Without a doubt, one of my most commonly asked questions by students of all ages is, “why don’t you play music with lyrics?”
It isn’t that I refuse to play music with lyrics but for so many reasons, I find music without lyrics better supports my teaching philosophy, my mission, and my lesson plans. Here’s how and why:
I am a teacher of dance. I am a teacher of dance who believes in the tempo, duration, rhythm, and phrasing of movement first and foremost.
Yes, often the music that the dance is set to informs these qualities but in some ways that places music higher in the pecking order. My concern is in making the dance do the work of expressing clearly the intent of the piece whether it be a story or a visual demonstration of all that dance entails- including time as experienced in musical ways such as tempo, duration, rhythm, and phrasing.
As a teacher of dance, it is my responsibility to expose dancers to many ways of working with and against music, and that of many musical genres. This experimentation begins in technique classes but leads directly to choreography and performance and ultimately the dances that my students create as well.
A high school principal once told me, “we may not all be professional artists but we are all part of this arts community. It is our job to contribute to the aesthetic of the group and to challenge what we already know.”
How does this lead to the inclusion or exclusion of music with lyrics?
My goal is to inspire my students to be thinking of technical details while they are dancing. In this, I have found lyrics often get in the way and serve more as a distraction than a tool. It is hard to be thinking about completing a weight shift or aligning the spine when you are singing away to the current hits.
Since most students are really asking, “why don’t you use pop songs?” when they inquire about my music selections, I use the question (or sometimes pose the question) to spark a conversation about the relationship of dance and music.
In choreography, the number one trap is miming the lyrics. While commercial dance may benefit from some direct relationship of lyrics and movement, in concert dance it is a grave mistake.
Eliminating that temptation immediately places early choreographers further ahead in developing their concepts to be expressed in movement.
The choreography critique then begins at what qualities the dance has and how they relate to the music, rather than stopping at the all too common defense, “but it goes with the music.”
It can be difficult to get a 13 or 15 year old (or older) to understand that not every “great” song makes for great dance. Let’s face it, it can be hard to get a 13 or 15 year old to understand that they themselves have something worth “saying” and should trust themselves to find a way to do that without borrowing the words of someone else.
By using instrumental music we also avoid the battle of what is school appropriate. Nothing side- tracks the creative process faster than arguing over words assembled by an absent third party. It gets especially tricky when young students don’t understand the double language often used in pop music and want clear explanations as to why their choice can’t be used.
When working on performance skills, specifically in developing how movement and dance do relate, using music that is familiar can be a great tool. Once the foundation has already been laid, adding popular music that students would commonly know allows for their attention to be directed on how they are applying musical tools to their performance.
Exploring how their movement can compliment, contrast, or co-exist with the musical score becomes the point of the investigation and is the more advanced version of their technical work. In this sense, they are dancing with the music and not to it as would have been done in the beginning.
The End of the Day
At the end of the day, I don’t want the lyrics stuck in my head.
At the end of the day, I view my music library as an investment. Very simply, I don’t want to spend a lot of money on music that I won’t want to listen to in 6 months let alone 5 years. I find what I view to be “classics” and buy those. I find the artists that consistently speak to me and follow them. I figure out what, other than pop music, speaks to my students and I keep track.
There are also GREAT musicians working in the field of dance- Making music specifically for dance!
Unsure of where to start in finding instrumental music great for dance?
Here is a brief list of artists to get you moving, some are artists working in the field of dance and others are not: Christian Matjias, Albert Mathias, Michael Wall (asimplesound.com), Michael Price, Yoko Kanno, Moby, Kodo, John Scofield, Yo-Yo Ma, Lullatone, Daniel Bernard Roumain,…..
How do you choose music for class and/or performance?
Heather Vaughan-Southard MFA, is a choreographer, dance educator, and performer based in Michigan. She currently directs the dance program at the Everett High School Visual and Performing Arts Magnet in Lansing. With the philosophy of teaching dance as a liberal art, Ms. Vaughan-Southard collaborates with numerous arts and education organizations throughout the state. She has danced professionally in Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, and New York and has performed works by Mia Michaels, Lar Lubovitch, Donald McKayle, Billy Siegenfeld, Alexandra Beller, Debra Levasseur-Lottman, and Bob Fosse. As a choreographer, her work has been credited by the Los Angeles Times for “creating heat.” She has recently choreographed for the dance programs at Michigan State University, Grand Valley State University, Lansing Community College and is the former dance professor at Albion College. She is a regular guest artist and blogger for Dance in the Annex, an innovative dance community in Grand Rapids. Heather received her MFA in Dance from the University of Michigan, BFA in Dance from Western Michigan University and K-12 certification in Dance from Wayne State University. Read Heather’s posts.