Story vs. Concept; A Demo Team Showdown

Recently, I found myself on the wrong side of an angry, pitch-fork touting mob after I eloquently shoved my foot in my mouth. (Turns out, there’s a fine line between snarky and jackass. Especially when it falls on the wrong ears.) And as I was being schooled by a student who naively believed I was a demo team idiot, I was amazed at how often the terms “concept” and “story” were used interchangeably, as if they were the same thing. I’m not sure if this is a common misconception, but since I was due for a demo team post, I figured why not take a moment to clarify the definitions and try to make something good out of my embarrassing mistake. And what better way to do that than to pit story against concept in an epic battle of demo team terminology. Sounds fun, no?

So, here we go! Contestants to your places, aaaaaaand…fight!!
 

Round One: Concept

 
Concept does not, in fact, equal story. If it was synonymous with any word, it would be theme. And what is theme? The point of your project. It’s the message or idea that you want to convey to your audience. Let’s check out some examples.

(These are some of the more common demo themes/concepts I’ve seen over the years.)

  • Video Games such as Mortal Kombat, Street Fighter, Etc. (I’m guessing there’s a secret sect of Comic-Con Cosplayer geekhood within the martial arts.)
  • Medieval Asian Warlords (Yes, the Asian part is particularly important. How else can you create something as awesome as a D-grade Kung Fu movie brought to life?)
  • The Korean and/or Association Flag (Especially prevalent in the WTSDA. Apparently, we have a lot of association pride. And unoriginality.)
  • Badass little kids taking over the world (Cute factor combined with awesomeness. Who doesn’t love that?)
  • The Matrix movie franchise (Does this really need further explanation? The Matrix was just, like, the most epic movie ever!)
  • Pretty much any popular movie franchise (Further proof of my statement on example one. Maybe we’re all nerds at heart?)
  • Women’s self-defense (The only thing better than badass kids is watching a bunch of girls pummel a bunch of dudes, right?)
  • Peace, Love and Unity, Man (Otherwise known as the undefinable, “high” concepts.)
  • The Elements (Because there can never be too many interpretations of wind, fire and water.)

(I hope by now you’re laughing with recognition.)

Despite my mockery, these are all perfectly acceptable examples of concept. I’ve used some of them myself. (There may or may not be multiple versions of Mortal Kombat costumes lurking in Dragon Heart’s demo team archives. 😉 ) The problem comes when that’s all there is to your demo. The concept should be the foundational element, the first spark of creativity. Not the entire focus. Here’s why; concepts are simple. They contain absolutely no allusions to the story they might evolve into, making them a two dimensional, cardboard cut-out experience guaranteed to bore the life out of your audience. Don’t believe me? Let me show you. A concept’s inception typically looks something like this:

Student One: “Dude, let’s do a demo about the Korean flag!”

Student Two: “Like, oh my god! That would be totally awesome!”

Ok, maybe that’s a little facetious, but it’s not that far off the mark. A concept is that first burst of enthusiastic direction, not the ultimate goal. Don’t get me wrong, concept is very much an important part of any demo. Not only does it provide the inspiration, it has influence over decisions like costuming, set/prop design, characters, and overall presentation as well. But it’s focus remains purely on technique, and will rarely impart any lasting impression or emotion on the audience. For that, you need story.
 

Round Two: Story

 
If concept is the idea, then story is the way you impart said idea to the audience. It builds on the foundation concept provides to create something with a far richer experience for everyone. However, story is often misconstrued to mean flash. As in, an overly theatrical fluff-fest that’s trying to compensate for a lack of technique. That, my friends, is sadly mistaken. And probably the reason story is given so little respect in the creativity division.

All those components that instantly scream flash– costuming, props, etc– are not actually controlled by story. They reside within concept’s domain. (Cheeky bugger, fooling everyone by pointing the finger at story.) The only thing story controls is choreography. Why? Because choreography is how you tell a narrative in a demo. The rest is bonus to help ensure the audience understands. But you don’t actually need anything beyond choreography.

