The Sound of Dressage

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Dark Knight is a 6 year old who has his own creative tastes; at this show, I hummed the B flat scale outside of the arena to remind myself of the basics.

By Julia Bancroft Magsam

I can hear dressage. Maybe I am crazy, but I ride the same way I play the trombone. The connection between the two has grown so strong, that they are inseparable. I can now hear the music I am creating when I ride, and it’s been a very useful tool.

For example, once my horse is collected and light, it sounds like a perfect chord. And if I decide to do a half pass, it can go one of two ways. 1) the half pass is balanced and steady, and it sounds like a phrase in a beautiful concerto or 2) the shoulders leave or it is fast, and it sounds rushed and out of tune. But if the movements are all successful and put together, it sounds harmonious. The trot sounds like a concerto with a lively moving cadence, the canter sounds like a romance piece with a strong bass, and the walk sounds like the second to last phrase in a Bach concerto, slow yet expressive and moving, waiting for the big finale.

It is because of my aversion to dischord that I never attempt a movement I can not perform well; I would never play an advanced piece without the proper steps to master it. Professional musicians can play their scales from memory forwards and backwards, and spend hours preparing their music. The same goes for us dressage riders. We must memorize and familiarize ourselves with the training pyramid before even thinking about showing a test.

So you’ve learned your basics like the scales. Great! Do you know your time signature? A  musician looks at his/her music with the intent of finding these things. The canter is in a ¾ time signature; 3 notes per measure, and a quarter note (one footfall) gets one beat. Think about it. The trot is a  2/4 time signature; 2 notes per measure, a footfall gets one beat. The walk is a 4/4 time signature, with 4 beats per measure and a quarter note gets one beat. So when you ride the walk, does it sound like a 2/4, ¾, or 4/4 time signature? What about the trot and canter? Knowing the time signature of your horse’s gaits is integral to finding clarity and mobility, especially in a test environment.

Every horse has a different chord in my mind. This differentiates what kind of music the horse can play. If a horse is dull and lazy, they are a minor chord. Minor chords are found in sad music. I do not like to play sad music. Sometimes all you have to do is change the key to make a different sound. For a horse that feels like a minor chord, I might pick up a whip and send him forward before starting anything at all. Once I feel him in my hand and forward, I hear him as a major key. Great! The same logic goes for a horse that I can feel in a C sharp chord. It feels too suspenseful. I do not want to ride a medium canter on a horse in C sharp. So maybe we work on the suppleness until I can hear that C major again.

When I prepare for entering at A, I also count out the rhythm and try to move the tempo. This allows me to have the control I need to make a good halt. 

Okay, so you have learned your scales, time signature, and key. Can we play NOW? I learned better in concert band. You have to make a plan. Are you trying to play a certain piece? This is where your test comes in. If I am going to show Second level, I have to read through the test before I ride it. Are there crescendos, a change in key or time signature, a movement or series of movements I might struggle with? The same goes for your test. Read through it, highlight or pencil in where there is a place that needs attention. For Second level test one, I saw the counter canter areas and highlighted the letters at which I would make transitions. In my music, I would highlight a time signature change there.

Now is it time? Well, yes and no. I pick phrases to work with, one or two at a time. Once that phrase is as good as it can be, I move on. Until I can truly feel the music though, I won’t play the whole piece together. I might string a few phrases together, but I need to hear others play it, make my own notes, and feel it flowing from bar to bar. If the test is silent in my head, I know it didn’t score well.

This is not to say test riding is the only way to ride. It’s doing basic remediations as well. I always think of slurs and arpeggios when working on transitions. I want to hear tuned notes, smooth transitions, rhythm, a good tempo, and make it all seamless. For dressage, I want the exact same thing. Can I play pianissimo? What about Forte? If I can make the gait more and less expressive at my will, I have control of the dynamics. Can I change the tongue? If I can shorten and lengthen the step at will, I can change the way I play the notes, from staccato to legato (short and accented to long and smooth). If I can master the exercises, I can stop my ride.

Widespread Panic is harder to tune, but he is always happy to make music with me. He is very sensitive, and he will tell me when we are not in harmony.

In the end though, the concept of dressage and music is the same. It is elegant, precise, dynamic, and it should all flow effortlessly, or at least seem to.

 I could go on for days on the connections between music and dressage, so if you are a fellow musician or even a music connoisseur, let me know if you’d like more!

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