A dance teacher’s guide to finding, editing, and mixing music
By Gregg Russell
“Music produces a kind of pleasure which human nature cannot do without.” Those are Confucius’ words, and I couldn’t agree more. But there are times in a dance teacher’s life when music produces more stress than pleasure. That’s when the difficulties of juggling studio responsibilities, family life, and everyday challenges become too much and we cut corners in preparing for class or choreographing a routine. Unfortunately, all too often one of the things that gets sacrificed is music: We decide we can get by with a bad edit or choose a song that everyone uses. But it doesn’t have to be that way. You can find new music and edit it to create a finished product that will inspire you and your students.
If your inner skeptic is rolling its eyes and muttering, “Oh, come on, music isn’t that important,” let me convince you otherwise. Recently, as I was struggling to come up with a jazz combination, I heard a song on my iTunes shuffle that hit me. Within 10 minutes I had a 30-second dance that felt invigorating and right. I couldn’t wait to get to class and teach it. The students felt my enthusiasm, and many of them asked what song it was so that they could go home and practice. That one song lifted me out of the monotony of my schedule and inspired me to share my creativity and love of dance.
Let’s set inspiration aside for the moment, though. Remember when you had to search through your CD library—or better yet, your LP collection—to find a song? Perhaps some of you still do that. But nowadays there is an easier way to organize and find the songs you need. Yes, it is time for you to buy an iPod or another brand of MP3 player. It is a bit intimidating at first, since some of them have the capacity to hold more than 10,000 songs. But once you figure out how to use one, it is wonderful.
The most accessible and easiest to use of the many varieties of MP3 players available is the iPod. You organize your music on your computer using a program called the iTunes library. This program comes with your iPod, or you can download it from Apple’s website (www.apple.com). You can customize the library to list your music any way you desire. The common methods of sorting include by name of song, artist, album, genre, and time. To specialize your sorting, go to “View” and click on “View Options.” You will get a detailed list, and then you checkmark which categories you want. Some categories that I find helpful with teaching and mixing are date added, beats per minute, and year. You can also rate them from one to five stars.
Importing from CDs and LPs
You are probably wondering how to get your music into the library. This is the time-consuming part. You will have to import all those CDs and LPs you own into your computer. CDs are simple: Just put one into your disc drive and click “Import.” The secret is to make sure that you are online when you do this, so that the names of the songs and album are entered automatically. If you have an out-of-print CD or something obscure, you will need to enter all the information yourself, but this happens rarely.
To transfer music from LPs to your computer, you’ll need a record player with a USB output. If you’re not sure what that is, ask your local sound guy (at places like Guitar Center or Best Buy) to show you the equipment and which cords you’ll need to set it up. This will take some time, but having all that music at your fingertips will be well worth it over the long haul.
Finding new songs
If you are like me, you have exhausted your personal music library’s potential for use in class or choreography. You’re sick of everything you own and are not inspired even by your favorite song of six months ago. So once you have finished importing the music you already own, it is time to find some new tunes. There are many ways to do this, with the easiest being shopping at the iTunes store. You can access it from your iTunes library or type it into your Web browser (www.apple.com/itunes/store). Once you get to the site, you will see that it’s nicely organized into new releases, top songs, and top albums. If you scroll all the way to the bottom, you will find music that’s free.
For the casual listener, iTunes is great for finding songs that are popular; but let me help you find some obscure songs. Go over to the “Top Songs” list and click on Coldplay’s recent single, “Viva la Vida.” (Choose another song if “Viva la Vida” isn’t on the list by the time you read this.) The store will take you to the album page. Now scroll down to “Listeners Also Bought” on the right-hand side, and choose one of the artists listed; the store will take you to the chosen artist’s album page. Select songs (30-second clips) to listen to and either purchase them or return to “Listeners Also Bought” and choose another artist.
I will warn you that shopping for music this way is addictive, but it is such an amazing way to find new music. Most album pages on iTunes also offer “Top-Rated iMixes,” which give you an eclectic yet thematic list of songs. You can also download music podcasts (most are free), which usually have a DJ or host and sound like the radio.
