Category Archives: Advent calendar

Confessions of an anxious ballet pianist day #25: 9/8

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grinder

From Wilson’s 1820 “A Companion to the Ball Room” available at IMSLP

I was tempted to put the ballet-class equivalent of the Holy Family on the 25th of this advent calendar, to finish off the series with a heart-warming sentimental twist that starts “… in spite of all these things that make me anxious, I love playing for ballet, and these little things are what makes it exciting and interesting.” But just in time to save you from such a sugary end,  I remembered the 9/8. This list of anxieties wouldn’t have been complete without it.

Now I’m not talking about the kind of 9/8 that’s just a 3/4 in disguise, that is, a tune that’s in three with a lot of “diddly diddly diddly” underneath it (see earlier post). I mean a proper 9/8 where the tune itself goes diddly diddly diddly diddly diddly diddly, without stopping for breath. I mean those 9/8s that are weird in the same way that the polonaise is weird, where phrases finish on the weakest possible (final) beat; where the end of the phrase feels like you’ve leapt on to the tube as the doors were closing, and just managed to pull your coat free as you got inside. Look at the example above – what kind of music ends on a little note like that? That’s like finishing a sentence with a comma,

I never trust myself to improvise them, because I have so often got hopelessly lost in the middle of them in class. It goes so well for so long, but it only needs one beat to go wrong to mess the whole class up, and once you’ve slipped up in a slip jig (another name for the 9/8), it’s hard to pick yourself up again.  I’ve got a few in my head that I keep for special occasions, and stick to what I know.

It’s a strange pocket of ballet behaviour, the 9/8. It’s relatively rare in music*, but it seems someone once thought that it would be a good thing if ballet teachers learned about it, like you’d learn about the two-toed sloth, or photosynthesis. So the 9/8 crops up occasionally in class like a trick question, just when you least want or expect it. I rather like them, but they make me nervous.

Happy Christmas.

 

*Justin London wrote a paper called “The Binary Bias of Metric Subdivision and the Relative Complexity of Various Meters, or, Why is 9/8 so Rare?” given at the 4th International Conference on Music Perception and Cognition, Montreal, Quebec, August 1996. The background to the theory is also explained in his book Hearing in Time  (second edition) on pp. 44-45.

Confessions of an anxious ballet pianist day #24: Happy birthday

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fatherchSpecial occasions make me nervous. Take birthdays, for example. It’s someone’s birthday, and so one of the dancers comes up before class and says “Can you play happy birthday for so-and-so, please?” Sure I can. But the question is, when?

Before class feels wrong. If you suddenly play a C7 arpeggio on the keyboard just while the teacher is trying to take charge of the class, you interrupt her flow and usurp her authority. Once she realises what’s going on, the face will crack a smile, we’ll do the song, and then get on with the rest of the class, but for three horrible, uncomfortable seconds that seem like an eternity, you’ve acted as inappropriately as an altar boy booty-shaking like Beyoncé during communion while the priest wasn’t looking.

If you wait til after the barre, you run the risk that the birthday girl/boy, or his/her best friends, or the person that asked for the tune in the first place have all suddenly run out to go to the loo/check their phone/read the schedule – especially difficult if you don’t actually know the person by sight to know whether s/he’s in the room or not. At the end of class can be even worse, if it’s one of those days where only a few are left standing – or just when you’re about to play, someone wants to do turns in second or fouettés, so everyone else leaves, thinking there’s nothing left for them. Your indecision just ruined someone’s birthday.

Usually, once you start it’s fine, except for those days when it takes half the song to realise what’s going on, then by the time it gets to the “dear _____” line, everyone’s looking round the room to see who ______ is. It’s not your fault that the community singing collapses in confusion at this point, but you started it, so it feels like it is. And yes, I have once played happy birthday while the person it was intended for wasn’t there. It’s like having an entire battery farm lay eggs on your face.

Don’t let that stop you asking me to play happy birthday. But sometimes I wish someone would invent a protocol for this, so that just as  pliés come before grands battements,  Happy Birthday would  be allotted its own place in the barre to avoid embarrassment and confusion. The trouble is, singing happy birthday is one of those subversive moments in class that needs to stay just as it is: ignoring the teacher’s control and power while you wish your classmate a happy birthday is all part of the celebration.  It’s just that arpeggio that makes me anxious.

Confessions of an anxious ballet pianist day #23: Metre-less counts

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boardedup

Dadu’s in Tooting, now boarded up.

An absence of metre is kind of cool. It’s like decorating a room white, having no books or furniture, and hanging Malevich’s White on White on the wall. You have no history, and you give nothing away when you mark an exercise with no hint of metrical accent: Your exercise might have développés and tendus and pony galops in it, but for a few chic moments before the music comes in, it’s not ballet, it’s just a sequence of movements in search of a musical identity. It could be anything. 

