Syllabus Music – Compose or Not? (part two)

by Graham Dickson-Place

Part Two of Graham’s blog about composing music for the Rad’s syllabus. For Part One, read here. 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 syllaby.

When we created the RAD syllabus back in the 80’s, there were many months of preparatory work involved before the composers came on the scene. A wonderful team of teachers was formed and little by little the ‘Six-year course of study’ was developed and out of that came the exercises which would form the syllabus. There were ‘Training exercises’ and ‘Set exercises’. The latter would later be seen in the exams. The work of choreographing the exercises was shared by three teachers from the original team. They worked at home and tried out their ideas on their students. This system meant that each choreographer knew from where she was starting, and where she had to get to. As yet, no music had been composed.

When the choreographers had finished this preparatory work, they came back to the RAD’s headquarters to show their ideas to the initial panel for discussion. This is where our work as composers started. The exercises were shown, to imaginary students, as if they were exercises in a ‘free’ class. My assistant or I would improvise something on the spot. If everyone were happy with what we had played, we would have a few minutes to write down the first few bars, a metronome indication and a note as to how much music we had improvised. This was very pressurised work but it worked. The composing work was shared out between four or five pianists on the then pianist team of the RAD.

In the days which ensued, we worked on the music before the second showing. The panel had maybe made some suggestions to the choreographer etc. The second showing was more or less the finished product. Exercises improved and music composed. When the green light was given by the panel, the syllabus notes were written out and I prepared the hand-written music ready for sending to the printers. In those days, it took about three months to print a fifty-page music book. Now when I finish a composition on my computer, it takes about three seconds for each page to be printed!

As you can see from this, there was a wonderful working relationship between choreographers and composers. They inspired us and we had to live up to the challenge of composing music, which was as good as or better than their exercises and that was durable.

I remember one wonderful moment. I was playing a piece of music for the choreographer for an exercise of what was later to be called the Advanced 2. I had worked on the music and thought it was exactly right for the movements etc. I was hoping for approval. The choreographer said it wasn’t exactly right at one point but as the music was so beautiful, she would adapt the choreography. This is teamwork at its best!

Stay tuned for part three of Graham’s blog.

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