A Lesson in Musicality

Musicality is a term heard frequently in the world of dance, (which is where I first heard it, courtesy of Lil C on So You Think You Can Dance), but is almost nonexistent in the world of Demo Teams. Simply put, it refers to a performer’s ability to interpret music through motion. And when added to the principles from last week’s lesson in Staging, it creates another layer of depth in your performance.

In the more traditional approach to Demo Teams, music is an afterthought, if it’s included at all. Think back to the majority of demos you’ve seen. (I say “majority,” because there are a few enlightened souls out there who get it right, and I want to give them their due credit.) How many of them either didn’t have music, or had it playing in the background like white noise at the mall? My guess would be nearly every one of them.

A lot of schools believe that simply playing a track in the background is enough to add drama and interest to their performance of drab, traditional techniques. It’s not. All that does is create competing elements vying for your audience’s attention. Remember how I said that people only pay attention to one form of information at a time? Well, this approach requires them to choose between either the visuals or the audio. Not both.

Music should never be something you add after-the-fact. It should be the first thing you decide on, with the rest of your demo being built around it. It should be so tightly woven into your performance that the whole thing collapses without it, like that Jenga block you didn’t realize was holding everything up until everyone’s screaming at you for knocking the darn thing over. Musicality ensures this, creating a seamless performance where all the elements compliment each other, instead of duking it out for the spotlight.

Some people are born with an innate sense of Musicality. Everyone else has to develop it. All it requires is an ability to listen for, and recognize, the layers in music. Luckily, this is a skill that can be learned, even by those claiming to be tone-deaf. (If you’re actually tone-deaf, then you’re probably out of luck and should just stick to flailing around like you’re Elaine from Seinfeld. At least you’ll get humor points then.)

I define a “layer” as a distinct part of the music, such as drums, vocals, or mid-range instruments, i.e. violins/piano/guitar. And all music has them. Some styles have fewer layers, yes, but they’re still there. Whether it be Dubstep or an Instrumental Movie Score, every song contains something you can work with. (Unless you manage to find a song consisting of one super long, drawn-out note, in which case, I would be wrong. And you would have very questionable taste in music.)

Since this is one of those concepts that really works best with an example, let’s pause for a moment and try it out. Find a piece of music, any piece of music, (yes, even Gangnam Style will do), and listen to it with your eyes closed. Listen to the whole song and really pay attention to the different layers, the nuances, and the way they all work together to play with your emotions. Which instruments are highlighted where? And if your song has lyrics, which words stand out the most? (“Eeeeeeeh, sexy lady!”) Most people have a tendency to naturally resonate with a particular layer of music. For some, it’s the lyrics or vocals. For others, it’s the beat. Few actually listen to all the layers. Did you hear more this time, actively listening, than you have before?

Now that you have all this information about the song, what do you do with it? You interpret it into choreography. There are several ways to do this, of course. (You didn’t expect it to be simple, did you?) Below are a few of the ways I’ve used Musicality. Again, these are all my own terms and they don’t exist anywhere else. They’re just there to give you something easy to remember.

Visual Mimicry:

This is the most basic form of Musicality. Whether you go on to use the other tools or not, you will use this one. (Or I will fly to your studio and throw my shoe at you. No one likes a stiletto to the back of the head, and I have really good aim. 😉 ) Each musical layer has a distinct sound quality that can be interpreted into motion. The idea is that you match choreography with that specific sound type, using only techniques that look like the visual equivalent. Did I lose you? It’s not really as hard as it seems. Let’s use the three layers I identified above for examples.

  • Drums/Bass:

Typically, this layer is rhythmical, staccato, fast and dramatic. So you want to choose techniques that also possess those qualities. I gravitated toward fisted techniques– punches, blocks, etc.– because they’re easy to match to faster pacing, and still look good choppy. They’re also powerful and aggressive, creating a visual echo of the bass-line. You can use kicks, but it’s harder to find students capable of keeping the pace with kicks. So those are better reserved for especially large beats, which are also perfect for showcasing jumping kicks or acrobatics.

