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"Musicality": what is it and can you define it?

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As honorable as SAB's efforts to educate its students in music are, they unfortunately do not have anywhere near enough training to be able to analyze a Stravinsky score (or any other score). It's mostly very basic music theory and piano technique. I don't blame the school or their excellent music teacher; there just aren't enough hours in the day for that combined with the dance schedule.

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Stravinsky wrote:

To be a good listener you must acquire a musical culture, as in literature. You must be familiar with the history and development of music, you must listen. [ ... ] To listen is an effort, and just to hear is no merit. A duck hears also.

How necessary is for a dancer to "understand" a score in order to be able to perform it effectively? Or is it sufficient to be able to feel the music, do the counts, and follow choreographic instructions?

Another question: How many accomplished dancers also play musical instruments? (In my experience, actually playing clarinet, and singing in a serious chorus, have had a much bigger influence on my appreciation of, and ability to listen to, difficult music than any theory or history course I was exposed to.)

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Stravinsky wrote:
To be a good listener you must acquire a musical culture, as in literature. You must be familiar with the history and development of music, you must listen. [ ... ] To listen is an effort, and just to hear is no merit. A duck hears also.

How necessary is for a dancer to "understand" a score in order to be able to perform it effectively? Or is it sufficient to be able to feel the music, do the counts, and follow choreographic instructions?

This is Stravinsky speaking, so one stops in rapt attention as with any demigod. It should nevertheless be taken with a grain of salt and refers to something that he then describes as almost a professional level. I think it is an absurd requirement for anyone who is not a professional musician to be called a 'good listener' only if such rigours are observed.

In fact everyone, including musicians, first has to be able to hear like a duck--and it's even important not to forget to hear like a duck (a little like the id hearing maybe). Naturally, the more deeply one goes into any art the 'better' listener one becomes, but you have to start somewhere and just keep going.

Years before I discovered Ballet Talk and Gretchen Ward Warner, I went to the ballet without knowing exactly what balances and bourrees were. I knew what rondes de jambe and grand jetes were (somewhat) from playing ballet classes, even though I didn't pay much attention and was just doing it for the money. I like knowing about these facts and techniques more and more, and think it makes me appreciate ballet much more and go on to higher levels. But I know that in going to NYCB and other companies for 25 years before I was still already a good ballet audience member: That is the way I came to love it, by immersing myself in it for the sensation and easily accessible beauty of it, not by starting intellectually. So that this sort of quote is an unforturnate kind of thing I've read among various great artists insofar as it can be misleading and discouraging. It is sometimes probably meant just to keep the field protected, but is off-putting to a lot of people who would go on to discover and explore more if not told something so severe. You can hear this sort of pronouncement in Balanchine's entirely subjective opinions of great composers and which had more to do with his own personal needs for music as a choreographer than anything otherwise profound. You hear Elliott Carter say that a composer must always be able to explain clearly what it is he is doing, when it is not something I imagine Duke Ellington always did (nor do I think he ever needed to explain) when he wrote music that was less formal but that I certainly prefer. Pierre Boulez will give all sorts of reasons why even the highest 'other listeners' such as Stockhausen and John Cage are more or less nowhere because they don't write like he does, are 'underfunded' or 'refreshing, but not very bright', respectively. Writers like Mailer and Updike take it upon themselves to instruct Tom Wolfe, saying he only wrote 'entertainment, not literature', in 'a Man in Full.' (I haven't read that book, but prefer 'Bonfire of the Vanities' to anything Updike has recently written, especially 'Brazil' and 'In the Beauty of the Lilies', both of which I thought were a lot of hot air.) What's really important for one's culture is to go ahead and dive in and do it and not pay so much attention to remarks by the masters, who often make these off-the-cuff remarks in moments of levity and, although they don't think of such remarks as Gospel, other 'groundlings' get hold of them and begin to decipher them like they were the Unpanishads. I know, because I've been through that stage myself.

One of the most interesting things about the 'master-directive' or quote is that it is often also made with the legitimate concern of preventing over-familiarity by fans who would sometimes like to get too personal without having any real business with their object of adoration. How many times does one hear a great dancer, musician or writer refuse to get involved in any emotional talk and always force any discussion onto the brass-tacks matters of discipline and hard work, 'there's always something you can practice,' getting to bed early, writing every day on a set schedule, keeping appointments--that's how they've earned the positions their talent has allowed them to inhabit, and they are right not to let people in to their immediate world without paying their dues. But you can tell when you've paid your dues when you don't ask the masters for anything but specific things that only they can know and not for general directions about how you should approach whole systems of thinking and understanding art. If you do, then you really do not ever enter into any art on terms that should, at least for that purpose, be essentially your own.

With many complex scores as in the NYCB repertoire, it's obvious the dancers become more and more conscious of what makes the scores work, even if we don't know in what fashion and in what detail. Otherwise, they could not be described as musical. At that level, it's difficult to imagine that many dancers would not voluntarily do a good bit of study on the composers, just as many of us ballet fans start doing research and study on ballet to enhance our understanding.

However, I think there is a great deal to be said about the 'feeling one's way into a score' that a dancer must do as far more important than formal study (for one thing, every dancer has to do this anyway, even the ones who can't.) You could still be a musical dancer without knowing much or even anything about Baroque music development, for example, but you couldn't if you just kind of got out there and counted from one phrase to the next without imbuing yourself in the sensation the music offers. Artists don't like to talk about sensations much, but they know as much as anyone that that's what people are interested in. I think the feeling of the music must come first, therefore, for a dancer, long before he becomes Stravinsky's 'good listener', and even with both approaches there will be some dancers who are not musical. But there could be many musical dancers who didn't study the Grout survey (and there are many musicians who did not like having to use it in Music History classes.) As for Music Theory, that's usually taught rather mechanically and drily, as if excised from the business of actually making music. a musician needs some Harmony and Counterpoint; a dancer would never need this unless he was personally interested to do it.

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papeetepatrick writes:

But I know that in going to NYCB and other companies for 25 years before I was still already a good ballet audience member: That is the way I came to love it, by immersing myself in it for the sensation and easily accessible beauty of it, not by starting intellectually.

That's absolutely right, IMO.

So that this sort of quote is an unforturnate kind of thing I've read among various great artists insofar as it can be misleading and discouraging. It is sometimes probably meant just to keep the field protected, but is off-putting to a lot of people who would go on to discover and explore more if not told something so severe.

Years ago I remember listening to an interview that Terry Gross conducted with the late Uta Hagen for the NPR show “Fresh Air.” Gross ventured to ask a question about technique and Hagen slapped her down hard – how could Gross possibly understand? Wasn’t she condescending to acting? Would she ask a violinist such questions? (Gross stood her ground and said, yes, she would.) Hagen was reacting against the perception that acting is something that “everybody” can understand without any study or technical knowledge, and I know why she felt that way, but it can certainly be discouraging to those who don’t know much and would like to know more to hear that from an artist.

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