Confessions of an anxious pianist #26: Same or different music on the other side?


Although the “anxious ballet pianist” series is officially over, I’m adding one more post now, because I realised today that after thirty years of playing for class, I still often ask myself the same question: shall I play the same or different music for the other side of an exercise?

Sitting on the fence about music on the other side

Same or different music for the other side: cat sitting on a fence

Sitting on the fence about the “same or different music on the other side?” issue.

What’s made me think about it is that I’ve just played for a teacher that I first worked with maybe 28 years ago, who made me bristle (back then, that is) by saying “Please play the same thing on the second side” after one of the first exercises at the barre. I bristled for a long time, because variety was my shtick, and was what I believed you were supposed to aim for in class: avoid boredom and sameness at all costs (see previous post on fear of repetition). I remember crying into my beer with another teacher, who cheered me up by saying “But it always feels different on the other side anyway — it’s not the same thing.

That was 28 years ago. A few months ago,  I played for that teacher again, and with the wisdom of experience, I remembered that he liked the same music on both sides, and so that’s what I did, without any bristling.  Experience had also taught me that he was a highly respected teacher with a securely individual approach and style, and that he had known exactly what he was doing when he asked for the same music on both sides. Looking at him and his class again, I realised that I had been lucky to have the correction, because it had given me something to think about for thirty years: only problems generate solutions.

Playing for him again more recently, I reminded myself not to alternate at the barre, but this introduces another anxiety: I know why I’m repeating the same music, but the class doesn’t. Do they care? Does it matter? Will they think I’m dull, or lazy? Part of me thinks that nobody probably gives a damn, they’ve got other things to worry about. And particularly in this case, the exercises are hard enough that the music needs to be there to help, not distract.

“Same or different music for the other side” is a constant dilemma (literally, a choice between two unpleasant alternatives). In another class recently, after I’d played the same music for three groups in adage in the centre, I decided maybe I could do better, so I changed the music. The teacher (one of the most experienced and musical I know) stopped me and said something like “You’ve lost them. Play what you played before, they can’t find what they need in the music.”

Now that’s an even more difficult dilemma: what I was playing wasn’t great, but it at least had the virtue of familiarity after a couple of groups. Possibly, what I was going to play would have been better had I played it the first time round, but now it was too late: better the devil you know. It’s the wise choice, but it runs counter to the pervasive idea that progress and change are unquestionably a Good Thing.

From both sides now

The trouble is that there is no right or wrong about this issue:  you just have to make a reasonable guess about what’s right in each situation, and risk getting it wrong. I probably got the idea that changing the music was a good thing because I learned my trade playing for syllabus classes where any diversion from the set music was a welcome relief. The teacher who said “It feels different on the other side” was right, and there are other occasions when changing the music has a positive effect. But there are other times when you have to let the music listen to the exercise, so to speak: when it’s new, difficult, or to achieve a very particular thing. As I’ve discovered, that might not only be with children: it can be at company class level as well, but you have to know when and where what is appropriate.

I got it wrong last week, I realised half way through pliés that the tiny rhythmic hint that the teacher had given in the marking was not just incidental or accidental, it was in fact exactly what she’d wanted. I changed the music to something more suitable halfway through the exercise, and she smiled and nodded at me.  I felt great for a moment, and then thought “Why didn’t I just do that the first time around?”  Was I clever to have sorted it mid-exercise, or stupid for not getting it right at the beginning? I don’t know.  That’s another anxiety to add to the list.

A year of ballet playing cards #50: A chameleon-like march by Granados (DJ)

Screen-grab of the Marcha Militar by Granados. Free piano music for ballet class

Click to download the score of this chameleon-like music

The march that isn’t a march: one of the perennial problems of music for ballet class

Another problem that I could have added to my “Confessions of an anxious ballet pianist” series is the search for something march-like  that can nonetheless immediately adapt to its surroundings without losing its identity:  a musical chameleon that can be staccato and legato, slow and  fast, up and  down on the beat, but not too much; loud and  soft, rhythmed and even; even but not mechanical, strict but not rigid. You need this for a certain kind of battement jeté exercise that tries to be all things to all women, and is neither fish nor fowl, musically. Enter the Military March by Granados (Marcha Militar).

