A year of ballet playing cards #46: A useful Schottische (7d)



If you take one look at this and think “oh that’s a bit dull,” bear with me and just try it once for some medium allegro step in 2 which you’re struggling to find music for, and see what you think then.

I’d originally selected this as an “extra” for a male ballet syllabus project I was working on for the RAD, back-of-the-book music for free allegros and so on. In the context of the other music we’d chosen, it sounded a bit too light and inconsequential.  It was only after we’d ditched it that I saw what they did to it in the ballet (The Pharaoh’s Daughter) and then I realised that there’s almost no other music that would have been suitable for those steps, and that you have to have seen this little duet to understand that the music isn’t so much twee, as rather understated fun. That’s the musical problem with medium allegro, in my view – the fact that you’ve got to try and support difficult movements but maintain lightness, and maintain lightness without sounding too light.

The value of this music isn’t primarily in the tune, or in the overall rhythm but in the fact that it fills out the spaces that other music usually leaves vacant – the anacrusis and the offbeats. There’s not much in the way of dynamics or articulation in the score, but Pugni makes a point of marking accents and slurs on the weak beats of the bar, and they make a huge difference.  Just any old schottische wouldn’t necessarily have been as useful. This particular one is like a pair of cargo pants and Swiss penknife that has all kinds of accessories for different bits of an enchaînement, and you can make as little or as much of them as you like or need to.


A year of ballet playing cards #02: A ballade by Fauré (2s)


Click to download the score

I’ve been meaning to find this music for nearly 18 years – it was in the score of Roland Petit’s “Proust” ballet, Les Intermittences du coeur that we did at the Deutsche Oper Berlin, and I played the piano part in the orchestra. Whatever the musical equivalent of a bunhead is, that’s me – I learned it, performed it and loved it, but I hadn’t a clue what it was, and it was only in researching it for this blog this week that I finally found out that it was once a piano solo, and that Fauré then arranged it for piano and orchestra, and a few other things that tie it very interestingly to Proust (for more on this, see here).

If you’re squeamish about cuts, look away and don’t play my version, because I’ve had to fillet out the bits that are in 8 bar phrases (click here for the full version at IMSLP). As cuts go, they’re not life-threatening, and they’re worth it to be able to play this for class. It’s a very clever orchestration – the orchestra creeps up on you gradually like a feeling, rather than being the water you swim in, and then suddenly it’s on top of you and like all feelings that creep up on you, it’s a bit scary.

I’ve put the countermelody in small notes, because I think you could easily lose the tune if you tried too hard to play these, and you want the main melody to sing out – so I’d treat them as optional, so help me God.

I’m putting this in my “don’t care if it’s three or four” category, but a lot would depend on how fast or slowly you take it, as to whether you can get away with it every time. It would also kill it to be either too slow or too fast, or too many times, so pick your moment carefully,

I hope you like it: F# is such a woody key, apart from anything else (if you don’t know what I mean, see below).


A year of ballet playing cards #15: A rumpty-tumpty waltz (Oh! Oh! Antonio)


Click to download the score

I like it when teachers set grands battements on what I call a rumpty-tumpty 3.  My favourite pieces for this kind of exercise is the Zarah Leander song Davon geht die Welt nicht unterand Hands, knees and boomps-a-daisybut all good things must come to a brief pause, and so it was time to find another one.  If you’re wondering why I’m suddenly bringing music hall into this game, after all that Schubert and czardases, I have to point out that rhythmically speaking, behind every balletic variation, there’s a tarty music-hall number dying to show its frilly knickers, and a bit of decorum (which flies out of the window once you put some swing into a waltz) is the only thing that divides these songs from Paquita or Bayadère.  

I wonder what the chances are of anyone knowing this if you played it for class? I didn’t know it until last week, when it was used in Indian Summers, set in 1932:  Cynthia Coffin (Julie Walters) proprietor of the English Club in Simla leads the singing as the local English gather for the club’s re-opening. You never can tell: someone on a forum remembers his great grandfather (Welsh, who spoke no English) singing it to him as a child. Songs have a way of travelling through time. I always thought the Teddy Bears’ Picnic was a song from the 60s (because I heard it as a child) yet the tune was written in 1907, and the words in 1932.