  • Mid-Range Instruments:

This encompasses everything from violins to guitars. But even though it’s kind of a catch-all layer, it still exhibits certain standard characteristics, namely that it’s generally more lyrical and melodic than the bass line. So I tended to pair sweeping, flowy techniques with it. Things like open-handed techniques and spinning kicks tend to fit nicely, as they are more fluid, with long extensions and a circular nature. But since this layer varies in speed and attitude, you’ll have to adjust accordingly.

  • Vocals:

This is the most difficult layer because it requires actual interpretation of words, not just capturing the “feel” of an instrument. The trick is to catch those words that clearly stand out among the rest, or that have an obvious pairing. Words like “down,” “jump,” “break” etc. are obvious cues that you can easily incorporate into choreography simply by doing what they say. But not every song contains such convenient markers. So you’ll have to decide which words are most important. And it may not even be a single word. You can choose phrases, focusing on the emotional impact and interpreting that into your movements. You can also ignore the words completely and instead match the vocal patterns in the melody. The best approach is a combination, where you primarily follow the melody line, and only highlight a few key, specific words.

This is the technique you’d use if you’re simply showcasing traditional things you do everyday, like forms. Normally, Musicality works best when you start with the song and then choreograph to it, creating something new that’s connected solely to that song. But you don’t always want to do that. If you’re doing a smaller, local demo with a longer performance, you don’t want to spend forever creating several different skits. So instead, you’ll put together some throw-away segments– forms set to music, some kind of self-defense thing, hand and kick combinations, all those unimpressive moments that have no story, but can at least be interesting if they contain Musicality and Staging. Which means that you’ll have to work backwards– finding music that fits established choreography.

The key to that is dissecting each form for it’s overall style. Some forms are more fluid, with open-hand techniques dominating and a slower pace. Others are fast flurries of fisted techniques. Depending on which you want to showcase, you’ll need to find a song that matches. Here’s the kicker though– in order to do this well, you will likely need to modify the rhythm of the form to fit the music. (I can hear the traditionalists freaking out already.) Ideally, you would find a perfect song that just magically fits the form like a glove. But that usually isn’t the case. So don’t be afraid to tweak the form, inserting pauses where there aren’t really supposed to be any, or speeding up sections that normally should be slow. Remember, this is a performance, and the music is what will make the form stand out. Entertainment trumps traditionalism in this setting. Sorry, traditionalists.

Depth & Emphasis:

This is a more advanced technique that combines Musicality and Staging for a richer effect. Remember, Staging is largely about keeping everyone on the floor at the same time and directing the audience’s eyes subtly. While Musicality is about making the audience “see” the music. The idea, here, is to take everything from the previous section and combine it with Staging techniques for a multidimensional performance.

For example, say you have a song like Evanescence’s “Bring Me to Life.” It starts off with the haunting vocals and piano, then builds into the guitars and the chorus. Using what I said above, you’ve choreographed to each of the different layers, and now have to figure out how to emphasize the different parts of the music. Sometimes you’ll want to follow her voice, sometimes the guitar riff, sometimes the piano. By using Staging, you can fade the choreography for each layer in and out of the background, creating a visual filter on the music kind of similar to the way a surround-sound system can shift focus from speaker to speaker. What this does is create an overall feeling of depth, because everyone’s constantly moving, while still emphasizing specific parts of the song. With the end result that the audience becomes much more emotionally invested in the whole shebang. And all without realizing they’re being manipulated! (Mwahahaha! Sorry, too evil?)

Musical Storytelling:

This is the Grand Poobah, the ultimate goal of Musicality, and kind of belongs more in next week’s section, Storytelling for Demo Teams 101. But I’ll very quickly introduce it now. It involves finding a message within a song and then creating a story based around that. From a technical standpoint, you do this by very carefully choreographing the demo to jump through the different layers of music, meaning you’ll need to have people hitting all sorts of different cues to emphasize various story-points. No more of this lovely division between layers or Staging techniques. When you get to this level, everyone has to do everything, and the story becomes the most important element.  Like a giant puzzle, you have to figure out how best to convey emotional impact, humor, suspense, or all the other things that define storytelling and keep an audience riveted. It combines everything we’ve covered so far into one giant mish-mash of creativity to create something brand new, emotionally charged, and inextricably linked to the music. After next week, you’ll probably never look at music the same way. And if music wasn’t your muse originally, it soon will be.

Until then, get to practicing Musicality. Remember, stiletto throwing-star. Don’t make me use it. 😉

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