Originally for piano duet, this little march is great for those occasions when you start playing and then realise, horrified, that you misread the exercise in the marking: it turns out to be slower/faster, louder/softer, more down on the beat, more up on the beat than you thought, and so on. With the Military March by Granados, you can pick various levels of the meter and emphasise them. There are different sections that vary from soft and fluid to sharp and detached, but within those sections, you can also alter your articulation and dynamics without causing any life-threatening injuries to the music.  I found it thanks to Susie Cooper, who recommended as something for a children’s piece in a school on a Facebook thread. I heard two bars, and fell in love with it. Thanks, Susie.

How fast is a march in music for ballet class?

The published score is marked allegretto: poco lento which would give this a warm, demure, leisurely, slightly pastoral feel: a parade in a country town after lunch, not the Red Army Choir or The Dambusters.  In fact, it’s more of a literary march than a military one, to borrow a concept from Raymond Monelle, who talks about the “cheval écrit” — the literary horse.  If there’s anyone marching here, it’s not an army, it’s  the pianists, dressed up in toy soldier uniforms. It was written in 1904, and  dedicated to King Alfonso XIII of Spain.  However indirectly, the favour was returned later: when Granados and his wife died in 1916 as a result of the torpedoing of the SS Sussex , King Alfonso set up a collection to raise money for the orphaned Granados children.

There’s a nice performance of it here, (as the original piano duet) and another one in the clip below, for brass band. Both are faster (at least to my mind) than necessary, and lose some of the potential for elegance and subtlety —but they demonstrate how it could be played fast, as well as slow.


The arrangement

In making the arrangement, I’ve tried to keep almost everything in, so you can see what the chord voicings should be, but it would be impossible to keep that up all the way through. I’ve shown an ossia at the beginning to give an idea for what it could be, when simplified.  I find myself that even when I know that an orchestra would double the bass at the octave, I’m nervous to actually do it unless I see it written down, so my principle in reductions is to put it all in and let the player decide.

The manuscript of the Military March by Granados

For some details about the composition/publication history (in Spanish) see this short article.


A year of ballet playing cards #35: A mazurka by Hubay


Click to download score

Slow, mazurka-like exercises from the corner for multiple pirouettes are a staple of all the company classes I play for, and if you haven’t got the right kind of music, it’s the longest 10 minutes of your life (see earlier posts on the “dreaded slow mazurka and “think mazurka, not waltz for pirouettes“). This has been a problem for me for 30 years, and it’s only recently that I’ve come close to solving it. Once you’ve experienced playing the right kind of music for this, you realise just how wrong a waltz is.  An eminent teacher recently said in company class that it wasn’t until he was 50 that he realised that the difference between a waltz and a balancé is that a waltz goes down-up-up, and a balancé goes down-up-down. When he said that, a light went on for me: I realised that this probably explains why waltzes tend to be wrong for an exercise with a balancé in it—the third beat of the bar will have the wrong gravitational feel (see my article on meter, ballet, and gravity if you haven’t already).

By who? By Hubay, that’s who

I first heard of Hubay when I was researching music for another project, and came across Hullàmzò Balaton, which was remarkable in that it contained one of my favourite bits of the Grand pas Hongrois in Act 3 of Raymonda (see earlier post), that I had always believed to be by Glazunov. I guessed from this that Hubay probably wrote some other good dance tunes. What I wanted most was something polka-mazurka-ish, but with oomph. Of all the “playing cards” I’ve created so far, the most useful one for me has been the polka mazurka by Verdi.

Mazurka or polka mazurka?

