One class, one rhythm at a time: Dance accompanist Larry Tolj discusses his passion for music, how he explores new rhythms for modern dance classes
Written by Carmen Honker|
December 4, 2017
Since taking piano lessons at Peabody Preparatory, playing music has been an integral part of dance accompanist Larry Tolj’s everyday life.
Tolj accompanies the ballet and modern dance classes at the College of William and Mary, playing the piano along with a variety of percussion instruments. Tolj attended the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and received his degree in visual and performing arts with a concentration in piano, as he said that at the time the school did not offer a major solely in music. Additionally, Tolj earned an education minor in order to teach music at secondary schools. Tolj also said that he played in various local bands and taught piano throughout the years.
Prior to playing at the College, Tolj was the accompanist at the Governor’s School for the Arts in Norfolk. Now living in northern Gloucester, Tolj has been at the College for 19 years. Tolj said that accompanying modern dance classes was a new venture for him when he first came to the College.
At the Governor’s School for the Arts I played for ballet classes. I wasn’t playing [for]modern classes,” Tolj said. “I was around it, [as] they were doing modern in the other studios, so you’re hearing it. But this was really my first [time being involved with a modern dance class]. I mean here, I am playing only for one ballet class, everything else is modern classes.”
“At the Governor’s School for the Arts I played for ballet classes. I wasn’t playing [for]modern classes,” Tolj said. “I was around it, [as] they were doing modern in the other studios, so you’re hearing it. But this was really my first [time being involved with a modern dance class]. I mean here, I am playing only for one ballet class, everything else is modern classes.”
During the almost two decades in which Tolj has played for the dance department, his repertoire has seen much evolution. When Tolj first arrived, he said that he only played piano for his many classes. As the years have progressed, Tolj said he has found it necessary to adapt the type and variety of music that he plays.
“[For] the first couple years, I just played piano, and that was actually hard, trying to keep up an energy and keep things interesting and keep it moving,” Tolj said. “[The College] actually had a nice collection of instruments, percussion instruments, on the rack, and we’ve [since] added to that, so then I started playing percussion really, out of necessity. I just felt like I needed to add some more energy and interest.”
Then, about three years ago, Tolj said he decided to add a type of drum synthesizer called a wavedrum to his playing regimen. The Korg Wavedrum, World Edition, has 200 different voices, some synthesized and some samples of worldly instruments, that provide Tolj with an entirely new, expanded collection of sounds in which to incorporate into his music. Tolj also said the addition of a looper pedal further expands his musical capabilities, as it allows him to layer different sounds and to add more energy to his music, and helps him to not tire his wrists as quickly.
Tolj said he also enjoys composing his own music. Tolj occasionally works with the dance faculty to compose pieces for the Orchesis Dance Company’s fall DANCEVENT showcase. This year he wrote the music for theater and dance professor Leah Glenn’s “Red Mettle.”
Tolj said he sometimes gets lost in the music that he is playing in dance class, that he gets inspired by the music at unexpected times during class. Tolj also said that he likes to explore the workings of and reconfigure parts of rock and roll and blues music, the sounds that he grew up with and cherishes.
“That’s why every once and a while I get caught, [the dance combination has] ended and you hear it’s gotten quiet and you look up [to see me still playing],” Tolj said. “But somehow, that’s where I find the music, looking inside. But then also, sometimes, I’ll take old rock and roll music and then turn it into a waltz or change it or change the metrics and use those progressions as fallback for when you have to come up with something quickly.”
Diving further into the composition of his own music, Tolj said he often experiments with a digital audio workstation in his free time to record his own sounds.
“About four years ago, I started teaching myself how to use a DAW, which was totally foreign to me,” Tolj said. “Getting into that, I always thought that ‘you know, I played piano, that’s what I did,’ so I’ve been working with that to be able to record music; I want to do more with recording.”
Over this past summer, Tolj took part in a master class for scoring film, headed by Academy Award-winning composer Hans Zimmer. Tolj said that through opportunities like these, he tries to gather new ideas for how to work with music and keep his sound lively. Tolj also said that he recently has been searching through the “Tiny Desk Concerts” on NPR and has been studying the percussive sounds of Ukrainian band, DakhaBrakha; he said he loves the unique global music and rhythms.
Additionally, Tolj said that his work with the wavedrum almost mimics that of playing alongside a human, which brings yet another element to his music played in class.
“I’m constantly searching out new music and world music and different rhythms and things, again trying to keep things fresh,” Tolj said. “It’s hard when you’re playing this many hours and classes, but each teacher kind of has their own style, so that works. And, again, actually that wavedrum has helped because it uses algorithms. So, besides the voice, depending how hard you hit and where you hit it, there is some randomization of sounds. It’s almost like playing with someone because you don’t always know exactly what it’s going to do, even though [because of the] algorithm, you know it’s going to work with what you are playing. But it helps, I think, to get the random feedback, to kind of have something to play to, like playing with another musician.”
However, the wavedrum is more than just another tool to which Tolj has access. Tolj said that the drum synthesizer has actually benefited his music in more ways than one; not only does the wavedrum ease the pain caused by his arthritis, but it also allows for Tolj to play with more precision. Tolj said that the additions of the wavedrum and looper, although added partially out of a necessity due to his arthritis, have now become undoubtedly an asset.
“I wear those braces when I’m playing the wavedrum, so instead of using mallets, and working my wrists all the time, I can play with my hands,” Tolj said. “And then the rim of the wavedrum is actually separate voices and algorithms. I can use my wrists to play the rim, so it’s actually almost giving me two hands or four mallets. So, that’s been interesting and I think it has really helped, taken some of the strain off and still added more nuance.”
Tolj’s other love, besides music, is the water. He said that he enjoys boating, kayaking and fishing. He even spent time working at a boat shop, and later in his life, before coming to the College, took a year off to sail.
I like to go out and just beachcomb, look for [American] Indian artifacts, arrowheads and sharks’ teeth and stuff like that,” Tolj said. “I go fishing, I do a lot of fishing. And when I can, get together with friends and play music. Neither of my parents were water people, but I’ve always had a fascination with being on the water. After college, I actually went down and lived in the Outer Banks in Manteo and worked at a shop building sport fishing boats, mainly because I wanted to build a sailboat and go cruising. [The] reality is that it is such a large amount of work to build a sailboat from scratch and a lot easier and cheaper to buy a used boat and fix it up, so that’s what I did.”
“I like to go out and just beachcomb, look for [American] Indian artifacts, arrowheads and sharks’ teeth and stuff like that,” Tolj said. “I go fishing, I do a lot of fishing. And when I can, get together with friends and play music. Neither of my parents were water people, but I’ve always had a fascination with being on the water. After college, I actually went down and lived in the Outer Banks in Manteo and worked at a shop building sport fishing boats, mainly because I wanted to build a sailboat and go cruising. [The] reality is that it is such a large amount of work to build a sailboat from scratch and a lot easier and cheaper to buy a used boat and fix it up, so that’s what I did.”
Tolj said that being on the water and making music have consistently allowed him to find a sense of calmness throughout periods of his life. As long as it is feasible, Tolj said that playing music will always be a part of his routine.
“Music for me is kind of my meditation,” Tolj said. “Anytime there have been difficulties, music is where I end. Well music, and the water; I would say both of those to me are soothing and meditative. As long as my hands keep working, I will keep playing, I’m sure.”