Confessions of an anxious ballet pianist day #19: Being late


I wanted a picture of a clock with the hands at one minute to 10. But all I could find was this picture of an effete porcelain man that I saw in a shop window in Prague. Totally unrelated to this post, but it amused me.

Anxiety about turning up late for class or rehearsal is so basic to being a ballet pianist (for me, at least)  that I almost forgot to add it to my list of topics. If you’re reading this, and you don’t know the ballet world, then you have to understand that 10 o’clock means “ready to start at 10 o’clock.” It means that you should be sitting at your piano, ready to play, because the teacher will be looking at his or her watch until the hands align on the hour, and you’ll be  playing as you hear the clocks chime 10 outside.

No-one will say, “Let’s just hold on and see if he turns up.” If you’re late, the class will start without you. Then you’ll have to walk through that door, faced by a room full of people who managed to get there on time, get into their practice clothes, warm up, and be ready to start, unlike you. You were the one who had the least things to do in order to be ready, yet you’re late. You’re the odd one out anyway, because you have day-clothes on, and you’re not a dancer. But now you’re even more odd, because you’ve got to walk across the room while everyone’s doing their warm-up tendu or plié, and sit and not play at the piano, because you’ve missed the beginning of the class and your cue.

It’s horrible. You can’t apologise, because the class is in dancing mode, and talk is inappropriate – and in any case, it’s not normal for pianists to address the room collectively. The teacher is busy taking the class, so you can only mime “sorry” if she’s even looking at you as you do the walk of the shame to the piano. The only consolation is that dancers are usually so relieved to have music rather than do class in silence, that there may be an audible sigh of relief when you start. But all the same, you can’t sidle in quietly: you have to perform being late in front of a captive, attentive, grumpy audience.

Knowing that you’re going to be late for class is so ghastly, I can remember and relive the feelings of nearly every occasion it happened. Sitting on the 137 bus in a traffic jam somewhere in Battersea, making myself late for my audition class with Festival Ballet, as it was then (I have never, ever relied on a bus to take me to a class since). Trying to get from the Albert Hall to the Coliseum for class on stage with Mark Morris’s company when there was a Gay Pride March and some other huge event  on the same day, which meant I had to wait half an hour for a taxi, which then got stuck in traffic, so I had to walk the last bit anyway. Going to the Barbican (also for a Mark Morris class) and being stuck on the tube at a station while they “regulate the service,” then losing my way between the station and the theatre. I now always leave 30 minutes contingency whenever I go to the Barbican, and I nearly always need it. This is why I cycle everywhere if I possibly can. I know within five minutes when I’m going to arrive, and when I need to leave. Cycling is the biggest stress-reliever in my job, and I’m not sure I’d want to do it if I couldn’t cycle any more.

Anxiety about being late is not really a negative thing, it’s the flip side of the enjoyment of the discipline of the ballet world –  I’m not a masochist or obsessive, but I love its rhythm. There was an article in the Guardain recently about how the last-minute spontaneity afforded by 21st century technology means that it’s less common for people to plan and do things together at the same time any more. The power surges that were once common in the UK when half the nation went out during ad breaks in Coronation Street to put the kettle on hardly happen these days.  Social media and messaging mean that people make less effort to meet up in the same place at the same time.  It rings true, but ballet class is an exception. We turn up on time, and finish on time, out of respect for each other, and for the ritual. There’s no eating your breakfast at your desk, or making yet another cup of coffee at eleven o’clock, and saying “I just don’t seem to be able to get started today.” You just get in there and start when it’s time to start, and at the end of it, you’ve done something, no matter how you felt when you came in.

Confessions of an anxious ballet pianist day #18: Page turns

Picture of a page of the score for Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker (Sugar Plum Fairy variation, the manège section)

The manège from the Sugar Plum Fairy variation. This line (the end of a page) should be a left hand page – if it isn’t, you’re stuffed.