In fact,  this song is also about the way songs get transmitted. You may have noticed that it begins almost note-for-note like Strauss’s Kunstlerleben (Artist’s Life) waltz Op. 316, written in 1867, and regarded as the “twin” of the Blue Danube. Now listen to the words of the second verse:

Her old hurdy-gurdy all day she’d parade
And this she would sing to each tune that it played.

So what you’re hearing are new words to an old tune. But there’s a third temporal layer to this: the third verse (not on the recording, but available here) has the line (just before the chorus)

She faded away, but they say in the streets
The ghost of that girl in Italian repeats…

So this is a song about people talking about the ghost of a girl singing a song that she made up to an old tune playing on her hurdy-gurdy. And when Florrie Forde sings it, she brings that ghost of a song back into the physical present (in 1908, that is).   That’s one of the things we do as musicians  –  let songs breathe a bit longer, or, if you like, plant them in ground where they’ll suddenly flourish again just when they were in danger of expiring. There is no natural process by which “great” songs stay hits purely on their own, it only happens by transmission, and the processes can be unpredictable and strange (and expensive, in the case of Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke). They are “broadcast” both in the TV/Radio/Internet sense, but also in physical form as sheet music and records. They travel with people as carriers of songs, geographically and temporally. Last week, I saw a 101-year-old woman teaching Are you lonesome tonight? to a young Filipino nurse in a care home in Streatham. I thought, that’s odd, she would have been 46 when Elvis Presley recorded it – surely this isn’t her generation of songs? But when I looked the song up just now, I discovered that in fact, it was first released in 1927, when she would have been 13 – which makes a lot more sense.

So let’s keep Oh! Oh! Antonio  going a bit longer—why not?  Sing along if you know the words (which you do, because I’ve put them in the score). It would of course be wonderful in any class where there’s an Antonio teaching or dancing, or maybe just for remembering your own Antonio-related history. There’s not an app for that, but there’s a song for it.

A year of ballet playing cards #01: Adage (As) – Mozart clarinet concerto



I’m beginning to wonder whether I should never have created the “Spades” category for myself – that is, the kind of adage music where you don’t care whether it’s in three or four or 12 or whatever, it’s just “slow” (see the “about the year of cards” page if you don’t know what I’m talking about).  In the cold light of empirical day, is there actually such a thing? This is the danger of creating categories before you start work on a project.

Yet just when I was going to give it up as a bad idea, I remembered this piece, the slow movement of the Mozart Clarinet concerto. It’s a perfect example of what I mean by the “spades” category, since for almost a week a couple of years ago, I was sure it was in four, not three.  I had chosen it for a plié exercise, and even tested it out by plié-ing in my head while listening to it. If i could notate or explain how I came to hear it in four rather than three, I’d talk myself out of it, but I’ll do my best.

With this music, at least on this occasion, I didn’t feel subdivisions, I just heard the “1s” – the slow pulses marking the beginning of each bar. The beats in between were like rubber ducks floating in a bath, with no metre or pattern, no rhythmical parsing. Just a kind of flow or feeling.  It’s at times like this when I feel the most affinity with my dance colleagues when they don’t have any perception of or interest in time signature: they’re being mindful (in the Buddhist, meditative sense) of the music, but in a different way. I’ve tried to mentally notate what I thought the music was doing, but I can’t, because whatever I was hearing was “pre-notational.”

This piece has a strange place in my affections. I disliked it for many years – I’m only a fairweather clarinet enthusiast, I’m not a huge Mozart fan, I don’t like slow music, and this piece is just too sentimental for my liking (those descending motifs in the second phrase tug too hard at the heart strings). But a few years ago,  I suddenly heard this music through someone else’s ears at a moment when it was accompanying them through the worst part of their life,  and they found peace and comfort in it.  After that, I could only think of it that way, and only think of them in that situation, and it changed it for me permanently.

At the moment I’m reading Tia DeNora’s Musical Asylums, and I was really taken with the bit where she says how it’s  precisely because music is so indefinite and malleable in its meanings, that it is so useful as a medium for change and personal use: it defies meaning, but it can also acquire all kinds of meanings according to people and context. That’s what happened here: the same musical material changed its meaning for me. The music offered me an insight into someone else’s feelings through a transformative connection with my own, and that is an extraordinary achievement of music, isn’t it? – though the whole point of what DeNora is saying is that music on its own does not have this “power,” it’s what we do with it, the way we appropriate it, and give it meanings and uses that is extraordinary.