Except, of course, it can’t. If it’s in eight-count phrases, then the number of things it could be are already limited, not just by the metrical implications of things being in eights, but by the limits of what you can play and what you can think of in two seconds. For in the absence of any metre in the marking, your brain has had no clues, no pointers, no hints to get you thinking, it’s like trying and failing to remember a password over and over again. Then suddenly, it’s time to play.

What happens then is one of two things. Either you start playing anything that comes to mind, because you can think of nothing: Old MacDonald Had A Farm, The Birdie Song, Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, whatever. Needless to say, however cool the exercise looked in the marking, it looks pretty trite now, like you put an ornate gold Poundshop frame round that Malevich. Or you try and improvise music that’s the equivalent of a whitewashed wall – it could be anythingbecause it’s nothingFor eight counts, it’s not so bad. But then you have a second phrase of four, and already, the metre that the teacher has so carefully omitted from the marking has hit you like a bend in the road. You can’t keep this up for 64 counts, because there’s no such thing as music without metre, or colour, or personality.

Just once, I was so flummoxed by metre-less marking, that I couldn’t think of anything to play at all. I just sat there, tasered by counts, while the class waited. It was as if the teacher had erased from my mind all memory of music and how it was made. It was for an exercise that was half ballet, half contemporary, and it went “1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8,” very fast. The extra time didn’t help, but the class couldn’t wait any longer. I can’t remember what I played, except that I just kept hitting keys at a certain tempo, eight times in a row.  It went on forever.

 

 

Confessions of an anxious ballet pianist day #22: Inappropriate music choices

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HorsesWhen I say inappropriate, I don’t mean in 4/4 rather than 3/4, or a barcarole instead of a mazurka. I mean inappropriate in the sense of “Oh no. Let the earth swallow me up. Get me out of this tune now.” By the time you’ve realised your mistake, it’s too late.

Accidentally playing Edelweiss for company class in Germany comes somewhere near the top of my red-faced moments,  though years later I discovered that nobody in Germany knows The Sound of Music (I guess that figures, really), and that playing Zarah Leander songs – which I did –  is probably in more questionable taste. You have a whole 64 counts to endure before you can get out of the tune and into something else, and if you try to snake out of it by turning it into an improvisation that just happens to have the first three notes of Edelweiss, it sounds like you don’t know the tune, or are trying (which is the case) to cover your tracks.

Worse than playing showbiz reminders of a country’s political past, is playing anything from The Nutcracker, Swan Lake or Sleeping Beauty in company class. Ballet repertoire’s a strange one, though. A lot of people say they don’t like it for class, but in practice, it often goes down quite well, as long as it isn’t one of those three. I have a league table in my head of things you can just about get away with if you pick your moment. Etudes is somewhere near the top of it, together with stuff from the Imperial repertoire that you might only see on Russian Youtube. It’s a gamble that works both ways, though. Sometimes you play stuff that you think people will have a fond nostalgia for, and it’s like they never heard it before. Another time, you gingerly play something you think is too well known, and they just look at you and go “What is that?” Other times, you play something you think is just a tune, and it happens to be part of someone’s ballet, so they start doing the steps at the back.

Maybe failed humour is the worst thing. To pick something you think is going to be amusing, only to find that no-one’s in a the mood for humour, or they don’t get it, or the music doesn’t work for the exercise anyway is a form of embarrassment you can’t hide from.   You realise it in the first 8 bars, and you’ve got at least another 24 to go. It’s like having to lick the egg off your own face.

Confessions of an anxious ballet pianist day #21: The grand battement “march”

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gazzaBallet classes seem to be full of things that aren’t quite what they should be: polonaises that are really boleros, waltzes that are mazurkas, mazurkas that sound like minuets, rhumbas that are choro. Then there’s the what you might call the “fondu tango,” that thing in habañera rhythm that is so slow, it’s hard to know how anyone ever thought it was a Thing in the first place. Little by little, I’ve managed to collect pieces that will get me out of these messes: you can, for example, play the Monti czardas instead of a “tango,” and it sounds like the kind of thing they want.

But when it comes to the “grand battement march,” I still draw a blank. Is there any music in the whole wide world really goes “aaaaaand a one…” as the marchy grand battement demands? How and when did anyone think that the overture to La Gazza Ladra would “do” for grands battements, just as long as you reduce the speed by about 400% and put accents in places that should be illegal? The trouble is, I can see exactly why teachers want music that goes like this: it wouldn’t be better on a 3/4, or faster, or as a completely different exercise. There’s a point to doing a grand battement like that.

Unfortunately, I don’t think there’s a piece of music in the world that fits the template without ruining it. You’d think that any high-kicking number from a musical would do it, but no. There’s nothing worse than picking your moment for Springtime for Hitler, only to find that by the time the teacher’s flagged down the tempo to the speed of the exercise, you’ve killed one of the funniest moments in musical theatre, right there in your ballet class.  If anyone’s thinking, “Dance of the Knights” from The Apprentice, think again. It doesn’t go like that, trust me, get the CD and listen to it.

I’m still hunting, and still open to suggestions. Until I find something that works, the marchy grand battement is going to make me anxious for a long time yet.