I’m not a particularly tidy or obsessive person, except when it comes to scores that I have to play from. If it’s for a performance, I’ll want to know exactly what the score does long in advance: where are the page turns? Can the score be cut and pasted to make better places for turning? How thick is the paper, and what does it feel like to turn the page? How easy is it to turn two pages at once? How does it sit on the music stand? Sellotape, glue, PrittStick, loose leaves or A4 sheets stuck back-to-back, thin paper curled in a photocopier, bad pagination, poorly marked cuts, these are almost the only things in life that turn me into the kind of nutcase that could feature in Channel 4 documentary.

I think it all goes back to a single traumatic incident when I was playing for a performance by West Midlands Youth Ballet very early in my career. It was during the section choreographed for the youngest children, that consisted of several short dances accompanied by different piano solos. I had carefully pasted all the separate pieces in order into a scrapbook for the show, to avoid having loose-leaf pages on the stand. So far so good.

But in the first show, at the end of one of the dances, I realised – way too late, because the dance had finished – that I’d turned over two pages at once, thanks to a tiny protrusion of Sellotape that caused two pages to stick together as I made the page turn.  It meant that the  children had danced (let’s say) Section 4 to the music of Section 5. I realised the only thing to do was to play Section 5 again, this time, with the right dance.  To their eternal credit, you would not have known that anything had gone wrong – the children had danced an entire dance to the wrong music, and then had to work out what I was going to do next without any communication between stage and pit. We got to the end, and it was fine. I felt shamed and awed by their professionalism.

Perhaps it was that early experience that made me obsessive about page turns in all the syllabus books that I’ve prepared over the last few years for the RAD. The thing about playing for dance is that you just have to keep going, absolutely in tempo, when you’re accompanying a dancer. You can’t ask them to wait while you handle a page turn, or correct a wrong note. In an ideal world, there wouldn’t be a single difficult page turn anywhere in a ballet score. On the whole, copyists (the people who prepare scores for print) are careful to position page turns where there is a rest, or where the music leaves one hand free to make the turn.

That’s why it’s vital to get LH and RH pages in their correct position when you make a copy. By long publishing tradition, odd page numbers are always RH pages, and even page numbers are always LH pages. One of the worst things you can do to a musician is put a score through a photocopier so that even-numbered pages come out on the RH side – easily done if you’re photocopying an extract that begins on a LH page, but you don’t put a blank page on the top of the pile to force it on to the left when it comes out of the copier. Every carefully positioned page turn will now be in the wrong place, and those places that were deliberately given two-page spreads because they constitute impossible turns, are now on a page turn.*

This was the case with a score of Nutcracker I was playing from the other day. The manège, which in every other score should be (and is) on a two-page spread, was split over a LH and RH page, and you don’t have a hand free to turn. What’s worse, I turned two pages at once, because the bottom corner of the page had disintegrated, so I accidentally turned the page behind it instead. I tried to save myself, but I discovered to my horror that without the music, I haven’t a clue  what the manège of the Sugar Plum Fairy does, even though I’ve been playing it for years.  I apologised, and we started again. I turned the corner of the page up nice and sharp, so I wouldn’t miss it this time. Unfortunately, this was one fold too many, and the corner of the page ripped off in my hand.  I think it may be time to carry my own copy around with me, or learn the manège by heart.


* So the golden rule is, always photocopy a score starting at an odd-numbered page, even if you don’t need that first page. 

Confessions of an anxious ballet pianist day #17: Why’s she looking at me like that?


tortureThe very first time I ever played for a ballet exercise was in my audition at RAD headquarters in 1985 (they’d advertised for a pianist, with an offer of training for a suitable candidate if, like me, they didn’t have experience). They got a couple of students into a studio, and asked the teacher Debra (Debbie) Wayne to set a few exercises as if it was a real class. It can’t have gone too badly because I got the job.  But I’ve never forgotten the moment when, during a pirouette exercise, the teacher suddenly stopped right in front of me, fixed a terrifying wide-eyed stare straight at me and shouted “STOP!”

