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An Invitation to the Dance
My Tour as an Accompanist Begins
A friend and reader of mine suggested, recently, that I start writing about something I’ve known intimately and for a long time - the world of dance. I have been a musician in the dance world for a long time, having taken about 17 years off. I rejoined it about five and half years ago.
According to a diary entry it was October 28, 1982, that I first sat at a piano in a modern dance studio and tried my hand at accompanying.
This has been a particularly good day. After breakfast I went to Putnam 107 [Ohio University’s home for dance and its largest studio] and tried my hand briefly at accompanying a modern dance class. I was extremely nervous, and I was called upon to play anything with a waltz beat (but a certain way). The ‘master’ Eileen was playing at all the other intervals, and I found her improvisation very impressive. This may be a job sometime.
I count that as a stroke of understatement. 40 years later, it is still a job, albeit with some impressive interruptions, including a 14-year stint in corporate life. I do remember the day independent of the diary.
I was twenty and just starting my junior year. My friend Jordan (he of the New York apartment in my “Arrival” series) let me know one day, perhaps a week earlier than my let-us-say audition, that his mother, who was director of the dance school, needed musicians for the department. Jordan was aware that I improvised all the time. I had studied the piano for some years but had stopped short of becoming a music major. Sight reading was a tiresome hindrance – a sort of dyslexia that caused me to focus more on ear-training. Even as a child I discovered that I could, in Eileen’s parlance, “play on”, without music in front of me.
I recall telling Jordan that “I could play a couple of waltzes”, having no idea of what all this was going to mean, require, and manipulate and how much of my life it would seize.
Putnam 107 was a very large room – a former school gymnasium with a built-in stage – now used for audience seating. The flooring was a kind of light-colored hardwood in long slats - beautifully smooth, and there were the usual full-length mirrors and ballet barres. Otherwise, everything was white and clean, including the brick walls. Large clerestory windows brought in an abundance of light. In one corner there was placed a six-foot grand piano, and at that piano sat the imposing Eileen – a fairly short woman in her 50’s with tight curly hair, greying a little. I was advised not to be intimidated by her, though she evinced an air of authority and seriousness with a subtle ironic sensibility that softened it a little.
Class commenced with about twenty-five students.
I sat up on the stage, hearing Eileen, who, as the diary stated, was indeed a master. She seemed to be spontaneously composing theater music, which seemed impossible to me. Her invitation, however, was rather casual and low-key. “Listen to what I’m playing, and if you have an idea, jump in.”
I sat on the stage, terrified of my “jumping in”, but there came a lull, then a demonstration, and then an idea. I figured that here was a good point to come down to the piano and say something. I was suddenly seated at the keys, feeling like the pilot of a ship. The teacher gave me some idea of a meter, and there was a count in – “five, and six, and ready, and go…”
I started banging out my waltz, which must have sounded like gunshots at a madrigal performance. There was laughter, and everything stopped. The music didn’t fit and wasn’t even at a relatable tempo. I was rescued by Eileen, who showed me how the appropriate music could sound, which was mellifluous and organic. It not only fit, but it supported. Understanding a little more, I attempted again to move the class, now roughly imitating what I’d heard. This worked for the moment, but I felt like I was soloing on a unicycle – the crash coming at any moment. It showed me that something was possible, if not easy. It was also very attractive, and I wanted more.
I went into town and ran into a girl on whom I had an ongoing and tragic crush (which only ended earlier this year with her untimely death), in addition to her friendship, and proudly announced my triumph in having survived the audition, which I must also have passed.
In the ensuing days, per invitation, I began haunting Eileen at 107, again playing little bits or adding to her piano with a great set of Chinese drums and other percussion objects from a cabinet near the piano. Her playing was nothing short of revelatory. I had never observed someone with a classical composition degree – particularly someone who could apply it in this way. (Eventually, I earned student credits studying the technique of accompanying with her.)
Sometime during this space of time, I was informed by Eileen that she would be unavailable to play for a particular class and asked me if I would I be willing to solo. I was the understudy getting his moment on stage. Thus began a beautiful kinesthetic friendship with the world of modern dance.
During the warmup sequence at the start of class, I’d be in heaven, just enjoying the sounds of the piano in the room and observing its connection to the movement. I remember smiles coming from the teacher. The department taught a movement technique inspired by the work of Alwin Nikolais and Murray Louis who had their own company in New York. The technique had a happy air to it – so easy, in essence to support with music, that is, until I started realizing that I wasn’t a finished craftsman at the task.
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Improvising was one thing but putting it into phrases that fit the various dance sequences was an entirely different challenge. I had come to dance accompanying with bits and pieces of works I had studied, plus songs and little solos that I was quickly stringing together, but the musical theory underlying it was still largely a mystery. So much of that had been skipped during private piano lessons, and I was now being asked to count as I played. It was often very difficult.
I’d start on a phrase built on a count of eight (the most common) and realize to my horror, somewhere in it, that I had lost the “one”. Dancers needed that count for their own phrasing. I’d have to watch carefully (which was also difficult, not looking down) - hoping to figure out where “one” might be, then skidding to a finish in time with the exercise. In general, I was still learning how to make music spontaneously, but without enough of an internal library to compensate for times when nothing new would come out. It took months – years actually - to get a real foothold on the technique of accompanying. The strange thing was that my playing was always considered good enough to invite me in as an accompanist. Getting it to all work was the hard part.
While I didn’t always have the counts, I always had the energy and a sense of fun. I’d de-tune the piano with my end-of-class freneticism, and everyone seemed to love it. “Isn’t he great?” shouted one of the teachers. I certainly loved it. It was my way of communicating with the world at that moment.
As if to add to the complexity of the job, teachers would sometimes ask for phrases in odd counts of thirteen, eleven, five, seven, and nine. I would often defer to the drums for these but eventually began to hear pieces in my head in their modified meters and counts. As an example, I was impressed to hear Eileen render Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C# minor in a count of ten! All was fair game. A count of twelve was eight counts plus four, but if you were really good you could hide the seam. For really complex phrases you had to figure out how to count and play. Nothing else would suffice.
(A brilliant excerpt, from the early 80s of Eileen Cohen Clark accompanying a modern dance class at Ohio University. Madeleine Scott’s voice is heard leading the class. Eileen’s genius was my primary inspiration in this field.)
At O.U. I had been working since my first quarter, but the Work-Study financial aid rules only allowed for what amounted to about thirty dollars a week. I had been limited to about ten hours, and it was minimum wage. At the dance department I was able find work through the Student Hourly program, which had no time restrictions, and I worked many more hours (sometimes to mental and physical exhaustion), earning more than a hundred dollars in a good week. To collect my check, I’d go up to the dance office where all the Village Voices were strewn on a corner table. Even then, all roads led to New York. I would end up performing as an accompanist at three additional universities before getting there.
Speaking as a cis male heterosexual (he/him/hisn), the girls were fabulous, but I was nowhere near the point of being able to ask one of them out. All of that would happen in New York, and that path was very slowly opening up.