Story is defined in the literary world as conflict. Meaning, there has to be something happening. A journey from Point A to Point B. I’ve gone on about this topic at length in my previous post, Storytelling for Demo Teams, so rather than repeat myself, I’ll provide an example of how story elevates concept. And how it doesn’t necessarily have to be complicated to be effective. (There’s only so much you can cram into a 5 minute span, after all.)

I’m going to use one of my own demos for this exercise– The Dream Sequence— which I have featured before.

The concept for this demo actually came from the music itself. (As do all my ideas, which many of you know by now.) I wanted to show a dreamy, ethereal world that matched the tone of the music. But since that isn’t enough for a competition-grade demo in my opinion, I needed a story that would deliver that message to the audience. So I created one about a little boy who falls asleep and finds the dolls he was playing with have come to life around him. When he wakes up, the dolls disappear. Literary genius, isn’t it? But that’s my point. No one said you had to be a master storyteller; you just have to tell something.

So, to recap:

Concept = dreamy, ethereal imagination.

Story = slightly creepy dolls coming to life inside a child’s dream.

See how neither of these statements is really that complicated or involved? And how, when combined, you end up with an idea that’s far more powerful and interesting than the concept alone? That’s the beauty of story. (If you haven’t seen the demo I’m referencing, take a moment to go watch it. I’ll wait. 😉 )
 

And the Winner is…?

 
Neither.

That’s right, our epic showdown actually ends in a draw. Anti-climatic, I know. But that’s because one isn’t better than the other. They work in tandem, not competition. The ideal demo is a balance of both, pulling from the strengths of each to create a wonderful masterpiece people remember for years. But, because the two terms are separate elements, it is possible to create award winning demos using only one of them. You can have a traditional demo that focuses primarily on technique, with no storyline, just concept. And you can create a moving, story-driven demo featuring absolutely no costumes, props or flash. (Technically, though, if you have a story, you have a concept, regardless of the addition of flashy elements. Concept can live without story, but story needs concept to survive.) The trick is knowing your ultimate goal and utilizing your team’s talents to their fullest. (I’ve given out a lot of helpful tips about how to do this.)

And remember, if you find yourself having to explain what your demo is about, you failed. (Harsh, but true.) Whether your aim is traditional/concept-driven, or theatrical narrative, your audience should always receive your message clearly. That is, after all, the entire point of demos, is it not?

Life Lessons of the Martial Arts

Last week I mentioned how I apply a tenet I learned in the martial arts to my everyday life, and since it’s about time I branched away from writing/publishing to show my other categories some love, I think that’s a topic deserving of elaboration. What I’m about to say won’t be news to any of you that have trained, but to those of you unfamiliar with the martial arts, it may be enlightening.

There are three reasons that automatically come to mind when someone says they want to start training:

  • Discipline
  • Fighting/Self-Defense
  • Exercise

And for the most part, that sums up 90% of anyone’s motivation for enrolling. But there’s a lot more to the martial arts than that. Yes, it will help your unruly child learn to respect their elders and shut their mouth without the aid of duct tape. Yes, you will learn self-defense and how to fight. And yes, you will lose weight and tone muscle from all the exercise. But you’ll also miss the much richer elements of personal growth that society never glorifies if you only focus on those three things.

I learned a long time ago that you can easily spot someone who’s made it to black belt. Partly because all martial artists have a certain way of moving; a certain poise and grounded familiarity with their body that screams “black belt” a mile away. And partly because of the way they conduct themselves. There’s a reason they say martial arts is a way of life. It’s because, by the time you reach black belt, your training has gone beyond the physical techniques and has become an ingrained part of your outlook on the world.

Every style has their own philosophies and tenets, but I think there are several that are universal. Not because they’re part of an unwritten code of martial arts brethren, but because they’re the principles that make someone a better person. Things that should be common sense but that have been lost over the years to the majority of society. What are they? Let’s take a look and find out.