I snatched my hands from the piano keyboard, looked at her and cowered. “Sorry….” I began. Everyone looked at me – her, the audition panel, and the students. Why had I stopped? You said “stop,” I explained. The wide-eyed stare melted into a smile. “I said SPOT,” she explained, “I was talking to the students.” I remember thinking “So why were you looking at me, then?”

Only several weeks later did I realise that this is normal for ballet. Teachers sometimes half-do an exercise in front of the dancers, as if they were part of the group, acting normally for the most part, but then suddenly isolating particular directions, positions or movements, admonishing or encouraging as they go. When they appear to be looking at you, they’re not. They’re facing whatever direction the exercise has taken them, which might mean that they’re standing feet away from you, staring right at you and through you at the same time – which can look menacing if you don’t realise what’s going on.

Sometimes, dancers use you to spot when they’re doing some fiendishly difficult diagonal, so you see this person coming straight at you with tense features, gritted teeth and wide eyes that seem to say “I’m going to kill you.” They’re not, of course: this is just their “fouetté” face or whatever horrible step it is that they’re trying to achieve while they come at you from their corner to yours. But it’s difficult to turn off the fight-or-flight instinct that such a gaze naturally evokes in you, especially as, you never know, maybe today they really do want to kill you because you’ve got the tempo wrong.

I don’t think I’ve ever quite got used to the weirdness of ballet directions, that is, the way that dancers just face the way that they’ve got to face when they’re doing an exercise. Just when you look across to someone you know in class during pliés, they turn away from you, with a pained expression. The pained expression is probably nothing to do with you, it’s just their “it’s too early, but I’ve got to do this plié anyway” face, and they only turned away because that’s the exercise. But even after all these years, you can’t help occasionally feeling a visceral tug at your emotions when it happens, that makes you wonder why she’s (not) looking at you like that.

Slightly weirder is the opposite – when you’re facing a dancer because she’s hanging on to the edge of your piano, or you’re looking that way, and the directions of the exercise mean that you’re staring straight at her for several counts at a time. That’s when you have to use what Erving Goffman brilliantly termed “civil inattention,” the way of acknowledging that someone is there, but in such a neutral way that you make it clear that it’s OK, you’re not going to demand interaction. With its carefully choreographed deference, changes of direction and eyeline, ballet teaches you exactly how to do that for hours at a time. When you step out of that into the real world of messy interaction, you begin to miss it.

Confessions of an anxious ballet pianist day #16: Rehearsal marks



Above is a little fragment of daily life as a ballet accompanist – keeping your ears open while a rehearsal is going on so that when the choreographer or coach asks to go from “sex” or “the Swan Lake pirouette,” you’re already on it, because you or someone else already wrote it down in the appropriate place in the score as they were talking (or on a sheet of paper with a minutes-and-seconds count next to it if you’re working with a recording).  There’s one thing you really don’t want to hear, and that’s a sigh of barely-concealed exasperation followed by “Oh just play from the beginning and we’ll pick it up.”

The trouble comes when you’ve got several scores, several people teaching the same piece, and several people making rehearsal marks. On a really well-marked score, the same place might be marked with all the things that different people have called that place over time, so that you’ll find it whether the coach asks to go from the pirouette, the arabesque, the second step, the repeat, “Svetlana”, “egg on face” or “a little bit back from where the mother comes on”. You can read them all out to the room until you hit the one that the dancer or coach recognises, but it’s more likely that whatever technical problem has occasioned going back to that place is what they’ll call it, rather than what it was called when the piece was choreographed, when narrative and production was the order of the day.

There aren’t many really well marked scores in the world. With the best intentions to keep to a system, you can’t help idiosyncracies and gaps creeping in. Sometimes, a place in the score is so significant and “obvious” that nobody has bothered to mark it at all, because “everyone would know” that this is the pas de deux, or the boy’s solo, or the death scene.

