Tips to encourage the use of live music for historic dance

Many historical performances of dance impress greatly with the meticulous research, careful practice, attention to style, and accurate costumes only to disappoint when a member of the group (or if lucky, a clued in helper) rushes over to press the button for music.

Sometimes there ensues a ghastly pause, or even the strains of the wrong music; if correct, at a volume too loud or soft, or distortion from a less than perfect sound system for the performance space. Music is integral to dance, and for historic dance, that meant live musicians, so to present a performance with canned music is clearly an anachronism.

The following tips are intended to try to address some of the issues that lead to this being such common situation – the perceived lack of a credible alternative in the form of available, competent (and affordable) live musicians. The tips are addressed both to dancers and musicians as they need to meet on common ground; indeed, ideally they should unite in the same person who both plays and dances, as the occasion demands!

Tips for dancers

It is more important to have musicians who are actually interested in playing for dance, ideally who dance themselves, than musicians with huge talent or vast experience.

Find out if anyone in your dance group plays an instrument (you’ll be surprised how often people do), or if they have a partner/relation/friend who plays and might be interested.

Their instruments do not need to be ‘obviously’ period: modern fiddle, guitar, flute, etc. have period equivalents and will suffice for starting out, and in fact would be closer to the instruments commonly used for dance music in period than a recorder consort (or crumhorns!). Often there are folk or ethnic instruments that are relatively cheap yet excellent facsimiles, e.g. oud, folk whistle, bagpipe, hurdy-gurdy. Also, musicians used to playing in a folk context will often already be ahead when it comes to the tips below.

You don’t need many volunteers – a single fiddler or piper can do a lot, and keeping the music group down to 2 or 3 members is more likely to result in a pleasant, together sound than a large ensemble (see also hints to musicians about the benefits of not expecting to join in on everything). Much dance music survives as a single line, and played with style and gusto this can go a long way.

Consider the acoustic you will perform in – it may not be viable to use one quiet lute in a large hall (equally, it is unrealistic to crank up the volume on your sound system so that the nice lute track you are used to dancing to sounds loud enough). But a fiddle or high pitched wind instrument could be fine.

Hopefully the musician(s) should be willing to rehearse with the dancers, at least sufficiently often that they recognise the structure and sections of the dance, and understand the necessary tempo and flow. Make sure you give them that opportunity, by inviting them along early and often to rehearsals, rather than asking them to play at the last minute, or assuming that one run through will suffice. It will also benefit the performance if your dancers have not become completely accustomed to a single recording, used in rehearsals, and are hence thrown by the slightest difference when it is played live.

It can be much easier to teach and rehearse a dance with a live musician: they are able to start or stop in any place at a signal, can do each section over and over, slow it down, insert a pause for the dancers to catch up etc. (see notes for musicians on how this – which might initially appear boring for them – is actually a great way to practice).

If you can, provide the musicians with accurate music (e.g. all repeats shown), annotated with the dance sections, with tempi indicated, and perhaps with some recordings so they can hear what you need. But don’t be afraid to discuss with them if you find the dance needs some variation from the ‘official’ score.

Don’t treat the musicians like a CD or MP3 player, particularly in performance. Start where you can see each other to pick up cues, and end so that the audience can applaud you both. Be aware that they take up space, some instruments require seating, and musicians may need time to change instruments or tune between dances.

And a final word – even when circumstances dictate that the music is coming from a box, there are still real live musicians who took the time and effort to produce the recording. Make sure you have permission to use the tracks, and give them appropriate credit in a programme or announcement.

For musicians

Playing for dance is not about reading notes off a page. You need to be willing to engage with the dance, understand the structure and tempi, appreciate the style, etc. You may pride yourself on your sight-reading but this is probably the least important musical skill you need to bring.

It is much more crucial that you can keep going, in tempo and get the structure of the music correct (repeats, sections etc.) than play the right notes. A tempo mistake will be noticed immediately, a melody mistake is likely to go unnoticed. Actually, this is just as true of performing even without dancers! So using playing for dance to develop the ability to ‘keep going no matter what’ will be of wider benefit.

Most dance music is not complex, and hence a great place to develop other musical skills such as playing from memory. Particularly if you make the time to rehearse with the dancers, and consequently get to play the tune over and over, you’ll be surprised how quickly it can become embedded in your brain. Being able to watch the dancers when performing can make a huge difference to the effectiveness of a performance. Similarly, the repetitions of a rehearsal can be a good place to explore the introduction of ornament and other improvised variations.

Fairly often, the music available with the original choreography will be a single line, and hence require some work to arrange. You may be able to find arrangements but should view these critically – be aware that it is as important to understand the musical style of the period as it is to understand the appropriate style for the dance, and all too often the addition of ‘generic’ harmonisation is the wrong approach, particularly for the earliest periods.

Chris Elmes, member of Gaita