The Mystery of Music – DECODED!

by admin on January 14, 2013

Hola!  I hope you all had a wonderful holiday!  Mine was full of family and dancing, so you know it couldn’t get any better than that.

Screen shot 2013-01-13 at 8.52.51 PM

Excuse my giddy tone tonight… Sarah Beth Jones of Dance Studio Nation has asked me to contribute to the Dance Nation blog!  I can’t wait to share some of my teaching and choreography “tips and tricks” with the dance world.  I thought – no better place to start then addressing an issue I am constantly asked about:


I can’t tell you how many times I have had the same conversation.  Wether it be a student, teacher, professional performer, colleague or personal friend – so many people have asked me, “How do you find such great music? Can you share your secrets?”  Well, thank you for the compliment. 🙂 I can’t say that I have real “secrets”… but I can certainly share my methods in hopes that it’s helpful to someone out there!

First, why is music so important?  I mean- we could dance without it, technically (um, pardon the pun…)  In fact, the majority of the time I come up with my concept before I start looking for music!  However, I take music searching very seriously.  Even just for class.  The right song can transform the mood of a room.  It can motivate a student through crunches, drive his adrenaline to help him leap higher, help her muscles relax during a floor stretch, inspire creativity for improv exercises, pull out deeper emotion in a combo class, and – of course – become essential in conveying a storyline in a choreographed piece.

Let’s start with class music.  I first analyze the age and maturity of the dancers.  Although Justin Bieber may not be what I choose to listen to in my free time… if I am teaching beginning Jazz, it’s rare that they will be motivated by Mumford and Sons.  For older kids I lean more toward the Rhianna/Bruno Mars/Pitbull-type songs, but I always use Audacity to edit for inappropriate lyrics.  I’m not really cool with shouting “KEEP YOUR HIPS SQUARED” over Ke$ha shouting the F-word……  just not my thing.  For pre-pro and professional classes I feel like I can go much more obscure, and love to find lesser-known artists or interesting remakes and remixes to keep things interesting.

I begin Jazz/Hip Hop warm-up with something current, catchy, and – for lack of a better word – groovy.  (Seriously, how old am I?)  It gets the students excited to be there, which is important.  A excited dancer gives me energy, motivation and attention.  And I really believe my music choices impact all of those factors.  I find this music mostly by searching the top 100 list on iTunes.  I then listen through for explicit lyrics and decide if it’s something I could edit out, or if I should “bag it”.  Oftentimes if the song itself is inappropriate, but you know it’s a song your students love, you can find remixes that aren’t quite as “mature” (or should I say “immature”?) 😉 Just Google the song title then remix, i.e. “Scream and Shout remix”.

For a floor stretch or contemporary/lyrical class, I find ballads that are calming, yet moving and motivating.  I like to create a feeling in the room – one where they can clear their mind and focus on their body.  This usually does not include popular artists, but will be more along the lines of songs to which I would choreograph.  In short – just “feel good” music to get the students calm and stretched, yet peaking the emotional areas of their mind to prepare them for a contemporary or lyrical combo.

Choreography is definitely more involved.  I can honestly say – my “secret” is time.  It just takes time! I have not found a short-cut for finding the perfect song and I am ridiculously picky about the music I choreograph to.  For me, it’s kind of like finding a mate – you just “know” when you find the right one!  I have to find a piece of music that (A) Makes me NEED to move – even in my computer seat, (B) I have never seen another piece of choreography to, (C) Floods my brain with ideas, and (D) Is NOT “top 40”.  In years past, if I have been in a bind and used a song that has not met all four of my criteria- I ALWAYS end up regretting it.  Either I experience major choreographer’s block, or I am embarrassed at competition, assuming that people think I am copying another choreographer.

So, here’s what I do.  I head on over to iTunes with an idea in mind.  Let’s say, I am looking for a unique song for a small group lyrical.  I try to think about artists or songs that I love, yet do not meet all my criteria- maybe Phillip Phillips. I search those songs, then start to poke through the “Listeners Also Bought” option.  This way, you can search similar artists and songs without using the “same darn song that was on SYTYCD last season that everyone else and their dog is going to use this year”. (whew)  Then, when I find one I like, I go again to the “Listeners Also Bought”…. and this creates a chain reaction, taking you to the inner depths of iTunes – the stuff that is obscure and unique yet still in the right genre.

Screen shot 2013-01-13 at 9.00.55 PM

If I first come up with a storyline I want to depict through my choreography – finding lyrics to match can be a challenge.  In this case I usually start searching through instrumental songs to find one that has a tone to fit my story.  I may think back to a pretty instrumental I’ve seen used, or something from a movie soundtrack, then do the same “Listeners Also Bought” searching.  A few times I have even had success when I Googled my own made-up lyrics.  Sounds odd – but I’ll enter something like “Lyrics, I wish you were here” – and find a song that comes up with lyrics to match my story.  It’s a gamble, but – hey – it’s worth the 4 seconds it takes!

A few other tips – I keep a notebook at competitions and performances and write down songs or song lyrics that I love.  Like I pointed out earlier, I pride myself on not re-using a piece of music I have seen used, but it can be a great spring-board for searching for something similar (usually even BETTER!) on iTunes.  Also – I use websites like Pandora if I need to hear a song in it’s entirety before I buy.  How frustrating is it when you LOVE the 30-second clip, buy the song, then realize the rest of the song stinks?  I like to know what I am buying beforehand.  Last, I always have my “ears peeled”.  I have found some songs in the most unlikely places – on an airplane headset, at the vet, in a commercial…. There is interesting music all around us!  I like to keep special list in my “notes” on my iPhone where I can quickly jot down some lyrics to Google, or SoundHound it to find on iTunes later.

Whew!  Ok, I think that covers most of my thoughts on music.  I hope to hear some of your methods in return!

And, by the way, I can’t wait to hear what’s being used as I judge this year.  Y’all are my best source of inspiration- bar none.

Previous post:

Next post: