Playing for ballet class tips #24: Speak up – don’t act the pianist

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I can’t remember when exactly I discovered this, but it was life-changing. If you’ve got a question in class or rehearsal, speak up, don’t act the pianist. If you’re going to ask a question at all, ask it loud and clear. If you act like a victim in a rehearsal or class, you run the risk of being treated like one. Conversely, if you act like you’re the professional equal of the person you’re working with, you’ll be treated as that. You may not feel like that at all, and in many ways, you plainly aren’t, but you can “fake it til you make it.”

All I’m talking about  is the volume of your voice when you ask a question, not about how to stop being a victim. You may not feel confident doing it, and you may not feel that you have enough experience to be able to do so, but feel the fear and do it anyway – just speak up.

Start as you mean to carry on

It starts from the moment you walk into a room with a new teacher. If you go and sit behind the piano sheepishly and wait for the teacher to find out your name, a) they may never ask and b) they may assume that you prefer to be left alone.  If you walk right up to them and say ‘Hello, my name is….’ and get the introductions over, you’ve established a relationship which is going to make it much easier when you have questions later. I say the same to teachers, so don’t be surprised if you meet in the middle of the studio. Much later, I discovered a great TED talk by Amy Cuddy on body language (link to transcript) that explains the problem and the solution in detail.

Only you know what your problem is: get it out there

I used to try and guess what teachers wanted if I didn’t know, or look questioningly at them, hoping they’d second guess what my problem was. It doesn’t work. And I’ve often found that even when some teachers seem overbearing or intimidating, they’ll be fine with being asked questions like the following, as long as you ask them directly, loudly and clearly:

  • “I’m sorry, I didn’t quite get that. What was the tempo again?”
  • “What kind of a 3 do you want – something butch, or more fluid?”
  • “Does it matter to you whether this is on 3 or 4?”
  • ” I’m afraid I don’t know this ballet, you’re going to have to guide me a bit. Where are we going from?”
  • “Would you mind if we just talked through the tempos of this before we rehearse, as I don’t want us to have to stop in the middle”

My theory about why this works is that teachers’ have so much stuff to deal with that they blot out whatever isn’t critical,  like someone landing a plane. If the music’s working, they won’t meddle with it. If you seem to be OK, they’ll leave you alone. The temptation for the pianist is to try not to be too much trouble, to not interrupt; to mumble the question or look needy and hope the teacher will guess what you want. This just registers as an irritation, not a call on their attention.  But if you speak up, they’ll recognize that you have an important question to ask, and they’ll deal with it.

Don’t act the pianist: the canonical example from “Stepping Out”


The clip from Stepping Out with Glenda the pianist is a classic example of how communication goes wrong in a dance studio. It’s hilarious precisely because it satirizes the wrong footing that so many classes and rehearsals begin on. What ought to be a very simple question about tempo becomes an emotional battleground and power struggle. The issue is resolved when Liza Minelli deals with the emotions. But it could have been avoided altogether if Glenda had said right from the start – ‘I’m sorry, I can’t remember what last week’s tempo was. Just mark it for me again, and I’ll try and get it back’.

That wouldn’t have been funny or heartwarming at all, and I’m glad she didn’t. But unless you’re happy for your life to be like an endless loop of this scene, and unless your teacher is Liza Minelli, go for the second option and ask the question before the rehearsal starts.

It doesn’t have to be this way: update on 25/5/2016

After thirty years of playing rehearsals, something happened recently which was almost unique in my experience, and is a model of what I’d say was best practice: maybe it’s the future. A few weeks ago, a dancer began a rehearsal of a very difficult solo by saying to the coach and me “Do you mind if we go through tempos before we do it? I won’t have the stamina to keep repeating this solo, and if try and sort out the tempos first, there’s more chance I can run it from beginning to end without having to stop because the tempo’s wrong.”

For musicians, that’s pretty normal: that’s how you’d approach a rehearsal involving people who hadn’t worked together on the same piece before. But it’s rare in the ballet world. The kindest interpretation is that everyone overestimates the skills and experience of the pianist, and so doesn’t think they need help. How it comes across, though,  is that everyone’s too impatient to “waste time” on a bit of preparation before the rehearsal starts, and thinks that getting the right tempo is a kind of magical sixth sense that you get from just looking at someone. Sometimes—but very rarely—it is. For the other 95% of cases, a conversation about tempo would be so helpful.

It’s interesting that it was a dancer who initiated the sensible approach here, not a coach. It was an extraordinary case of someone changing the world for the better from the inside. It might be that “Don’t act the pianist” will be irrelevant advice in a few year’s time. I rather hope so.

 

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