There is something so perfect about a Mozart phrase. If you read Joseph Riepel’s 1752 primer on how to write a minuet in Fundamentals of Musical Composition (Strunk, Treitler, 1998, 749-795),  you get an insight into the craft of phrase structure: it’s not genius, it’s about knowing when to go up, when to go down, how to go there, for how long, and in what proportion and so on. As Riepel illustrates, this is something you can teach and learn, and the minuet is a good way to start. I once got a group of first year students to act out Riepel’s master-and-pupil-style dialog, providing the musical examples myself at the piano. I don’t know whether those students really learned much from it, but it was quite a fun way of spending a music lesson.

This piece could be wonderful for class, but the potential for problems are in its tempo. It needs to be slow, and that’s how I managed to mishear it (i.e. because it was so slow, the elapsed time of a single bar was about twice the length of a normal 3/4 plié bar).  Wait til someone wants a really slow three, and save it for that. So even though I’m saying that this piece is perhaps neither “particularly” three or particularly four, you might need to wait for a “particularly three” moment to play it, even if you don’t feel its threeness on the surface.

In transcribing this for piano, it’s been hard to leave a single note out (hence the rather awkward arrangement).  It sounds simple until you try to reproduce it on the piano: the transparency of the writing makes it surprisingly difficult.  You can’t just chuck a chord in the left hand and a solo in the right, because the light won’t shine through it.  The writing is thin: no bass in the solo sections, and only two notes to hold the harmony together: not an ounce of surplus anywhere.  And when the tutti come in, you want richness, not sludge, so chord voicing is a problem.  I’ve done my best, though I know I’ll be trying to perfect a sound for this for a long time to come.

Postscript: (if you like your adage with a bit of Wittgenstein)

Now by coincidence, I’d just been reading Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, and had just got to No. 78 as I was doing this blog entry:

“78. Compare knowing and saying:

how many metres high Mont Blanc is –
how the word “game” is used –
how a clarinet sounds

Someone who is surprised that one can know something and not be able to say it is perhaps thinking of a case like the first. Certainly not of one like the third.”  (Wittgenstein, 2009, 41(e))

Now, it’s pure coincidence that he happens to be talking about the clarinet here and this is a clarinet concerto, but the issue is the same as “knowing” a piece of music without being able to say what it “is” or what it’s “in” in terms of metre and structure. I know what this music sounds like, and I could probably play some of it by ear, but initially, I couldn’t say what it was in terms of metre (even though I’d known the music for years).  That’s not something you hear much with regard to metre, because metre is so often spoken about in terms of number, as if that’s all it was.


Strunk, W.O. & Treitler, L. eds., 1998. Source readings in music history Rev. ed., New York: Norton.
Wittgenstein, L., 2009. Philosophische Untersuchungen = Philosophical investigations Rev. 4th ed., Chichester, West Sussex, U.K. ; Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.



How to transcribe from audio to piano score: technologies and process


I’ve been transcribing music from recordings for as long as can remember. I’m lucky that I’ve got perfect pitch so the actual transcribing is fairly easy: what’s difficult is the mechanics of rewinding, stopping and starting while you’re trying to do the transcription.  However, the technology I’ve got at the moment is the best I’ve ever had, so I thought I’d share the process in case you’re struggling needlessly. The same technology would also be pretty good if you’re having to go through video clips (dance notators, maybe?).


That’s the kit above – no real surprises: a MIDI keyboard, a laptop, headphones. I use an external keyboard with a numeric keypad on it, because it makes step-input in Sibelius so much easier and quicker). Transcribing is also one of the rare activities where I find a mouse is useful rather than a trackpad.

The Infinity USB Foot Control

The Infinity USB Foot Control

The killer tool though, is the USB footpedal under the table (which means that I also needed to get a USB hub to accommodate the extra USB input).  I’ve already posted about this in relation to transcribing text interviews, but at the time I wrote that, I hadn’t yet used the set up for transcribing music.