Integrity:

In a world where selfishness reigns, it’s refreshing to find someone that actually understands this word. And I would bet that 9 times out of 10, that person is/was a martial artist. Why? Because this is one of the core principles instilled by training. It’s also one of the first that spills over into everyday life. Integrity can be anything from keeping your word, to doing what’s right even when it’s not easy or for your own benefit, to taking responsibility for your actions. This is an attitude that translates to success in everything from school, to personal relationships, to career. A person with integrity is someone that can be counted on, and that’s a sure-fire way to the top of any pack.

Humility:

The second tell-tale sign of someone who’s spent time in the martial arts is humility. People who have learned this have an easier time connecting with others. Nobody likes a braggart, and arrogance is a one-way ticket to alienating all your potential allies. Martial artists learn the fine line of being confident in their abilities without the need to brag. (Well, most do anyway.) And that translates into things like leadership roles, community involvement, and personal satisfaction. Just like integrity, humility is a trait that instantly earns you respect and appreciation, without having to demand it.

Perseverance:

News-flash: life’s hard. It’s all too easy to throw in the towel and just give up, becoming complacent with whatever hand you’ve been dealt. Getting a black belt isn’t easy, either. It involves dedicating yourself to intense workouts, potential injuries and having to hit the floor hard. A lot. You will get knocked down, and you will get hurt. But you also learn how to get back up, how to roll with the punches, and how to achieve any goal you put your mind to, one step at a time. I think the parallel should be obvious. You can apply that same philosophy to anything in life, be that earning a college degree, starting a successful business, or just being present for your family. With a little perseverance, anything is possible.

Situational Awareness:

Self-defense is becoming more and more important, especially for women and young people. So many horrible acts of violence could have been averted if the victim had been more aware of their surroundings, or had avoided putting themselves in danger in the first place. Yes, the martial arts are about fighting, but more importantly, they’re about learning how not to fight. They teach you the self-control to walk away from situations that are turning ugly, and they teach you not to do so many of the stupid things that get people in trouble, like going places alone in the middle of the night, taking drinks from strangers that you didn’t see mixed, or getting in random cars with people you don’t know. The first act of self-defense is knowing how to assess the risks around you; a lesson I wish we taught in schools.

Altruism:

This one may come as a little bit of a surprise to those outside of the martial arts family, but it’s actually a pretty big element in our training, especially the higher ranks. Most styles promote giving back to the community, whether that be the studio itself or the community at large. Some even use it as a criteria for advancement. Which is why you’ll find a lot of black belts volunteering in their communities. The idea of paying forward the time and effort that was given to you, of showing pride and commitment to the people and places around you, is one that translates well into other aspects of life. You don’t have to join the Red Cross, or Habitats for Humanity, or some other grand organization of do-gooders to make a difference. Simply volunteering in your child’s classroom, helping a coworker with a hefty project, or donating your time at a library/care facility will make the world a better place. Wouldn’t it be nice if we all learned that a few moments of selflessness can make all the difference to someone in need? Maybe we wouldn’t see so much violence then.

Those are just a few of the positive affects I’ve seen the martial arts have. Every student will choose the lessons that resonate most sincerely with their own lives, and may not need every one, but you can guarantee they’ll be given the tools just the same. Whether you’re thinking of enrolling your child in the local studio, or whether you’re considering it for yourself, take a moment to think about what I’ve said here. Remember that it’s not just about learning to punch, kick, yell and break things. It’s about learning to be the best version of yourself. If that doesn’t convince you the martial arts are worthwhile, then I’m not sure what will.