For a freelancer who doesn’t know everything that’s going on in a company, the possibility for error is compounded by the lack of costumes. Unless someone announces what the rehearsal is for, you might not know whether the person you’re playing for is the prince, the Nutcracker, the mouse king or a soldier, so if the coach says “from where he comes on, please,” you don’t have a clue who “he” is.  If you guess wrong, you might have just insulted the new principal, so it’s best to aim high and work your way down if you’re not sure. As a guest Russian ballerina once put it during a rehearsal of Onegin (I think)  that had completely thrown her, “the trouble is, without costumes, it’s like watching television with the sound turned down. I don’t know who anyone is.”

See also:


Confessions of an anxious ballet pianist day #15: Tempo


whatismusicTempo is, one way and another, at the heart of most of the anxieties in this advent calendar. Playing for ballet is like driving on a busy motorway in torrential rain: there is no such thing as the right speed in isolation, only in relation to other drivers and events, and getting it wrong is fatal.

Outside of dance, musicians mostly just don’t get this, and I was the same when I started. I couldn’t understand why dancers and teachers didn’t care how expressively or technically brilliant I’d just played, all they cared about was tempo. They’d tell you when it was wrong, and say nothing when it was right, something which I and other novices used to gripe about, fantasizing about a world where we could be free to express ourselves and be appreciated for it.

Nowadays, I feel totally different. Nothing brings me greater professional satisfaction than getting through an entire pirouette exercise without any tempo adjustments from the teacher. If a ballerina says “that tempo for the manège was perfect” you go home with a big glow in your heart.  When – at the beginning of an exercise – you have to adjust the tempo, and then you get that smile and a nod from the teacher when it’s right – that’s job satisfaction.

That’s why playing for Le Corsaire last year was terrifying and gratifying at the same time. It’s one darned difficult solo after another, the tempos change every 16 bars, and you’ve got about five casts, each of them slightly different in their approach and speed. It was almost never entirely right, and you have to face that look when they stop that says “it’s not entirely your fault I didn’t manage that diagonal, but I could kill you for the 20% that was.” But getting it right at all is exhilarating.

I said that musicians mostly don’t get this. Some do. Bach’s obituary, for example, said that he “was a really accurate band leader. When it came to tempo, which he usually laid down at a very brisk pace, he was 100% reliable” (cited on page 7 in an article by Philip Tagg, that’s well worth reading).  I once saw Eartha Kitt singing live at The Fridge in Brixton. She was like a snapping attack dog to the band at the beginning of Old Fashioned Millionaire, insisting on exactly the tempo and feel she wanted (at that thousandth of a metronome mark that combines genteel, filthy and seductive) before they’d got to the end of the first bar of the intro. In that moment, I realised tempo is everything in her songs: beyond the voice, the music, the arrangement, it’s her subtle and precise sense of tempo that creates the magic. It’s probably no coincidence that Eartha Kitt was a dancer too (here’s a picture of her and James Dean in Katherine Dunham’s dance class).

Some ballet teachers have this hyperacute sense of tempo and how to get it from others. From the outside or to a beginner, it can come across as severe or controlling, but in fact, it’s great to work with someone like that. You know that you’ll always get the right tempo, because someone will be on your case until you do: the anxiety comes when no-one in the room really knows what it is that they want, or what to try next.

Confessions of an anxious ballet pianist day #14: Adage

Now that's what  I call SLOW. Siegfried's Death from Götterdämmerung. You might die before the music gets to the end of the bar.

Now that’s what I call SLOW. Siegfried’s Death from Götterdämmerung. You might die before the music gets to the end of the bar.

As it’s Sunday, let’s have a religious topic (adage), and an extra confession: So help me God, I hate slow music. I don’t have the patience to listen to it, and I get bored playing it.  The music example above – a fragment of Siegfried’s Death and Funeral March from Wagner’s Götterdämmerung – is for me the epitome of the kind of music that should never have been conceived, written down, or performed. I’d rather be stuck in traffic than wait for the next semiquaver. If you like this kind of thing, that’s fine. But as someone who (I’m pretty sure, although it’s not diagnosed) has adult attention deficit disorder, unless there’s more going on in the music than in my brain, I get bored and distracted (I also just don’t like Wagner’s music at all, but that’s another story).