The process is simple: ExpressScribe is a free programme for transcribing audio (there’s a paid version, but even though I’ve got it, I can’t see the point). You load the audio (music) file in just as you would if you were going to type up an interview (except this is music) and you use the footpedal to play, rewind and fastforward the audio, leaving your hands free to use the MIDI and computer keyboards. You can set the footpedal to automatically rewind let’s say half a second or a second when you lift your foot off the “play” bit, so that when you press it again, you’ve already rewound to the bit that you are trying to check or remember.

You can also get ExpressScribe to play slower without altering pitch – brilliant when you’re transcribing a stream of semiquavers, for example. If you’re lucky, and the recording is relatively clear and the music simple, you can get the speed just right, so that you can actually input with your left hand (in my set up at least) at the same speed as the music is playing.

Now meet TRANSCRIBE! (application) 

I have used ExpressScribe for nearly five years, but for some reason, just recently the program has begun to lose focus intermittently while I’m transcribing. You have to go into ExpressScribe and click to make it register the pedal messages. It only takes a split second (alt-TAB into the programme and click the screen, then alt-TAB back to Sibelius), but it’s really annoying, and so the other day, I went on the hunt for another programme, and found this: Transcribe! I’ve used it for a few days, and I’m blown away by it.  It has all the tools that ExpressScribe has, except – sorry old friend – it works better. It doesn’t lose focus, and it displays the audio file, allows you to enter text at key points (with one-letter key commands to enter hitpoints and text). It also has a guess at chords and notes in your file, and presents you with a piano roll, and a keyboard (if you want to see it) with those guesses on. That’s far more than I need, and doesn’t really help the way I work (which is by ear, rather than using the technology to “hear” for me), but it’s bloody clever, all the same, and it’s fairly accurate. I love it. It’s $39 US, but with a fully functioning 30-day free trial. OK, it’s not free like ExpressScribe, but I reckon it’s worth it.

The screen looks complex, but you don’t even need to see it, if, like me, you just want Transcribe to work as a tape-control in the background, operated by your footpedal.


The Transcribe window- you can have as much or as little of this as you need.

If you want to transcribe from a Youtube video, then just download the video first using an extension or add-on for your browser, and import the video clip into Transcribe. You get a little video screen that shows the video in realtime as you play: handy if you want to put cues in a score, and of course, since the screen has a text area, you could write those cues into Transcribe! itself.

minuetvideoAnd although I don’t need to see the screen at all (since I’m using the footpedal to control it, and can hear where I am) there are times when it’s handy to have both on at once.



Don’t be put off by the screens and the software: the magic in all this is the footpedal. It’s like having an extra pair of hands, so to speak, and when you go back to trying to operate the transport controls and Sibelius with the same pair of hands, you realise what a waste of time that is.


A year of ballet playing cards #45: A country wedding (polka) from Má Vlast (6d)



A friend and I were talking the other day about how even something as apparently soulless as a bit of computer code (try telling that to a programmer like him) can have a history to it that marks it emotionally.  Every time you use that useful, remarkable snippet of code, you think fondly of when you learned it, and from whom, and how you felt about them and the job at the time. I think of a particular musical theatre conductor every time I sellotape photocopies together, because he showed me how to do it in a way that’s easy and works perfectly, and I’m grateful to him for teaching me whenever I have to prepare a score.

Likewise, a lot, maybe even most of the things I play for class have the feel of a handshake about them: they are things handed on by others, liked by others, mentioned by others, or offered to others in tribute. What I like about this method of collecting music is that the repertoire comes pre-loved, so to speak, so you have to try and work out what it is that made it appeal to the person who recommended it to you. Even if you are wrong, you’ve made the effort to get inside the piece with good intentions and a positive frame of mind, and you end up loving it yourself.