And to my fellow martial artists out there, what lessons have you learned in your training? Share the ones I missed in the comments below. 😉

Choreographing Realistic Fight Scenes

Recently, I was asked how to choreograph realistic fight scenes for demo teams. While I usually don’t get this technical on a specific type of choreography, preferring to focus on the concepts of story instead, I can’t deny that fight scenes are a staple of the genre. It is Martial Arts, after all. I don’t believe that they are required for every demo, (in fact, it’s a lot more challenging to create one without them), but they are a large part of most. So I’m going to answer that reader request and break down my five key ingredients for a successful fight scene.

Before we get down to the nitty-gritty, I’d like to note that I will not be discussing which individual techniques to use. Fight scenes are organic, or at least, they should feel that way. So the choreography will vary depending on your particular demo. If I gave you a blow-by-blow transcript, then I’d be stripping all the creativity out of it, and what’s the fun in that? Instead, we’re going to look at the principles that take a fight scene from cheesy, B-rated Martial Arts film to something gripping that has a shred of believability.

You might be surprised to learn that creating that effect has very little to do with you, the choreographer. A fight scene is only one part choreography, and two parts the people performing it. So let’s get to it.

Trust

If I had to boil it down to one element, it’d be this. Trust is the thing that will most often make or break a fight scene. I’m not referring to the trust you put in your team to bring your vision to life. No, I’m talking about the trust between the partners in the fight. Unfortunately, that kind of trust pretty much relies solely on chemistry.

We’ve all heard dating sites talk about chemistry, that magical connection between two people that makes them move and breathe in sync. Well, it exists even outside the romantic realm. And you’ll have to learn how to watch for it. You will probably have to try a few combinations of partners before you see it spark, so don’t be afraid to shuffle your team around like cards in a deck.

A lot of choreographers try to partner people based on size, automatically shoving people of similar heights or builds together. But those kinds of partnerships rarely contain the chemistry required to really pull off a fight scene. Instead, you want to look for the following when you partner people:

  • Comfortability: What do the new partners do when you announce they’ve been paired? Do they bounce up to each other laughing and smiling, or do they stand stiffly side by side without looking at each other? Does one person look scared while the other looks irritated? These are instant indicators of how comfortable they are with each other. The more comfortable people are, the more easily they’ll naturally trust each other. So avoid any combinations where you know personalities will clash, or where there is an emotional distance between them.
  • Similar Styles: Even within an overall style of martial arts, there are differences between the way people do things. Pay attention to that and try to pair people who move similarly. They’ll have the same rhythm and flow to their techniques. They’ll think similarly. Just like you don’t put oil and water together and expect them to mix seamlessly, you can’t put different stylistic approaches together and expect a smooth outcome without a ton of work.
  • Technical Ability: Obviously, you don’t want a fight scene that’s extremely unfair, so generally avoid pairing an advanced student with a white belt. Ideally, you want people that can perform to the same caliber technique-wise. Not only will they be more comfortable working with someone on the same level, it’ll also allow you to maximize the choreography’s awesomeness.
  • Strength: Yes, I do mean brute muscle. The best fight scenes contain an acrobatic element, so this is an important thing to assess. Not everyone is strong enough to lift another, and on the flip side, not everyone is comfortable being lifted. A lack of confidence in this area can shatter the trust in a partnership quicker than dropping glass on cement. So if you’re planning on throwing in some crazy moves, make sure you have partners that can handle it physically and are emotionally ready.

All of those things can help you figure out which teammates are likely to have the most natural, built-in trust. But we don’t live in a perfect world, and there are situations where you won’t be able to rely on that natural chemistry to build trust in a partnership. To some extent, you can get around that simply through practice. Over time, teammates will become more comfortable with one another, will learn the way the other moves and thinks and will learn to trust. But it takes time. Lots of time. So if you have to bow to story constraints or other requirements that prevent you from partnering those with natural trust together, be prepared to invest a lot into practice.

Distance

This is probably the scariest ingredient for the people performing, and is heavily reliant on the trust we just worked so hard to establish in the previous section.