Hubay calls this a mazurka, but rhythmically it’s got that characteristic rumpty-tumpty-tumpty of a polka mazurka, yet has none of the tweeness. It’s the same rhythm as the middle section of the Coppélia mazurka, which is also useful (as long as you’re not playing for a company class, where you may get shot for playing it). Incidentally, the original of the Hubay is remarkably similar to this, with the change of rhythm prefaced by four bars of fifths on the violin, as here. It’s interesting to note, however, how subtly different they are below the surface: Delibes’ appears to be more markedly in 4-bar phrases compared to the 2-bar units of Hubay. But harmonically, Delibes’ change of chord on every bar makes it more markedly more truly triple meter than Hubay, who moves from G major only after the fourth bar: those two-bar units are beginning to look suspiciously like 6/8 in disguise. The longer you play for ballet, the more you appreciate how details like this can be a tipping point for choosing one piece rather than another for an exercise.


Extract from the mazurka in Coppélia


From Hubay’s mazurka – same key, same fifths, similar rhythmic patterns

Hubay’s mazurka works well for pirouettes if you play it slow and large. At a faster speed (the crotchet = 172 that I’ve marked) it also works for a certain kind of grand battement. Once you’ve played it a few times and the rhythmic patterns and conventions are in your fingers, you can use it as a basis for improvisation. Another convention that is good to bring in is the huge leaps across two octaves, which would be out of place in vocal music and counterintuitive when you’re thinking pianistically.

I’ve done a lot of messing around with this to get it into a format that will work for class. In the original—though I didn’t notice until long after I’d input it—there are several 12 bar phrases (or rather an 8-bar antecedent followed by a 4-bar consequent), and 8 bar interludes. Better to work on the assumption that there will be 32 counts per dancer, and then you don’t get left hanging mid-phrase.  However, the original is lovely to listen to, so here it is without the straightening out and the cuts:

Because it’s a concert piece for violin, there isn’t a recording of this that gives a sense of what it could be like when it’s butched up on the piano for a ballet class, so I’ve quickly recorded a rough version to give an idea of what I think it can do. It could go slower than this, and there’s plenty of room for rubato and pauses and stretches to allow for multiple pirouettes and other contingencies. Forgive my mistakes, but it’s better than nothing.

PS: There’s a small octave mistake that I’ll correct when I have the will to live — it’s in the repeat of the G minor section near the end on page 3. The D-Eflat-D motifs should be up the octave, as they are the first time around on page one.

See also: 

Varieties of reading: drawing in and pulling away


I’ve just finished reading Matthew Crawford’s The World Beyond Your Headwhich I’d happily say is one of the best books I’ve read in the last year.  I wonder when the subtitle changed from On becoming an individual in an age of distraction to How to flourish in an age of distraction? The latter, on the UK Penguin paperback edition, makes it sound like a self-help book. The former, which seems to be the American hardcover subtitle, is more accurate because it does greater justice to the philosophical content of the book. On the other hand, Crawford’s whole point is that the idea of individual, autonomous liberty is not necessarily liberating or ideal, whereas connection and engagement with the real world of people and things is. To flourish, you need to radically reconsider the notion of what it means to be individual and free in the first place.

My current reading list: not so much a list as a pile

My favourite part of the day. Coffee and something from this pile.

We kid ourselves if we think that we while we are humming along in neutral, our minds are in some freewheeling state where we think and act autonomously. For many of us, the world is full of things that are making claims on our  “attentional commons,” eroding our right to live in a world without ubiquitous advertising and clickbait. If you don’t believe it, maybe you haven’t heard marketing people talk about every available space, including the back of your bus ticket, as “real estate” where someone can peddle their wares at you, colonising every object you use and see with a corporate flag.