A dancer friend told me a few years ago that this “Country Wedding” scene in Smetana’s Má Vlast was one of the pieces he’d love to hear for class. I don’t think I’d ever concentrated enough during Má Vlast to notice it (that’s my fault for being a very distractible listener, nothing to do with the music, which I like). What an odd piece of music to like that much, I thought, and vowed that I’d learn it one day, even though the chances of anyone else except him recognising it or wanting it for class are fairly slim. [Starts at 4.38 – should begin automatically by clicking on the link below]

I thought it was going to be an easy job – just copying someone else’s (public domain, before you ask) piano reduction. But I couldn’t leave it alone. The piano reduction I found was a mess, and even left out my favourite bit, which is where the violins go up to the top D (5:08″-5:09″, or bar 20 in my score) because it transcribed the woodwind instead of the string parts at that point. So I got the orchestral score and started again. It took me ages.  Although it sounds like a simple piece, the simplicity is achieved by elaborate means – there’s something happening on every semiquaver, and in all kinds of registers, in parallel and contrary motion, in thirds, sixths and octaves, and it’s impossible to transcribe for the piano in a way which conveys this richness. I’ve done my best, but it doesn’t lie that easily under the fingers.


Where that tree is in front of the cream-coloured building on the left is the café/bar we called “Smetana’s Arse” because there’s a larger-than-life statue of a seated Smetana there, outside the Smetana museum. The willow tree used to be one of the most distinctive features of this bit of Prague and of that bar, but it was uprooted in the floods of 2002, and what you see is the newly planted one, not a patch on the old one yet.

In this respect, it’s rather similar to Jaromír Weinberger’s score for the polka from Schwanda the Bagpiper. It sounds like a simple tune, but the orchestration consists of multiple streams of non-stop chromatic semiquavers cascading over the tune in a sea of black beams. When a colleague of mine first saw the score, he couldn’t quite believe his eyes, and said he wasn’t sure he’d like to play it if he saw it on the stand.  But the effect is nice: what goes on between the notes of the tune happens so thick and fast that it’s affected you before you’ve had a chance to hear what it is properly.

This would be really handy for the kind of exercise that needs rhythm but not sharpness. All that movement, all those suspensions and appogiaturas give it a tender  kind of accent, like a tenuto plus a staccato plus a marcato in brackets.

I also couldn’t help wondering whether there’s more than a family resemblance between the rest of Vltava and the opening of Act II of the Nutcracker: same key, same time signature, same evocation of a journey by water.

A year of ballet playing cards #14: A small, medium and large waltz by Adam (Ah)


Click to download the score

Even though I haven’t used a laundrette in years, I can’t get out of the habit of holding on to 20p pieces for the dryer, just in case. Likewise, when I’m in Prague, my heart sinks when I realise that I’ve just taken out 2,000 Czech crowns at the ATM, because you’ll get a 2000 note, which is currently about £50. Try buying a bus ticket from the airport with that.

change-boxSome ballet exercises, particularly those in a medium waltz tempo, are like a launderette where you need a whole bag full of assorted change for the various machines. It needs to be lyrical (notes), then accented (pound coins) then some detail for smaller movements (20p pieces), then some 50p pieces for the bit that’s strong and lyrical, but not so lyrical as the bit you paid for with a tenner, and then lyrical again, but with a strong beat. In other words, whatever accompaniment, dynamic or articulation worked for one bit of the exercise won’t work for all of it, and it’s never quite one thing or another, and you need to be able to keep it all going just under the surface, in case you need to accentuate a different level of the music suddenly.

I’m calling this piece from Le diable à quatre a “little waltz” because that term is usually a sign that you need to get your laundrette money out: a waltz is just a waltz, a big waltz kind of plays itself, but a little waltz is like an overweight dachsund that you have to cajole but not so much that it drags it’s tummy along the ground. I apologise in arrears for all the metaphors, but that’s the nature of the problem – this kind of music isn’t anything in particular, it’s a lot of things at once, and it doesn’t have a name, just a capability.

It starts at 11:09 in the clip above (it should start there automatically). 

This little waltz has got it all: it’s lyrical, with the possibility of long phrases. it’s sometimes in 6, sometimes in 3 (which is a big deal: see my earlier post on the rarity of truly triple metre) sometimes subdivided, sometimes not, sometimes heavy, sometimes light, sometimes quiet, sometimes loud. What’s more, you can play it several different ways without sucking the life out of it.

As if that weren’t enough reasons to include in my year of ballet playing cards, I love the fact that you can hear echos of Giselle’s opening Act 1 solo (the G major 6/8 one) in this.

See also