Which do you think is better for a demo, a fight scene where all the techniques end miles away from their intended target, so the “victim’s” reactions look ridiculous, or one where the techniques end mere centimeters from their partner’s body? (Hint: Option 2 is the correct answer. 😉 ) You chose Option 2, right? Good! You’re absolutely correct. That’s what distance does; it takes an otherwise cheeseball fight and gives it a realistic edge.

Anyone who has been in a fight scene knows how hard it is to get to that level, to stop your techniques just short of clocking your partner in the head. So again, trust is absolutely crucial. As is practice. Lots of practice. Until your team gets the feel for the choreography, let them work up to the realism, shrinking the distance as the comfort level grows. Otherwise, I suggest having a lot of gauze and ice handy. You’re about to have a lot of black eyes and bloody noses.

Reactions

Similar to distance, reactions will enhance that essence of realism. But unlike distance, it doesn’t require so much faith in your partner as it does the ability to act.

Let’s face it, most martial artists will never win an Oscar. But that doesn’t mean we have to play into the stereotype with overly dramatic, delayed reactions that happen well after the attacking technique ended. A good reaction is simple, logical. All you have to do is portray what would have happened if you’d actually been hit. If you get hit from the front, you’re not going to fall forward, are you? But you see that a lot.

Understanding the logistics of the fight is critical to creating the appropriate reactions. The worst combination in a fight scene is to have a bad actor and poor distance. Unless you’re intentionally trying to look idiotic, don’t do it. Put the effort in to get it right. Please.

Timing/Duration

Everything in a fight revolves around timing, especially reactions and distance. You want everything to flow as naturally as it would if the fight were real. So if the timing is even a little off… hello injury central, or bad martial arts film. This one is pretty easy, since there’s really only one way to ensure the timing is right– practice. Are you noticing a theme yet? 😉

The second half of this section is duration. By this, I mean how long the fight actually lasts. We’re not video game characters with a billion power-ups and infinite health. We’re people. And people are, admittedly, rather weak in the stamina department. Most real fights are short bursts of rage that quickly end with someone in a bloody mess. Choreographed fights should reflect that. Keep it short, as in, within the normal range of human possibilities, and vary the heat of the battle accordingly. People get tired. Let that show. People get desperate when they start to lose. Let that show too. Adding these real life aspects will help beef up your fight scene and move it a little closer toward realistic.

Musicality

Everyone who’s been following me already knows how important I view music when it comes to demos. And fight scenes are no exception. They are, however, a slightly different creature than other forms of choreography. Unlike the main part of the demo, you won’t choreograph every technique to the music. Instead, you’ll look for musical elements that you can use to highlight certain moments in your fight. For example, the most spectacular move is on the largest beat, the moment where the main character starts to lose matches the desperation in the music, or the final blow happens on the last musical crescendo. I spoke about this before in Musicality, under Musical Emphasis. Same idea.

And that’s all there is to it. Ok, maybe not all. You do still need inspired choreography and the people to pull it off. But these are the principles I’ve found most helpful in creating believable and entertaining fight scenes. Give them a try and see if they’re as successful for you as they’ve been for me. Like most things in demo team, it’s the stuff behind the scenes that really makes the difference between an average demo and a spectacular declaration of professionalism. You only get what you give, as they say.

Storytelling for Demo Teams

Here it is– the final piece to the puzzle; my secret weapon; that frustratingly elusive element in my demos that everyone’s tried for years to figure out. Story. Such a deceptively simple word, isn’t it? But chalk full of so much complication.

Writers will tell you that story doesn’t exist without conflict. (Ok, that’s partially true.) English teachers will tell you it’s centered around theme. (Also important.) But I say it’s more basic than that. I believe it’s about conveying an emotional message.

From the time man figured out how to draw charcoal stick-figures on a cave wall, humans have used storytelling to pass along messages. Sometimes they were warnings, other times they were preserving heroic deeds and a culture’s history. But no matter how embellished or fictional, the core mission was always to convey a message, usually by manipulating the audience’s emotions.

