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OU School of Dance's accompanists share how they lead, follow dancers with music

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Combined modern majors class

Brian Dailey and Alison Naifeh play for a combined modern majors class on March 27.

Brian Dailey’s mind was racing. He had only ever played the drums, so a request from professor Austin Hartel to play a Bach prelude on the drums, a piece of music written exclusively for the piano, seemed impossible.  

Hartel would soon ask for the music and dance to start, and Dailey had a puzzle to solve.

“I was trying to decipher what was really being asked of me. Sitting at a drum set, thinking ‘I can’t play a pretty Bach prelude,’” Dailey said. “But then, ‘What is the feeling of a pretty Bach prelude and how can I fit that on these four drums, two cymbals?’”

Using only the sticks in his hands, Dailey channeled the feeling of a Bach prelude into his drum set — beginning his career as an accompanist for the OU School of Dance.

The School of Dance, comprised of more than 80 ballet and modern performance majors, provides its dancers with daily technique classes accompanied with live music. Six musicians, specializing in either piano or percussion, come to the Reynolds Performing Arts Center every day to work with professors and enhance the classroom with their music, said Michael Bearden, director of the OU School of Dance.

Three trained musicians who joined the School of Dance as accompanists said they each gain something from this job — some make extra money, some explore a new way of music and some receive the opportunity to continue playing the instrument they have their whole life.

One of many jobs

Dailey first sat behind the School of Dance’s drum set his junior year of college, substituting for acclaimed percussionist Boyd Littell, who showed Dailey the ropes of playing for dance. Dailey’s first job after graduating from OU in 2012 took him to the seas performing on a cruise ship. When he came back, a friend of Dailey’s was finishing up his job at OU and asked Dailey to step in.

Today, Dailey teaches percussionists for marching band, percussion ensemble and private lessons at Norman North High School, plays during services at St. Luke’s Methodist Church in Oklahoma City, percussion for the OU University Theatre musicals’ orchestra and performs with the band Boyd Street Brass, comprised of OU Music faculty. Dailey said the most challenging part of balancing all his jobs is keeping his energy up to go from one gig to the next.

“I’m always filling up with coffee and calories trying to keep the energy levels up, but when it’s something you love, it’s not so hard — it happens naturally,” Dailey said. “One of the biggest perks of what I get to do now is be in different spaces with different people in front of me all day long.”

Dailey said performing and teaching both fulfill him in different ways.

“Teaching feels great to give to students, like my teachers gave to me, so does kind of fulfill me in that way,” Dailey said. “But, man, playing music is a spiritual thing for me. It’s kind of my religion. It’s where I find I’m in touch with higher power."

When Dailey’s mentor Littell passed away in 2018, Hartel asked current and former OU Dance students to perform in a piece set to a recording of Littell’s music from class as the opening number for Contemporary Dance Oklahoma 2018. However, this tribute is not the first time Hartel has featured the work of a School of Dance accompanist on stage. For Contemporary Dance Oklahoma in 2017, Hartel choreographed “Pictures at an Exhibition,” a five-section dance joined by live music from an onstage piano played by accompanist Alison Naifeh.

New experiences

For Naifeh, the opportunity to play for the School of Dance first opened three years ago when her friend was looking for someone to cover for him. Though Naifeh has studied piano for almost 25 years, including a piano performance degree from OU, she said nothing prepared her for accompanying modern dance other than actually doing it.

“When I started, there wasn’t any training session, I was just thrown into it, which was very intimidating, especially because I am a classical musician,” Naifeh said. “I’ve improvised and been in bands here and there, but to actually go from mostly playing what someone else wrote to having to do it on the fly and make it work through structured improv was really hard, but you really just have to go for it. Count a lot, follow a lot and be able to watch while you’re playing.”

Naifeh plays for the modern department year round, though she is able to incorporate her classical training when she accompanies ballet classes during the summer session. She said the difference between playing for the two genres is that modern is improvised while ballet allows her to pull from written music.

Naifeh said playing for modern classes has greatly improved her knowledge of the piano’s geography because her eyes are usually on the dancers rather than on her instrument. She said the accompanists have to keep their eyes on the class, knowing all the counts and choreography, to ensure their music matches the movement.

When not in the dance studio, Naifeh teaches 28 students at McMichael Music Studio, a job she considers her full-time gig. However, music is not the only activity Naifeh teaches. In her free time outside of music, she also teaches kickboxing lessons. Of all her professions, Naifeh said she most enjoys working with dancers.

“It’s really a collaboration, playing music and watching the dancers try to internalize whatever I’m playing,” Naifeh said. “Sometimes it’s scary because I feel like I have too much power and if the dancers don’t do well that it’s my fault, but I love dancers. I’ve become much more interested in dance since I’ve started playing. It’s so beautiful to watch dancers progress especially.”

A history of music continued

There are four accompanists who play piano for the ballet department, including accomplished musician Ellen Madson, who came to OU in 2001. Madson was taught ballet music by a former accompanist of the Royal Danish School, who explained to her what musical phrases worked best for different exercises in a ballet class.

Madson has a repertoire of experience, like being an accompanist for professional and aspiring ballerinas, including working for the Houston Ballet School, Kinder High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, City Ballet of Houston and over 29 years at the summer home of the New York City Ballet in Saratoga Springs. Dean of Fine Arts Mary Margaret Holt approached Madson while she played at the Houston Ballet School, Madson said.

“I never looked for any job,” Madson said. “I needed money and I took everything that came. That’s my advice to everyone starting out. Take a job. It might not be what you planned on or what you thought. You never know who you will meet, you never know who sees you, who knows you, who passes your name along.”

Madson currently plays for all ballet levels in the School of Dance. The accompanists are typically assigned to classes by a lead accompanist from modern and ballet, though some professors may request a certain accompanist, Bearden said.

Some instructors are straightforward about what they want from the accompanist, but others are looking for the musicians interpretation and will ask for something abstract. Because of the academic format, the relationship between the teacher and the accompanist is key to the success and efficiency of the class, Bearden said.

“The accompanist must be in tune with what the teacher is trying to accomplish in each combination or exercise and be sensitive to and supportive of the goal,” Bearden said. “It is incumbent upon the teacher to clearly communicate what that goal is and give the accompanists some direction.”

In addition to serving as director of the School of Dance, Bearden teaches ballet technique and choreography classes. Live music enhances the classroom because it teaches the dancers to be sensitive to the music, keeping time and finding the breath in every movement, Bearden said.

“It’s wonderful to see how different teachers explain what they want,” Madson said. “Dance at (an advanced) level in your body expresses what the music says. As an artist, you must feel and hear music every day, and it’s not words that will do it, it’s doing it that does it.”

Madson, Naifeh and Dailey said their favorite thing about playing for the School of Dance is the dancers themselves.

“(The dancers) are just incredibly talented,” Dailey said. “I feel fortunate to be able to witness art, and not my own personal art that I perform, but someone else’s art performed at an extremely high level every day.”

Correction: This story was corrected at 2:16 p.m. April 13 to reflect a correct quote by Naifeh.

Alma Cienski is a modern dance performance and public relations junior and a culture reporter for The Daily.

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