Still reading “Still writing”

What Crawford is getting at is difficult to imagine, unless you’ve had the opportunity to differentiate between different kinds of attention. I’m now riffing on the book, by introducing another, Dani Shapiro’s Still Writingwhich I would put near the top of the list of books which have most influenced me in the last year.  Although it’s not a self-help book, there is one page which made a huge difference to me. It’s where Shapiro distinguishes between two kinds of reading – the kind that draws you in, and the kind that pulls you away (incidentally, pulling away is more or less what the components of the word distraction mean).

I try (most of the time I fail, but still, I try) to begin my day reading. And by this I do not mean The New York Times online, or the Vanity Fair lying on the kitchen table or the e-mails that have accumulated overnight, and which I open at my own risk. The roulette of the in-box! An enticing invitation to a private online sale of gourmet Himalayan sea salt, a high school nemesis emerging from the ether—whatever it is, it’s the opposite of reading. It pulls you away, instead of directing you inward.

[…] When I start the morning with any one of the dozen books in rotation on my office floor, my day is made instantly better, brighter. I never regret having done it. Think about it: have you ever spent an hour reading a good book, and then had that sinking, queasy feeling of having wasted time?

 (Dani Shapiro, 2013. Still Writing, New York: Grove Press, pp. 34-35).

I also try, not always successfully, to do the same. That is, to walk downstairs, without touching a phone or a computer, and pick up a book, and read it. When I do that, I get the same feeling as when I first tried to give up smoking. A visceral twitch that could make you lurch towards the nearest cigarette shop to buy another packet.

But within minutes of picking up a book, just as Shapiro says, you get drawn in, and feel better for it. Her point is that good writing comes from good reading, and that any time you spend reading a well-written book is going to stimulate the writer that you want to be, and other forms of reading – that really need a different term to describe them, since they are so fundamentally different – have the effect of distracting you, pulling you in different directions, until you feel mentally exhausted and vacant.

So this post is by way of celebrating that today, at least, I didn’t do that, I finished The world beyond your head, and —as Shapiro promised—I feel all the better for it.

A year of ballet playing cards #53 (Black Joker): Reel from La Sylphide

Image of piano score of The reel from La Sylphide, Bournonville's ballet with music by Løvenskiold

Click to download the score

I promised that I’d be posting a couple of “jokers” in the pack of ballet playing cards, and here’s one of them: the Reel from La Sylphide.  It’s a joker, because you should only play this one with care: I’d advise against playing it for class anywhere where La Sylphide has recently been in the company repertoire, but it’s such great music for little jumps, and such fun, that it almost always raises a smile, or gets people trying to remember the steps while they wait for the next group.  A crotchet/quarter-note beat of 108 is only a guide, but it’s not worth playing if it’s slower than that, frankly – the whole point is that it’s fast, furious, and jolly, as a reel should be. To talk shop for a moment, it’s also great for little jumps because it has a proper four-on-the-floor feel, rather than falling into a see-saw pattern of oom-pahs. Also rather interesting how often it has a strong beat at the end of the bar. Explain that one to your music teacher.

It’s handy because it goes on for pages and pages (I’ve included everything, but the most useful part stops at the end of page 3 – after that, go carefully, although it’s in 8 bar phrases almost right up to the end. There’s something really exhilarating about playing for an exercise that goes on for a long time and not running out of material – because people keep think you’re going to, and then you don’t. I’ve done this joker as a favour to myself, so I can remind myself of how it all goes. I’m also rather fond of a post I wrote about it when I had to play it after slicing the end of the fourth finger of my RH with a food processor blade, and discovered interesting new fingering methods.

A reel life experience

This piece brings back so many memories too – one of my earliest jobs was sight-reading it from a terrible hand written score for Peter Schaufuss and Festival Ballet (ENB) at a stage rehearsal back in the 80s. It was then that I realised how much more fun Bournonville ballets were than the turgid Tchaikovsky ones.  Probably the two best ballet nights out I’ve ever had were watching Matthew Bourne’s reworking of La Sylphide (Highland Fling!) in London when it first came out, and then in 2013 when it was restaged for Scottish Ballet.