Syllabus Music – Compose or Not? (part one)

by Graham Dickson-Place

Between 1977 and 1989 Graham was Director of Music of the Royal Academy of Dance, playing for daily classes of the College of the RAD, giving music theory classes to the College students and PDTC course (Professional Dancers Training Course), and composing music for the RAD’s syllabi. In this blog (in three parts) he writes about the experience of writing music for the RAD’s syllabus, among other things.

I was very lucky during my time as the Director of Music of the Royal Academy of Dance to have the opportunity and great pleasure in composing music for their ‘New’ syllabus. This was a syllabus which came into being in the late 1980’s and was in use up until a few years ago. More than twenty-five years! The current syllabus was formed in a very different way and I wouldn’t want to compare the two forms other than to explain how we worked on the new syllabus back then. As readers, you can judge the two methods.

Before explaining further about how we worked on that syllabus, I would like to talk about my approach to playing for ‘free’ classes. As you will see, it is all related.

Ideally, the music you should use to accompany an exercise in a free class, should suit in every way possible, the dynamics/quality, atmosphere, rhythm, speed, length etc. of the exercise. If it does, you will be helping fully with the training of the students and the enjoyment of the dancers. Hopefully, the exercise has been marked in an inspiring manner by the teacher giving the class.

Maybe this would be an appropriate moment to mention to teachers the importance of inspiring both your students and pianist when ‘giving’ a class. The worst nightmare a pianist can have is to start playing for an exercise without really knowing what to play. Please consider all the above-mentioned aspects of your exercise before ‘marking’ it. I mention this because later I will refer to it when talking about composing for a syllabus. Also, pianists, pay great attention to how an exercise is being ‘delivered’ so that you can accompany it well.

As a pianist, you have two choices. Either carry around with you an enormous collection of music which might be suitable, or you can ‘improvise’ music in the style of the exercise as I mentioned earlier. All my working life I have entered dance studios with empty hands but with a great desire to inspire everyone in the room.

We use the word ‘improvise’ but it is not really the correct word. The word improvise comes from the same root as ‘improve’ (something which already exists). Jazz musicians improvise on a well-known tune and theoretically ‘improve’ the original tune. ‘Extemporise’ means instant composition and this is what some of us do in a dance class. Church organists also have to do this sometimes when the bride arrives late and he’s exhausted his repertoire!

The big advantage of good improvising is that the music can and should suit exactly the exercise you are accompanying. It is similar to buying a tailor-made suit. Basically, teachers should mark exercises in such a manner that the pianist is left in no doubt as to what she/he should play. Then the pianist’s task is to ‘deliver the goods’ so to speak. When talking to teachers and pianists about this teamwork, I relate it to ordering a meal in a restaurant. If you say to the waiter “Bring me anything”, or worse, ‘you choose’, anything could arrive and you might not be happy eating it. If, on the other hand, you are very specific, even down to the desired temperature of the food, the waiter’s job is to make sure that you get what you ordered. Improvising can be learnt but please try to make it melodious and uplifting. It is hard to say but there is nothing worse than bad uninspiring improvising!

Stay tuned for part two and three of Graham’s blog.

To find out more about Graham Dickson-Place and his music, please visit