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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100 tips for working with pianists #25: Discover your pianist’s musical interests

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Some pianists have a misguided view about what is “suitable” for ballet class (e.g. that you have to improvise in a pastiche classical style with no dynamics and no rubato, or that dancers don’t listen so there’s no point in playing your best). This often happens as a result of teachers giving (or appearing to give) too much guidance as to what kind of music they want. Give your pianist an opportunity to play what they like playing, the way they like playing it, and you might find that it’s nearer to what you actually wanted in the first place.

As an example of this, a teacher once told me of a summer school class she was teaching, where the pianist never seemed to play quite what she would have liked (I think it was pirouettes that were the issue). It didn’t matter what she said, the music was never more than OK-but-dull.

On the last day of this summer school, all the teachers went to the local hostelry for a bit of a knees-up, and there, as chance would have it, was the pianist from the class in his other job, entertaining the drinking public from the piano. And there, at last, was the music this teacher had been trying to get out of him all week.

The moral of the story is, if you’re teaching on a summer school, go to the pub on the first night.

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100 tips for working with ballet pianists #24: Show rhythm in your body

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It’s easy to ‘read’ a rhythm, metre or tempo when it’s shown in body movements (e.g. swinging, knee-bends, side-to-side movements of the torso or head and so on). To indicate the type of music you want by using rhythmic movement, rather than (or together with) words or counts is a very effective way of communicating tempo and pulse and metre.

I’ve often wondered why it seems such an arduous task to mark an exercise in tempo, but then I wonder whether it’s because the kind of movements that really help to convey a sense of rhythm are precisely the ones that you’re not supposed to do at the barre – a bit like trying to eat a doughnut without licking your lips.

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100 tips for working with ballet pianists #23: Know when it’s good to work without music

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Although it’s great to have music for class, be sure in your own mind what role it plays, so that you know when not to use it. Some examples:

  • With no music, students can practise jumping as high as they can, not just as high as the music allows.
  • A wonderful teacher that I’ve worked with called Charles Mudry, uses no music for his stretching and limbering exercises before pliés. It makes sense – if the purpose is to stretch, then individual dancers are going to want a bit more or less ‘stretch’ in the music, and there’s no tempo that will accommodate everyone.
  • Movements which are rhythmically or technically complex are probably better practised in silence or at least with a purely rhythmic accompaniment such as finger clicks or vocalisations before trying to set them to music
  • The absence of music can make the heart fonder and more responsive towards music when it’s there. By contrast, too much music may lead to a case of familiarity breeding indifference.
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