without awareness that they're doing this) which THOROUGHLY confused the class.

I've seen a teacher trying to demonstrate an 8-beat combination to a 6-beat debke phrase, and then standing around scratching her head trying to figure out why "the music was wrong." (I HAD to intervene in this instance. Couldn't control myself.)


RainyDancer,
Basically MANY MANY "instructors" view their job to be teaching students "the moves" in isolation from anything musical or cultural. Maybe their teacher didn't cover anything more than moves, or maybe she did and they just didn't "get it." Musicality is (to me) the BASIS of Dance. Musicality and Movement. Otherwise it's just movement and might as well just be exercise or calisthenics.

I start musicality from day one, and I usually use folk music because I think the beat is pretty obvious. I have never had a student who can't identify the beat and clap on it. Then we talk about rhythms, downbeats, the feelings of various instruments, musical phrasing, and a VERY beginner cheat-sheet version of "what steps to do with what kind of music" thing, which it seems like a lot of beginners want to be told. (I do insist this is SIMPLY a starting point, and not any kind of set of "rules" that must be followed.)

It's very easy to take one step or step combination and drill that with different kinds of music -- so students get a sense of the difference in feeling between dancing to some earthy mizmar-band fellahi music, and translating that same combo to a more orchestral "classical" composition. That was one of the first thing my first private teacher did with me, and I think it's a great exercise.
 

Greek Bonfire

New member
I think a lot of the problem comes about because of the teaching of choreography. Newer students are working so hard to count and to remember the steps that they don't have "time" to learn musicality. I also think some teachers are afraid of doing more improv with their students because it's not always taken apart. For instance, when you hear the mizmar, ask students what type of movements they think would go with that, then to the oud, the same thing. In fact, a whole session on just these types of drills would probably be a good idea IMHO.

Also, I do think that dancing to classical is a little more complicated and should not be attempted too much until the earthy elements have been "digested" first.
 

mahsati_janan

New member
I think a lot of the problem comes about because of the teaching of choreography.
This is an interesting thought. In my beginning levels, part of the reason I use choreographies is to teach musicality. In my intermediate and higher levels, we focus on musicality as a topic in itself and within improv and choreography creation. I use class choreographies with my level 1 & 2 students so that I can walk them through the movements and transitions, but also so that I can explain to them why I made specific choreography choices musically. For me, I've found that using choreography to explain my own musicality process to them helps them to start developing their own. :)
 

Darshiva

Moderator
I love improv so students get to experience improv early & often. I give them the basic bones approach to musicality (this for upper body, this for lower body, this for masculine, this for feminine - listen to the music, there are no wrong answers if you are doing what the music asks you to do) and pretty much let their own ears & bodies direct their development.

I do get students asking me why I dance a certain way to the music and I say "I hear it differently'. Then they ask how they can and I say 'practice'. :D

Again, I agree that the idea is to slowly step up the complexity of the music so that they don't notice the work involved. And it's a good idea to put the musicality at the end of the class (I call it the faff session) because the musicality is what you want them to remember.
 

Greek Bonfire

New member
This is an interesting thought. In my beginning levels, part of the reason I use choreographies is to teach musicality. In my intermediate and higher levels, we focus on musicality as a topic in itself and within improv and choreography creation. I use class choreographies with my level 1 & 2 students so that I can walk them through the movements and transitions, but also so that I can explain to them why I made specific choreography choices musically. For me, I've found that using choreography to explain my own musicality process to them helps them to start developing their own. :)
I also learned choreo first as improv at the time would've been too much for me to handle. But my teachers also said to listen to the music, and not rely on counting, as I'm sure you and many other teachers have done. I do think that some students, however, get so caught up in not blowing the steps that they hang on to counting instead of really listening to the music to guide their steps even if it is choreography. And when they do, it makes it so much easier. Also, by teaching choreography, you are right - they do and should learn the musicality process. It worked for me in a big way.
 

mahsati_janan

New member
I also learned choreo first as improv at the time would've been too much for me to handle. But my teachers also said to listen to the music, and not rely on counting, as I'm sure you and many other teachers have done. I do think that some students, however, get so caught up in not blowing the steps that they hang on to counting instead of really listening to the music to guide their steps even if it is choreography. And when they do, it makes it so much easier. Also, by teaching choreography, you are right - they do and should learn the musicality process. It worked for me in a big way.
Absolutely! I start with improv in my beginning classes, but in a much more limited context to ease people into it. I do things like upper and lower body improv with specific types of movements and traveling across the studio (first doing what I have them do and then adding/changing with their own improv). Counting is a great tool, but sometimes it can definitely get in the way of actually experiencing the moment and the music.
 

