Category Archives: 100 tips for working with ballet pianists

100 tips for working with ballet pianists #32: Check your pianist is ready

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Glance over to your pianist just before you say ‘and…’ to check that they are ready to play, especially if they are reading from printed music. On the other hand, if experience shows that your pianist is usually ready before you are, don’t keep asking “is that all right?” or “are you ready?” – they’ll be eager to start. The ideal is build up a rhythm between yourself and the pianist, so you’re both anticipating each other’s moves to the extent where you can increase the tempo at which a class moves when you need to.

If you find that your pianist is consistently unprepared when you want to start the exercise, it may be that you could be delivering your messages about what kind of music and tempo you want earlier in your marking, to give them more time to prepare themselves.

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100 tips for working with ballet pianists #31: Be accurate about the tempo you want

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If you’re marking an exercise for dancers, it can be tempting to ‘mark’ the tempo to the pianist as well – but this is an impossibility: giving a tempo is meaningless unless it’s the one you actually want. It only has to be about four counts to set the tempo, but you have to get out of marking mode and into conductor/musician mode for those four counts in order to convey the information. When pianists say of a teacher ‘oh she’s very musical’ or ‘I love playing for him, he’s so easy to work with’, 90% of this is down to being given an accurate tempo in good time. By contrast, ‘“that’s fine, but we need it half the speed” is possibly the most disheartening thing a musician can hear – if you need to halve the speed of the music, then it’s the wrong music, and you’ve got to start searching again.

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100 tips for working with ballet pianists #30 Use counts, not bars

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When you’re marking an exercise for a pianist, speak in terms of counts rather than bars, particularly with introductions (e.g. say ‘x counts in’, rather than ‘x bars in’).

Unless you are trying to work out the mathematical correspondences between a movement notation score and printed music, bars are confusing, and often irrelevant, both to teachers and pianists. Some novice pianists might ask you ‘how many bars do you mean’ if you talk in counts, but don’t get drawn into this beyond a discussion of general principles, otherwise you’ll spend half the class going over to the piano trying to sort out the pianist’s sheet music!

It’s for the pianist to get used to the idea of feeling the counts underlying the notation if they’re using printed music. Contrary to what you’ll hear dancers say against themselves, this isn’t some philosophical divide between musicians and dancers: Musicians who don’t conventionally work from notation (like rock bands – think of the drumstick ‘count-in’, for example) have no problem understanding the concept of counts.

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100 tips for working with ballet pianists #29: Allow the music to speak

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When you first start teaching (whatever your subject), it’s tempting to think that nobody’s learning unless you’re talking. The truth is, an awful lot of the most significant and deep learning happens when you do nothing.

Keep silent during some exercises to allow students to respond to the music. If they are listening to you, or worried about corrections, they won’t have a chance to do this.

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100 tips for working with ballet pianists #28: Practise at home

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Put on a tape or CD – of anything – and practise setting exercises aloud with the music. Marking an exercise in tempo is a musical & motor skill which needs practice. The more you use music in this way, the more confident you will be when you are in a studio. It will also prevent you from making up exercises which are fine until you try and do them in tempo!

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100 tips for working with ballet pianists #27: Be your own rhythm section

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Sometimes it helps to give directions, count or talk gently in the rhythm and tempo that you want while the music’s playing. This gives pianists a rhythmic framework within which they can feel freer to be more expressive, because they’re not having to concentrate so hard on keeping the rhythm going. You can then use your voice as a means of controlling the tempo of the exercise in subtle and expressive ways, because the pianist will have locked into the tempo of your voice almost without thinking.

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100 tips for working with ballet pianists #26: Get musical ideas from the masters

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If you’re stuck for what kind of music to use for a particular step, think about how those steps appear in the repertoire, and what kind of music accompanies them. You can also go back and watch some dance videos with this in mind rather than actually watching the dance as dance. The results can be quite surprising, and always useful.

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