A progressive ear training course for tango milonguero dancing

An effective course of study needs to provide the right amount of the right sort of input as well as opportunities for the right sort of output to consolidate and test the processing of the input. For the most part the type of teaching we’re seeing today does not meet any of these criteria. In the context of the current studio-based teaching of tango learners are getting input in the form of images, videos and demonstrations of show tango rather than social tango. The movement and the music are wrong for social tango, especially tango milonguero, and are too difficult for the learner to process and comprehend.

Learning a skill to a high level typically requires a large amount of input which has to be correct given the goal of learning social tango milonguero dancing at a traditional milonga. That means that it has to cover a variety of skills relevant to the ability to construct a dance with a partner on a busy dancing floor to a variety of traditional Epoca de Oro recordings. This suggests that at least 50% of the training input should concern the music.

Learners need a combination of structured input as well as more passive input that is graded or organised to match the student’s level is also necessary. This should also be combined with some output to check progress. The input needs to be graded. If it’s too difficult the learner won’t be able to process it and no learning will occur. Roughly, about 90% of the input should be comprehensible to ensure processing. If the input is too simple then no new skills will be acquired. About 10% of the input should be new.

It’s important to distinguish between two kinds of input: intensive and extensive. Intensive input involves actively focusing on specific aspects of the target subject matter, whereas extensive input involves getting a lot of input passively. While learning tango dancing is mainly associated with learning tango movement, it seems that at least half of the skill of dancing social tango involves the ability to listen and interpret traditional tango music. This is not normally covered in tango teaching for a number of reasons.

First, listening is generally not considered something that needs to be learned, ie., a skill that is the result of a learning or training process. This is mainly because music is experienced these days passively, uninformed by any sort of systematic learning.
Second, tango lessons take place in the context of a dancing studio which is not well suited to music training. In a dancing studio music is used as a background to the steps and techniques being taught and is not the focus and subject matter itself. Students are not normally given music to listen to, nor any systematic way of practicing listening.

Third, the above tend to result in the idea that tango music does not require study to dance to, and that what is required instead is the ability to step on the beat, to the rhythm of the music, without any need to attend to the melody and the harmonic organisation of the music. This is reinforced by movement teachers by (a) clapping or otherwise marking the rhythm to the steps, and (b) tending to choose music that has, or appears to have, a relatively steady rhythm in favour of music that does not.

Fourth, contemporary pop music tends to emphasise a steady beat over melody. Moreover, Latin music is thought to be characterised by a specific sort of rhythm. These trends and ideas tend to reinforce emphasis on rhythm and lack of attention to the melody, and the assumption that the melody of tango tunes is not relevant to tango dancing, only the beat or what people perceive as the rhythm.

It’s due to the combination of the above factors that many people seem not to notice that a lot of tango music does not have a steady or clearly identifiable beat for at least a significant part of the tune, and many of the steps that are being taught don’t clearly fit the organisation of the music to which they are danced. If they do notice this they are at a loss as to how to deal with this, often blaming their partner for poor leading or following. Attempting to fit steps designed for a steady beat of a given sort to music that does not in fact have this sort of organisation is unlikely to result in a satisfying dancing experience.

The basic problem is prioritising movement and rhythm over music and melody, and making movement the focus of tango teaching. The alternative is to make music, and in particular, ear training in listening to traditional Golden Era music, the subject matter of at least 50% of tango training. Priorising music means that then the movement stepping and partnering technique should be subsidiary to the understanding and perception of the music given it’s actual organisation, rather than an organisation that is imposed by studio dancing technique and ideas about rhythm imported from pop music.

So an alternative to the standard training proceeds along the following sort of lines:

  1. Prioritise ear training over movement, so that training begins with ear training.
  2. Ear training focuses on melody rather than rhythm. The goal of ear training is to internalise the melody and the organisation of the music.
  3. Traditional recordings are prioritised over more contemporary ones.
  4. Basic movement training proceeds without music. Movement training to a particular piece of music proceeds only after that piece of music has been internalised.
  5. One piece of music is internalised over a 2 week period using the process outlined below.

The basic process for ear training

Step 1: Selecting a recording

Make a list of songs that you want to learn over the next few months and listen through them a couple of times. Choose one song that you want to learn over the next 2-3 weeks.

Step 2: Passive listening

Find several versions of the song you want to learn and make a playlist. Listen to these versions over several days. You can listen while you’re doing other things: cleaning, waiting in line, washing the dishes, exercising, etc.

Step 3: Active listening

Find the original version of the song and listen to that version actively a couple of times. Focus on the various aspects of the recording: what are the instruments playing, is there an intro, is it vocal or instrumental, which instruments play the melody, what are the other instruments doing, what are the different parts, what are the transitions, etc.

Step 4: Internalising the melody

Practice singing the melody without the words. You can hum, whistle, use syllables, like “doo doo doo doo” or “dah dah dah dah”, etc. Do this until you can sing the melody together with the song from beginning to end.

Step 5: Learning the lyrics

Read through the lyrics, without singing, but keeping the rhythm, from beginning to end. Do this a few times.

Step 6: Learning the rhythm

Sing or hum/scat the song while clapping your hands to keep the rhythm. Do this until you can sing with the recording while clapping your hands.

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