When you stop and think about all the movies/books/games/etc. that have stayed with you over the years, what is it you remember them for? Chances are, they “moved” you in some way. They had an emotional impact on you. Right? Whether it was a message of happiness, hope, fear or anger, you remember how the story made you feel. That’s why I say emotion is the heart of storytelling. (Sorry, couldn’t help myself.)

But you can’t just say “I want to tell a happy story,” or “my story’s about revenge.” (Well, you could, but you probably won’t get much further than that.) Emotions are broad things, with a thousand different ways to convey them. So you need a target. A goal. Something that directs you. In short, you need a Summary Sentence.

I spoke once before about this soundbite approach to storytelling. But this time I got off my lazy butt and located the book: Animation Magic by Don Hahn. In it, Mr. Hahn talks about how each Disney film starts from an idea that can be summed up by a simple theme, and contains one central actionable task. He gives several examples from the different movies, but since Beauty and the Beast has always been my favorite, I’ll use that one. He summed it up under the theme, “don’t judge a book by its cover” with the actionable task of “break the spell.” This is the same strategy I use to comprise a Summary Sentence (because I’m an uber-dork Disney fangirl, as we’ve previously established, and I thought it was brilliant when I was 11); one part emotional content (“theme”) and one part conflict (“actionable task”).

Why is conflict suddenly an essential part of the equation? Didn’t I just say that storytelling was about the emotional content? You’re right, I did. But a beautiful message doesn’t make an entertaining story. For that, you need plot, and plot consists mostly of, guess what? Conflict. Plus, I’m a writer, so you really should have seen that coming. 😉

Think of conflict as the delivery service for your message. It’s the UPS of the storytelling world, dropping your emotional content in a nice pretty box, (Ok, dirty and bashed-to-hell box), at your audience’s feet.  For whatever reason, we humans are hard-wired to be riveted to conflict-filled situations. Just look at any reality TV show. Is the cast of Jersey Shore really talented enough to warrant the millions of dollars they earn? Of course not. They’re obnoxious idiots. But they know how to thrive off their audience’s sick fascination with drama. So now they’re rich obnoxious idiots. Point is, you need conflict in order to convey your message. And this two-part Equation of Storytelling, (emotional content + conflict = story), is tailor-made for demo teams.

Demos are, by nature, short. You only have maybe 5 minutes to convey your story. Which is why such a focused approach to storytelling works so well. It’s like Simon Cowell, blunt and to the point. Every one of my demos starts with a concept, (emotional content), and from there I build a story that best conveys that message, (conflict). For example, one of my most memorable demos, and sadly, one I don’t have a convenient video for, was titled Eternal Balance. Set to “Two Worlds” by Phil Collins, it was about two warring sides that come together in unity at the end. If you dissect that sentence, you get the emotional content– unity — and the conflict– two warring sides. Put them together like I did and you get the Summary Sentence for the demo– i.e. the point. Starting to make sense?

But that still doesn’t explain how you go about finding a concept, does it? Those of you who have followed me for a while already know where this is heading. I’ve talked about it before, detailing the level of my freakness quite effectively here, and I also hinted at it in Musical Emphasis under Staging, and Musical Storytelling in Musicality. The short answer is that I get all my creative inspiration from music. Especially when it comes to demo teams. Music contains all the information you need to create an award winning demo, if you know how to listen for it.

Last week, I showed you how to listen and interpret musical layers. Listening for story cues is very similar, except that you step back and look at the music as a whole. Instead of dissecting the various layers, you listen to the overall song, looking for the emotional content and built-in storyline that all music has. (Yes, even Gangnam Style has a story. It’s a super deep tale about a dude hitting on a girl who apparently really enjoys her coffee. Hey, what did you expect from a song whose stated philosophy is to “dress classy, dance cheesy”? ;))

The first thing I look for in a potential song is tone. By that, I don’t mean the actual notes. I pay attention to how it makes me feel, to it’s emotional tone. Is it somber and heavy, or light and bouncy? Is it frenetic and aggressive, or is it soft and melancholy? Music is a language, and just like you can often figure out context in a language you don’t know through tone of voice and body language, you can decipher emotion in music by paying attention to the overall sound and feel of the piece.