That’s why I find adage excruciating to play for. I don’t want to see it, and I don’t want to accompany it. All I’m thinking is “how long til allegro?” It’s exhausting having to hold yourself back from every quaver, like walking in slow motion. Occasionally, people say “Oh I love it when you play that for adage” and I have to smile and pretend that I love it too, whereas I can almost guarantee that I don’t enjoy playing anything that’s slow. For one thing, if I’m feeling down, my brain has time to wander and get miserable in the space between the notes.

The Prelude from "La Traviata" - I can take slow when it's got a bit of fast in it, like this

The Prelude from “La Traviata” – I can take slow when it’s got a bit of fast in it, like this

There’s are a few exceptions, and one of them is the Prelude to La Traviata (above). Apart from the fact that it’s got a nice tune, it’s also got all those fast notes going on in the right hand against the slow tune in the left that mitigates the slowness, and gives you enough to concentrate on while you play to stop your mind from wandering. Nothing against adage or slow music, or the people who like it, but for me, I’d rather keep moving.

Maybe this is why I enjoy playing for dance. At the tempo of the Wagner example at the top of this post, you begin to lose any sense of beat or metre (see paragraph 2 in Justin London’s article about metre perception, I’m not making it up). For some people, this is what they like about music – the opportunity to get lost in it, to lose sense of time passing.  For me, it’s reading that has that effect on me, and I can easily get lost in a book, and enjoy the sensation. Music has to move.

Confessions of an anxious ballet pianist day #13: Music for stretching


Dipsy contemplating polytonality.

Imagine – if you’re a dancer – that the curtain’s gone down on Act I, the house lights have gone up, and the audience are heading for the bar. You head for your dressing room. Suddenly, the stage manager brings the tabs out again and your director says “OK, now dance something really beautiful for the audience to leave the auditorium to.”

That’s what it’s like when, at the end of the barre, just at the moment you think you can give your mind and hands a rest, and when everyone else has disengaged from class and music, the teacher wants you to play music for stretching.

First of all, you thought you were going to have a rest. It reminds me of that sketch when Dame Edna Everage decides to play a joke on her hospitalised husband by telling him he’s going home, going as far as to put him on a stretcher and get him into the ambulance outside the hospital, before screaming “April Fool!” and taking him back to the ward.

Then there’s the fact that you’ve been asked to play something “beautiful” just at the moment when nobody wants to listen. Some won’t stretch, some will leave the room, and those who do stretch could just as easily stretch without music, since there’s no actual exercise. You know for a fact that left to their own devices, if these dancers wanted music to stretch to, they’d put their headphones on and select something from their own music collection. Before you came to class, you deliberately avoided thinking of music that wasn’t in eight-bar phrases. Now, the teacher wants you to play something that makes people think of relaxing and stretching, of being distracted from pain and movement. What you need is music that doesn’t put you in “class” mode.

Years ago, I used to bring a few things with me for these moments  – like the Rachmaninov Vocalise, or the 2nd movement of the Shostakovich 2nd piano concerto, but the fashion for asking for stretching music has all but disappeared (and I’m rather glad) so it’s now a bit of a shock when it happens, and I’m not prepared. It’s not so bad if the teacher doesn’t put too much weight on it – I liked it recently when a ballet master looked over to me at the end of the barre, and made “playing the piano” movements with his hands while shrugging his shoulders,  in a gesture that meant “Just play any kind of tinkly piano shit you like while they’re faffing around before the centre.” That’s fine. It’s when they close their eyes, cross their hands over their heart, and say “Something beautiful for stretch, maestro.” Thankfully, it hasn’t happened in a long time. Please don’t start now.

PS: There’s a gratuitous cat on today’s post, because it’s St Lucy’s day, and Daria Klimentová’s cat is called Lucy.  She featured on St Lucy’s day on last year’s St Lucy’s day post, with a free download of Santa Lucia for your Swedish Christmas ballet class.