RainyDancer

New member
Thanks for all the very informative replies! They've given me a lot to think about. I will have to go back and read them again and digest them a little more.
 

Aziyade

New member
This is an interesting thought. In my beginning levels, part of the reason I use choreographies is to teach musicality. In my intermediate and higher levels, we focus on musicality as a topic in itself and within improv and choreography creation. I use class choreographies with my level 1 & 2 students so that I can walk them through the movements and transitions, but also so that I can explain to them why I made specific choreography choices musically. For me, I've found that using choreography to explain my own musicality process to them helps them to start developing their own. :)
I know this is an old thread, but I reconsidered my entire beginner syllabus based on this post, and I think it's MUCH more successful now. And explaining why I chose to put this movement there is really easy, and I can throw it in AS I'm teaching. Thanks Mahsati!!

Going through my CD collection, I found a bunch of short (90 sec or so) songs that make GREAT beginner choreographies. I think the songs that I've used in the past have just been too long and too hard to remember, or I end up trying too teach too much. 90 seconds is almost perfect for my classes. I'm finding the music organizes itself into 2 or 3 sections, some of which repeat, which is great because depending upon the class level, I can create new combinations for the repeats, or just have the same combo repeat.

This was a good thread!
 

mahsati_janan

New member
I know this is an old thread, but I reconsidered my entire beginner syllabus based on this post, and I think it's MUCH more successful now. And explaining why I chose to put this movement there is really easy, and I can throw it in AS I'm teaching. Thanks Mahsati!!
Thank you! I am glad it was helpful. For me, it is a good, non-threatening way to introduce my beginners to the idea of choosing your movements for the music and transitions well to casually explaining musicality without too much pressure on the students. :)
 

Yame

New member
I know this is an old thread, but I reconsidered my entire beginner syllabus based on this post, and I think it's MUCH more successful now. And explaining why I chose to put this movement there is really easy, and I can throw it in AS I'm teaching. Thanks Mahsati!!

Going through my CD collection, I found a bunch of short (90 sec or so) songs that make GREAT beginner choreographies. I think the songs that I've used in the past have just been too long and too hard to remember, or I end up trying too teach too much. 90 seconds is almost perfect for my classes. I'm finding the music organizes itself into 2 or 3 sections, some of which repeat, which is great because depending upon the class level, I can create new combinations for the repeats, or just have the same combo repeat.

This was a good thread!
Choreography is a great teaching tool if you know how to use it well... and it can also be a huge hindrance if you don't.

I think the best way to incorporate choreography into beginner and intermediate classes is to work on shorter choreographies and really break down the technique, explain musical concepts and why you are doing such and such a move at such and such a time, how to change up the move to match the mood of the music, explain the lyrics, talk about options of expression, talk about the musical genre and how the dance in this genre should differ from the dance in that other genre we learned last week, etc.

So when you do all that, you won't be able to cover as much choreography in an hour or hour and a half class as you would by just throwing moves on people's faces and expecting them to learn as fast as possible. However, that is probably better for them anyway... it'll give their brains time to absorb and work on the material in-depth. The whole point of learning choreography in class is to put technique into practice, absorb concepts of musicality, work on transitions, etc... unless the choreography is meant to be performed (which most class choreographies aren't), these goals should trump the goal to memorize one full 3-5 minute choreography as quickly as possible (and if the choreography IS going to be performed, then many classes will need to be spent on polishing it anyway).

So I think the 90-second choreography is a great idea. It doesn't even have to be a 90-second song, you can just choreograph part of a song and move on to a different song next time.
 

Aziyade

New member
Choreography is a great teaching tool if you know how to use it well... and it can also be a huge hindrance if you don't.

THIS! Man, I wish somebody would write a book :) I know I wasn't using it well, and I'm sorry for my poor students who were part of the earlier experiments. :(

So I think the 90-second choreography is a great idea. It doesn't even have to be a 90-second song, you can just choreograph part of a song and move on to a different song next time.
Yeah, one of the things I'd like to do is rip out 90 seconds of some of the most popular Um Kalthoum songs (or would that be sacrilege?) -- so the students have a basic understanding of the primary themes and phrases in that part of the music, have a sense of what that kind of music sounds like versus the older folky stuff, and would be able to recognize "Oh that's Inta Omri" when they hear those musical themes in other versions of the songs.

I figured I'd start with those 10 or 15 songs every dancer should know CDs. Or just pick the top 10 Kalthoum songs and TRY to slice out a section that makes sense and still connects back to the whole. It's too bad nobody's already done this commercially because I would have bought that years ago.
 
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