from the Spring 2001 issue

How do you teach dance rhythms to early-level students?


{Click here to go to the first video clip, which is in Belinda Green's article}

Introduction by Bruce Berr, Editor

on-musicians frequently marvel at and yet wonder about all of the motions that pianists make while playing. Even a casual observer at a recital cannot help but notice how active much of a pianist's body is during a convincing performance. Besides the expected blur of fingers, much more presents itself to the viewer-arms and wrists glide in graceful arcs from here to there; head and trunk drift up and back slowly at times as if being covertly drawn by some offstage puppeteer; a foot unexpectedly sweeps across the floor. Many who have not played an instrument are fascinated and yet suspicious about all of this. They mistakenly come to the conclusion that most, if not all, of these "extraneous" motions are meant for show-to impress or entertain the audience. After all, common sense says that a piano cannot know or care what gesticulations the pianist makes, as long as a finger hits the right key at the right time.

But as pianists, we know differently. We are aware that to make engaging music at the piano is to achieve the seemingly impossible task of creating continuous lines of horizontal and circular energy on a machine teethed with eighty-eight distinctly separate vertical mechanisms. It is no wonder then that what we do between the notes is just as important as what we do when we actually produce a tone. Therefore, one explanation of what makes certain music pianistic is that the gestures needed to play the music are the same gestures needed to play the notes. In that case there is a marriage between the prosaic and the poetic, between the practical and the ideal.

One of my teachers, Etsko Tazaki, once said, "When we play the piano, we create a dance with our bodies, and the keyboard translates that dance into sound." (It is probably not a coincidence that this marvelous pianist studied ballet for several years as a very young child before starting on the keyboard.) What better way is there to induce our early-level students to experience this facet of piano playing than by using music that itself is born of dance?

Last year when I was perusing the index of titles of all past KEYBOARDCOMPANION articles (available on the magazine's website right here), I was surprised to discover that the word "dance" did not show up in a single one! Our two authors this issue help fill that void in very interesting but different ways. Kathleen Theisen discusses how the underpinnings of dance rhythms can be created in our students through large body motions and different types of chanting and singing. Belinda Green focuses on how to teach the actual choreography that helps early-level pianists dance at the keyboard. Both writers vividly demonstrate their points with audio and video clips that can be found on the KBC website. Chasse onward!

Article by Belinda Green

{Click to go to the first video clip}

n order to fully appreciate the importance of teaching dance rhythms to early-level students, look for a moment at the dance content of any standard repertoire collection. In the Baroque section, you will find it filled with Minuets, Sarabandes, Bourrees, and Gavottes; in the Classical section you will find Minuets, German Dances, and maybe an Ecossaise or two; in the Romantic section you will see Waltzes; and you are also sure to find several dances in the contemporary section.

It is certainly a challenging task to communicate all the subtleties of the rhythmic style of a particular dance to a student. Have you ever had the following experience? You are teaching the rhythm of a minuet to Johnny. You use the phrase "slight emphasis on beat one," only to hear Johnny, at his next lesson, play his minuet with a conscientious ACCENT on the first beat of each measure! Another experience that may be familiar to you: Jessica, who is a diligent student, is learning to play a bourree. She comes back the following week with all the right notes, rhythms, articulations, and fingerings. However, there is absolutely no feeling of the dance rhythm in her playing. How do we help this student feel the sparkle and rhythmic vitality of this lively dance?

Because the topic of teaching dance rhythms is a broad one, I would like to focus on one aspect: teaching the choreography-the movements and gestures we make when we play a dance on the piano. Without the appropriate gestures of the hand and wrist and arm, it is difficult to bring the rhythm of a dance to life.

First, I would like to outline the general approach I take when teaching a dance:


Consider a well-known dance: "Minuet in G Minor" (from the Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach) now attributed to Christian Petzol

In this minuet, the rhythmic style that we are trying to capture is a gentle lilt in 3/4. There is a "slight emphasis on beat one". Beats 2 and 3 should feel as if they are flowing forward to beat one. There is a circular feel to this graceful dance that students may be able to feel if, before trying to play it, they practice making a circle in the air with the hand while counting "1-2-3". They will feel more energy during beat 1 if they can drop their wrist slightly as they come around to beat 1.

To see the segment performed as described, click below:

611 kB, QuickTime movie file

When we are ready to teach students about the rhythmic feel of the notes of this minuet, the circular idea still applies, only it is the wrist and forearm that are making small circles (the French word, minuet, means "small," referring to the small steps in this dance). The fingers play with a legato touch on tones that are stepwise or with a semi-detached touch where there are leaps in the melody, such as the right hand in mm. 2 and 3 or the left hand in m.4.
Notes with asterisks in Example 1 are played semi-detached and notes without astericks are played legato. The wrist drops slightly into the key on the first beat of the measure, rolls up as the second beat is played and rolls through the note on the third beat and back down to the first beat, to start the cycle again.

To see the segment performed as described, click below:

546 kB, QuickTime movie file


Click for next page of this article and more video clips