In my job playing improvised music for dance classes, I recently ran into a kind of a rut playing for a classical ballet teacher. (I don’t run into these ruts so often playing for Modern Dance classes, because teachers of Modern tend to be more open-minded musically, whereas ballet teachers, sometimes, expect the pianist to play music which is stylistically appropriate for classical dance.)

I was getting into a rut, as always, by not observing the Improv Technique which I know so well is the One Way Which Always Works Best!! In this particular case, I was falling into the following habit: I would observe the musical outline of the dance exercise I was about to play for, noting the movement’s particular accents, dynamics, and phrasing, and then I would play a piece of music which had the exact same accents, dynamics, and phrasing as the movement had. I fell into this habit because this is a way of working which comes up with a result which “works,” if what you mean by “it works” is: you have solved the problem of “coming up with something to play” which doesn’t do any harm to the dance exercise. However, both I and the dancers would quickly grow bored by this mechanistic and uninspiring approach.

First of all: I reminded myself that I was falling under the following common misapprehension: I was thinking of the problem of improvising music for dance class as the problem of “coming up with something to play which goes with the movement.” This is the same mistake as an actor who thinks of the problem of performing an improvised scene as “coming up with an idea/a character/a plot/a new twist to the plot/some dramatic material.” Wrong! And the wrongest thing about it is: it is pretty easy to “come up with material,” so, when operating under this misapprehension, as soon as you have “come up with something,” some part of you breathes a sigh of relief and says “oh good, I’ve accomplished my task,” and you then just “play the idea” for the rest of the scene, without going any deeper or further into the material. You are in a state of Complacent Rest. This is what makes it so boring to use this approach.

The actual task of an actor in an improvised scene is, of course: “be inside every moment of the scene, and continually open yourself up, so that you feel the flow of the scene more and more fully.” It has nothing to do with “coming up with material.” The material is already there, and doesn’t need you to “come up with it.” Note also that this task is never finished, which means that you must constantly work on it throughout the scene, which means that the scene is alive all the way through.

Similarly, my task when playing for the ballet class is “feel the flow of the movement (in the exercise the dancers are doing), and to keep opening myself up so that I feel it more and more fully.” Again, it has nothing to do with “coming up with something to play.”


Here’s an even more interesting issue which underlies my problem: the question of how much of the “Surface Detail” of the dancers’ movement should be clearly reflected in what I am playing. That is, since I know that I should be trying to connect to the underlying emotion-and-musicality of the movement (its “Deep Structure,”) how many of those little details of accent and phrasing should be reproduced by sounds in the music? This is analogous to a question that comes up in theater improvs. In an acting scene, the Surface Detail is the actual words being said (and the gestures being made). The Surface Detail is also the subject matter being discussed in the scene. The Deep Structure of the scene is the flow of feelings-and-musicality which lie underneath the scene. If, as an actor who is trying to use good technique, you know that you should be directing your effort to feeling the Deep Structure of the scene and becoming one with it, you may wonder how much it is proper for you to be aware of verbal details. Is it OK if you seem to know ahead of time the exact words you’re about to speak? Is it OK if you know ahead of time what the subject matter will be? Will this interfere with your ability to stay connected to the Deep Structure?

Here’s the answer:

The Deep Structure, the flow of feelings-and-musicality which is the underlying engine which drives the scene, sometimes is identical with the Surface Detail. And sometimes it is not: sometimes the Deep Structure has one kind of feeling to it, while all the Surface Details may have a completely different rhythm and tone to them. You can almost think of it like this: the flow of a scene is like an ocean, which has powerful currents beneath the surface. At times, the details of the little waves on the surface may be very different from the powerful currents beneath. And, at other times, the powerful underneath currents might “surge” upwards, so that the surface detail is the underneath currents. So, the answer to the question of “how much should I be aware of the Surface Detail” is answered thusly: this is one of the aspects of improvised performance which you must allow to simply take care of itself. You shouldn’t worry about it.

Allow me to clarify this, using both the dance class and the verbal improvisation as examples.