Give it a try. Open up iTunes and randomly choose 3 or 4 songs. Hopefully you have a somewhat eclectic music library and will get songs of varying genres and tempos. Listen to them with your eyes closed, (I know, I say that a lot, but it really does enhance your connection to sound when your ears don’t have to compete with your eyes), and don’t focus on anything in particular. Let all the layers wash over you and pay attention not to the lyrics, the drum beat, the background instruments, but to how it makes you feel. What emotion does it elicit from you? Do you feel how it varies from song to song? How, even if you get the same emotion more than once, it’s a slightly different shade each time? That’s the first half of the equation– the emotional message.

Now we just need conflict. To find it, I look at a combination of things. The first is lyrics, if the song has them. Not all potential songs do. But it requires a more advanced ear to be able to do this with instrumental songs, so we’ll stick with mainstream music for now. Secondly, I look at the types of instruments being used and try to see what kind of images they evoke. Certain instruments are distinctly ethnic, automatically giving you an Asian, Middle-Eastern, Celtic or just plain Tribal vibe. Pay attention to that as it will point in the direction of a setting, and can help determine costume/prop choice down the road. And lastly, I let the song tell me what it’s about.

Wow, could that be any more vague and unhelpful? What I mean is that I basically turn my imagination loose and let it do what it will. I let the music tell me, through a combination of overall tone, instrument choice, pacing, emotion, lyrics, etc., what it wants to be. This is the part I honestly don’t know how to teach. All I can say is that it feels kind of like flipping through TV channels, trying out different ideas and images until something clicks. The best guidance I can give is to ask yourself, “What does this sound like?” Does it sound like a brutal war set in ancient Greece or is it a demented circus with clowns and stuff bouncing around? A cheesy romantic comedy, or a twisted horror story of revenge? This is where the real creativity in demo teams comes in.

The thing to remember about storytelling, in any form, is that there are no right or wrong answers. Even if everyone reading this worked on the same concept, the same summary sentence, we would end up with as many different variations as there are participants. But that’s why this method works. It takes universal themes and conflicts that an audience will resonate with and allows you to infuse your own personal interpretation and creativity into them. And the best way I know to learn how to do it is through practice. So let’s do that.

Take those same 3 or 4 songs you just listened to and play them again. This time, pay close attention to the lyrics, the instruments, everything, keeping the emotional message you already identified in mind. There should be a built-in story. Whether it’s heartbreak and revenge, or falling in love, or an identity crisis killing-spree, everybody sings about something. This is where you’ll find your conflict for the second half of the equation. As you finish each song, try to sum up the story in a succinct sentence.

Don’t freak out, it’s not as hard as it seems. In fact, it’s a natural human inclination. What’s the first question you hear when you tell someone about a book or movie you just finished that they’ve never heard of?

“What’s it about?”

And what do you immediately answer with? A sentence or two that sums up the entire plot in one fell swoop. Not so different, is it? Only this time, you’re summing up your own story. Kind of. Ideally it should be a story based on the one already contained in the music. This is why songs with lyrics are easier, because technically, someone else already wrote the story. You’re just mooching off of it to create your own version. (Yay for shortcuts!)

So now you know the secret, the thing that makes my demos seem different. My Equation of Storytelling. Pair it with the tools I’ve given you over the past couple weeks and you’ll soon see a dramatic difference in your performances. Story is most important in this style of demo, but remember that you need all three, Staging, Musicality and Storytelling to create that magic winning combo of skill and entertainment.

If anyone out there actually implements my method, I’d love to hear how it worked out for you. Please come share your experiences in the comments and maybe a link to a video so we can see it in action. 🙂

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. 😉