Despite the ease of using iTunes, there are a few drawbacks. Number one on my list is that you can listen to only 30 seconds of the song. I don’t know how many songs I have bought and then realized that the best part was that 30 seconds. One alternative is to go to www.myspace.com and type in the artist’s name. More than half of the time they will have a page that has the full song on it. You can’t download it most of the time, but you can listen to the whole thing and then jump over to the iTunes store and purchase it. You can also go to other music sites, such as www.pandora.com, www.amazon.com, www.rhapsody.com, and www.napster.com (which is legal now). Despite the inconvenience of having to find out where to listen to the whole song or just being able to hear 30 seconds of it, I would rather purchase one song for 99 cents than spend $15 to $20 for a CD in order to get it.
Another problem with being able to listen to only 30 seconds of a song is that hip-hop or even popular songs often have objectionable or suggestive (or outright filthy) words that you didn’t hear. Don’t rely on the radio version or on the “edited” logo that might be present beside the song’s name. Check it out at www.lyrics.com or www.azlyrics.com, which have extensive libraries of music lyrics that will allow you to tell right away whether or not you want to buy a particular song.
Purchasing DJ mixes
Another limitation of iTunes is that it doesn’t have an extensive DJ-mix section. Nothing is easier than playing a continuous mix in class so that you don’t need to keep changing songs. Some great sites where you can purchase mixes include convention hip-hop teacher Barry Youngblood’s (www.barryyoungblood.com), studio owner Anthony Foster’s (www.djanthonyfoster.com), X-mix Music (www.xmix.com), 3D Dance Network (www.3ddn.net), and Turntable Lab (www.turntablelab.com). Only Foster’s allows you to listen to the entire mix, but all are descriptive and affordable.
Creating universal files
There’s one more drawback to iTunes: The files you download are protected AAC files. This means that they are formatted with a high-quality sound, but they are compatible only with Apple iPods and not universal to other MP3 players. The way to convert the file to make it universal is to burn it onto a CD, then import it again as an MP3. To make sure that it will import as an MP3, go to “Preferences” in your iTunes library and click on “Advanced.” From there go to “Importing” and choose “MP3 Encoder” in the “Import Using” field and then click “OK” at the bottom. Your library is now ready to import all of your music as MP3s.
So far, so good. You have done your research, bought your music, and found the one song that will become your choreographic masterpiece or five songs that you want to mix together. The problem is that each one is 7 minutes long and has bad words in it. You could go to a local DJ to fix these problems, but that can be pricey (not to mention how confusing it can be to try to explain what you want). So now you need to edit the songs yourself.
Don’t be scared! Numerous computer programs that allow you to edit music are available. I find that the easiest and simplest ones are Sound Studio (www.apple.com) and Audacity (http://audacity.sourceforge.net) for Mac users, and Sound Forge (www.sonycreativesoftware.com/soundforge/) and Audio Editor Pro (www.audioeditorpro.com) for PC users. Each program comes with an extensive “Help” section to guide you through everything from simple edits to combining songs and changing tempos. I have recently been turned on to Jack Oats Presents (www.musiceditingonline.com), a site that offers video tutorials on editing music and also allows you to ask questions. Once you have completed your edit or mix, don’t forget to import it into your iTunes library.
You made it! Yes, it was overwhelming at first, but you’ll find that it was well worth it. Once you have imported your old library, purchased new music, and categorized your songs the way you want to, you are ready to roll. Just hook your iPod to your computer and it will automatically update itself with any changes you have made.
Remember that choreography is important, but the landscape is music. As Charlie Parker said, “Music is your own experience, your thoughts, your wisdom. If you don’t live it, it won’t come out of your horn.” Don’t cheat yourself or your dancers of your brilliance because you are too busy to find music.
Oh yeah, that song that inspired me? It was “Disco Heat” by Calvin Harris. Enjoy!