In the dance class, it is true that I should never deliberately set out to try and reproduce the surface rhythmic details of the movement in my music. I should approach every exercise by telling myself that my task is to connect to the Deep Structure of the movement, that is, to its underlying feeling. However, when I do that, I find that at times parts of the music that I end up playing very very closely mimic the surface rhythmic details of the movement. at times almost all of what I’m playing mimics the surface details of the movement. At times, almost none of it does. (However, the music that I play always has the same meter and tempo as the movement, since this, in traditional dance forms, is invariably a part of their Deep Structure.)

In which situations does it happen that my music has the same Surface Details as the dancers’ movement? If you remember that a classroom is a pedagogical situation, rather than a strictly artistic one, you will realize that one of my goals as a dance accompanist is to help teach the students how to feel a connection between the music and the movement, and also how to understand difficult or unusual rhythms. Intuitively, I can accomplish this goal by making sure that my music feels like it is “connecting me to the students.” Therefore, if a part of the dance exercise I am playing for has an unusual or tricky rhythm, I will often instinctively end up playing that same rhythm very clearly in my music, because I know that the students won’t get it if I don’t give them the extra help, and I will feel that I’ve lost my connection to them. If a particular rhythmic part of a dance step happens to be very striking, and forms an inherent part of its stylistic character (as in a tango), I may end up playing that rhythmic motif very clearly. If I’m playing for complete beginners, who have trouble understanding all rhythms, I may end up playing most of the movement’s Surface Detail in my music. If I’m playing for a “company class” for professional dancers, I may end up playing hardly any of the Surface Detail in my music.

The important things to remember are: that it doesn’t matter whether the music contains none of the Surface Detail, some of it, or all of it. As long as my conscious intention is to connect to the movement’s Deep Structure, there may or not be some of the movement’s Surface Detail reproduced in my music, and my intuition will generally make the correct choice about it. I shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking that “connecting to the Deep Structure means not connecting to the Surface Detail.” This is not true. The two things are completely independent of each other.

In the example of a verbal acting scene: I must remind myself in my preparation for the scene that my one task is to connect myself more and more fully with the scene’s Deep Structure, with its underlying flow of feelings-and-musicality. I should not deliberately set out to try to connect to the scene on the level of Subject Matter (that is, I shouldn’t try to connect to the scene primarily by being aware of whether we are talking about shopping at a supermarket or about the weather on Mars). However, at times during the scene, I will be completely conscious of what the subject matter is, and what it most probably will be in the immediate future. At times, I will be completely aware of the exact words I will be saying next. At times, I will be completely aware of the exact words my partner is saying. At times, I will be less aware of these things. As long as I make sure that, with each new line I speak, that I keep reconnecting and reconnecting and reconnecting to the scene by “placing” myself fully into the Deep Structure, then it makes no difference whether or not I am consciously aware of the subject matter and the exact words being said.

For example, suppose I am doing a monologue, and the monologue turns out to consist of a description of the amazingly beautiful flowers in a garden. If, every time I begin a new sentence, I consciously reconnect myself to the Deep Structure underneath the words, to the flow of energy beneath the specifics of what I’m saying, then it is Perfectly All Right if the next one hundred statements are all descriptions of the same garden, and are all logically connected to each other. When I come to the hundred-and-first statement, and once again I reconnect to the Deep Structure, and this time the statement comes out as a diatribe against mathematics, I will know that the subject matter changed organically, it changed because the flow of the Deep Structure had changed at that moment. On the other hand, if, with each new statement, I did not reconnect to the Deep Structure, but simply kept on talking about the flowers in the garden because I knew that “that’s what the monologue is about,” then I would be making a serious mistake. I would have lost my connection to the Deep Structure which is the lifeblood of the scene. The scene would no longer be organic. And I would be stuck in the subject matter.

(See the blog entry “Words As A Tool to Help You Feel” to read about the exercise of going back and forth from words to nonverbal sounds, as a test to make sure that you are connecting to the scene through the Deep Structure, rather than through the Surface Detail.)

Again, the important point to remember is that it is perfectly ok to be aware of the subject matter in advance at times, because it is not true that “connecting to the Deep Structure” means you have to avoid being aware of the Surface Detail. The two things are completely independent. Making sure that, with every sentence, you reconnect to the Deep Structure, is a task that you must consciously make happen through great deliberate effort throughout the scene. The question of how consciously aware you are, at each moment, of the subject matter and the verbal Surface Details of the scene is one of those aspects of the improvisation that you must allow to happen by itself, and it will take care of itself in the best way at each moment.