How I started accompanying.
I remember the exact moment I fell in love with dance classes. I was a freshman at Rutgers University, studying jazz piano. On my way from lunch to the practice rooms in the music building, I took a shortcut through another building. As I walked down the hallway that connected the two buildings, I heard the sound of many drummers playing together. There were congas, a djembe, shakers, and singing. The instruments were so perfectly in sync with each other. I peeked into the room where this music was coming from and saw thirty or so people dancing. I had never seen anything like it before. So many people, all moving to the drumming and all learning in a community experience. I stuck my head in the door to get a better look at all of the musicians. To my surprise, it was only one person. He had a djembe between his legs, four congas in a half-circle in front of the djembe, shakers fixed to his ankles, and was singing over all of it. That very first image and sound left a lasting impression on me. I was forever changed and set on a path that would define my musical identity for life.
That musician was Robert Benford, or as his close friends know him, "Tigger". It took me almost a year to convince Tigger to take me under his wing. Luckily, the dance department was in need of a new pianist for the beginning ballet classes. Our arrangement was simple: I would start playing for ballet classes with the possibility of studying drumming and dance accompaniment. Tigger would eventually become an influential mentor for me. I studied music with him for years and will forever be grateful for his guidance and support.
No musician is ever ready, at any point in their career, to walk into a dance class and accompany it for the first time. There is nothing in the music world that is quite like it. For a jazz pianist, solo piano is one of the hardest things to do. It takes years and a special focus to do it well. At that point in my life, I only knew of one pianist who could improvise solo piano for hours on end: Keith Jarrett. I quickly discovered that jazz tunes, bebop especially, would not work in a ballet class. Unfortunately, that was all I knew at the time. Listening to Jarrett's recording, "The Koln Concert", became my first insight into how to use modal harmony as a way to accompany class. In the first movement of the album, Jarrett improvises between two chords, A minor and G major. Of course, he expands dramatically away from those two chords, but that was the basic harmonic structure for his 20-minute improvisation. Using slow-moving harmonic structures would end up being the key to unlocking chord progressions that worked for playing class.
The first teacher I ever played for was one of the loveliest and kindest teachers I would ever meet. Over the next few years, she helped me learn the names of basic movements and why each of them was important in the progression of a technique class. Since these were all beginning ballet classes, the students were also learning the same things. The pace was slow, which gave me plenty of time to figure out something to play. More than anything, I learned one of the most important lessons for playing a good class and for any collaborative process: when you approach a collaboration with kindness and a willingness to learn, an amazing space is created for the artistic process to flow.