Organizing music for ballet class: problems and solutions

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Organizing music for ballet class: where to put stuff, and where to find it again?

I’ve had a blog post brewing for years  on the topic of organizing music for ballet class, but I’m glad to see that someone has saved me the job. Trevor Hewer’s The best way to organize music for free ballet class sums up the problems, but he’s also got a nice picture of a folder with coloured tabs. For the blog post I never wrote, I wanted to collect pictures of people’s folders and discuss their approach to categories and ordering. It’s a fascinating topic.

I agree with all Trevor’s points – memorization seems the best way to me, because sometimes things work for reasons that you can’t categorize. Conversely, once you start categorizing, you build boundaries around the objects you’ve categorised. As I’ve written about before, time signatures (for example) can blind you (deafen you) to the possibility of hearing something in 12/8 as a waltz, or a waltz as being effectively 12/8 or 4/4 with triplets. The other day I got myself out of two difficult corners when I suddenly realised I could use a tango instead of a slow march, and a tarantella instead of a quick one. The less you know in these circumstances, the better, because you don’t rule out things on the basis of their category.  I also found that as much as I like ForScore on my iPad, I find it very difficult and time consuming to catalogue my music on it – and it would take me forever to do it well; and as Trevor points out, “extreme ease of adding new music means less emotional connection with it” — quite. What I’ve found with my own “year of ballet playing cards” project is that the act of choosing, inputting, arranging and practising and blogging about each piece embeds it much better in my memory. You have to love your repertoire into practice.

None of this makes the problem of categorization go away, however. You still have to categorize your memory, or find ways to deliberately overrule it. Sometimes, when I’m stuck, I think of music titles beginning with a letter of the alphabet, or in a certain key; or I think of a word or word-type (songs about love, or food, or places). Sometimes, a particular teacher will get repertoire out of me that I’d forgotten about, and I couldn’t tell you why. Some miniscule difference in the way a teacher marks, or what you know about them, or the way they interact with you. More worryingly, some teachers seem to elicit the same narrow repertoire from me every time, and I have to find ways to avoid the rut.

The thing about memorization is that it potentially allows you random access, whereas a book requires you to think about order and category, titles, subtitles, genres, and so on. I had to make decisions about it several times in my previous job. One of the things I learned is that if anyone else is going to use your system, your plan has to align as best it can with the way that the user thinks about the topic, otherwise it will never get used, or will fail.

String and categories

It’s interesting to see how supermarkets deal with the same problem. For example, the other day I helped a woman in Wilkinson’s who couldn’t find a plain ball of string anywhere. She’d looked without success in “household” (where you’d think it might be), she’d settled for a ball of overpriced, fancy, “hobby” string in the toy section (for making necklaces and so on). I eventually found what she was looking for (plain string, 50p a ball) in the stationery area, on the packing and parcel materials shelves.  We had to try to understand the “mind” of the shop in order find it.

Categorizing music is no different:  what are the chances of someone else working out where you have put a piece of music? If someone else has devised the system, you have to be able to understand their mind and their culture in order to retrieve an object. Trevor makes a good point – you might as well put your repertoire in alphabetical order, since the thing you’re most likely to remember is the title.

Faceted navigation

But that only gives you one chance of finding it – if you don’t know the title, you’ll have to go through all your library piece by piece. The best chance you have is to assign multiple categories to each one, so that you and others  have several chances of finding what you want. On different days you might want the same piece for different reasons: because it sounds French; because it has a long anacrusis; because it’s in 3/4; because the teacher likes it; because you didn’t play it last week; because it’s in E flat and in a related key to what you’re playing right now; because you can adapt the rhythm and feel easily to the exercise (which is an affordance somewhere between you, your imagination, the music, what you’re playing it on, and the exercise – it’s not a property of a sound object). I have a piece in mind right now, the Petite Valse by Joe Heyne which has been all of those things to me.

I came across faceted navigation in Paul Lamere’s “Social Tagging and Music Information Retrieval” (article, free to download) when I was writing about similar issues in training ballet teachers to deal with music (given that the immediately relevant categories of music-as-heard and danced-to are not the same as the notational ones, how do you start talking about music, especially when the music can be categorised in various ways?).  Faceted navigation means being able to locate or select a piece of music by using any of a number of its attributes (“facets”) not all of which are “inherent’ in the sound at all, but cluster around the object through discourse, cultural conventions, use and personal experience.

I’m now writing about similar things in my thesis, but with the additional theme of boundary objects. Perhaps the strangest and most elusive thing about musical “objects” in the ballet world is in the context of use, a piece of music becomes “something I can do this to” where this is gestural, and does not become particularly musical (rhythmic, metric, dynamic, etc.) until the music is drawn into it. Try categorizing that.

 

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