is December 22nd in my Dance
Inpirations advent calendar
It was to Annie that David Wall sent me to pick up some tips about playing for class when I was floundering about hopelessly at the RAD as a novice dance accompanist back in 1986. Apart from the fact that Annie was a good pianist and accompanist, she was a good choice as a teacher because she had a large repertoire of music for class from popular classics & songs, which made it easy to point at something and say “that’s the kind of thing to play for grands battements” or “that’s quite nice for adage”.
At the most, I guess I can only have spent a couple of hours looking at her folders of music, making notes, photocopies, and listening to her advice, but it was a turning point, and an instant education. Rather than say “You could play a nice strong 3/4” or “something lyrical”, Annie could point at a real piece of music and say, “Look, this is what I play”. One or two of her insights were bizarre, but vital all the same “Don’t play anything by Ivor Novello for that person…” or “She likes a nice bit of Lehár”. By the same token, I knew that if whatever she did was good enough to keep the likes of David Wall happy, so she must be doing something right.
My assumption was correct, and what I learned from Annie has stood me in very good stead ever since. Looking back on it, I wouldn’t be surprised if she was just a little bit miffed at being told by David to help me out, because a dance accompanist’s repertoire is something very personal, acquired through hard and expensive slog. You don’t really want to just hand it on a plate to someone else, because it is then incumbent on you to expand your repertoire again. But I guess that’s how happiness and goodwill spreads around the world: years later, when it was my turn to help a struggling pianist out, it didn’t occur to me to withold my repertoire from them, because Annie had been so generous to me.
Apart from her expertise at dance accompaniment, Annie was also a lovely pianist (I say ‘was’ – I’m sure she still is, but she retired from the Academy a few years ago), with a rich, warm and generous sound. Although she was constantly joking, her humour somewhere between Mrs Merton, Dame Edna and Rory Bremner (she did wicked impressions), on the few occasions when we played duets together, I saw another Annie – someone with an icy cool musical intelligence, a great technique, and a passion which found a direct route from heart to fingers. And when she was playing for classes, it always sounded like music – I don’t think I ever heard her ‘hack’ her way through anything. On the contrary, a couple of times in the last few years at the Academy, I heard music drifting out of a studio so beautiful that I had to just poke my head round the door to see who was playing – and both times, it was Annie.
Playing for dance is one of the hardest skills to acquire, and anyone who manages to teach you something in that field deserves to be credited, just as you would credit your regular piano teacher or alma mater. I suppose it is a mark of how underrated the profession or the technique is that dance pianists don’t acknowledge their teachers more often – I confess that It was only when I sketched out the names for this advent calendar that I remembered just what an enormous influence Annie was on me. It’ll be interesting to see whether I can start a trend…