Confessions of an anxious ballet pianist day #19: Being late

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DSC05501.JPG

I wanted a picture of a clock with the hands at one minute to 10. But all I could find was this picture of an effete porcelain man that I saw in a shop window in Prague. Totally unrelated to this post, but it amused me.

Anxiety about turning up late for class or rehearsal is so basic to being a ballet pianist (for me, at least)  that I almost forgot to add it to my list of topics. If you’re reading this, and you don’t know the ballet world, then you have to understand that 10 o’clock means “ready to start at 10 o’clock.” It means that you should be sitting at your piano, ready to play, because the teacher will be looking at his or her watch until the hands align on the hour, and you’ll be  playing as you hear the clocks chime 10 outside.

No-one will say, “Let’s just hold on and see if he turns up.” If you’re late, the class will start without you. Then you’ll have to walk through that door, faced by a room full of people who managed to get there on time, get into their practice clothes, warm up, and be ready to start, unlike you. You were the one who had the least things to do in order to be ready, yet you’re late. You’re the odd one out anyway, because you have day-clothes on, and you’re not a dancer. But now you’re even more odd, because you’ve got to walk across the room while everyone’s doing their warm-up tendu or plié, and sit and not play at the piano, because you’ve missed the beginning of the class and your cue.

It’s horrible. You can’t apologise, because the class is in dancing mode, and talk is inappropriate – and in any case, it’s not normal for pianists to address the room collectively. The teacher is busy taking the class, so you can only mime “sorry” if she’s even looking at you as you do the walk of the shame to the piano. The only consolation is that dancers are usually so relieved to have music rather than do class in silence, that there may be an audible sigh of relief when you start. But all the same, you can’t sidle in quietly: you have to perform being late in front of a captive, attentive, grumpy audience.

Knowing that you’re going to be late for class is so ghastly, I can remember and relive the feelings of nearly every occasion it happened. Sitting on the 137 bus in a traffic jam somewhere in Battersea, making myself late for my audition class with Festival Ballet, as it was then (I have never, ever relied on a bus to take me to a class since). Trying to get from the Albert Hall to the Coliseum for class on stage with Mark Morris’s company when there was a Gay Pride March and some other huge event  on the same day, which meant I had to wait half an hour for a taxi, which then got stuck in traffic, so I had to walk the last bit anyway. Going to the Barbican (also for a Mark Morris class) and being stuck on the tube at a station while they “regulate the service,” then losing my way between the station and the theatre. I now always leave 30 minutes contingency whenever I go to the Barbican, and I nearly always need it. This is why I cycle everywhere if I possibly can. I know within five minutes when I’m going to arrive, and when I need to leave. Cycling is the biggest stress-reliever in my job, and I’m not sure I’d want to do it if I couldn’t cycle any more.

Anxiety about being late is not really a negative thing, it’s the flip side of the enjoyment of the discipline of the ballet world –  I’m not a masochist or obsessive, but I love its rhythm. There was an article in the Guardain recently about how the last-minute spontaneity afforded by 21st century technology means that it’s less common for people to plan and do things together at the same time any more. The power surges that were once common in the UK when half the nation went out during ad breaks in Coronation Street to put the kettle on hardly happen these days.  Social media and messaging mean that people make less effort to meet up in the same place at the same time.  It rings true, but ballet class is an exception. We turn up on time, and finish on time, out of respect for each other, and for the ritual. There’s no eating your breakfast at your desk, or making yet another cup of coffee at eleven o’clock, and saying “I just don’t seem to be able to get started today.” You just get in there and start when it’s time to start, and at the end of it, you’ve done something, no matter how you felt when you came in.

Confessions of an anxious ballet pianist day #18: Page turns

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Picture of a page of the score for Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker (Sugar Plum Fairy variation, the manège section)

The manège from the Sugar Plum Fairy variation. This line (the end of a page) should be a left hand page – if it isn’t, you’re stuffed.

I’m not a particularly tidy or obsessive person, except when it comes to scores that I have to play from. If it’s for a performance, I’ll want to know exactly what the score does long in advance: where are the page turns? Can the score be cut and pasted to make better places for turning? How thick is the paper, and what does it feel like to turn the page? How easy is it to turn two pages at once? How does it sit on the music stand? Sellotape, glue, PrittStick, loose leaves or A4 sheets stuck back-to-back, thin paper curled in a photocopier, bad pagination, poorly marked cuts, these are almost the only things in life that turn me into the kind of nutcase that could feature in Channel 4 documentary.

I think it all goes back to a single traumatic incident when I was playing for a performance by West Midlands Youth Ballet very early in my career. It was during the section choreographed for the youngest children, that consisted of several short dances accompanied by different piano solos. I had carefully pasted all the separate pieces in order into a scrapbook for the show, to avoid having loose-leaf pages on the stand. So far so good.

But in the first show, at the end of one of the dances, I realised – way too late, because the dance had finished – that I’d turned over two pages at once, thanks to a tiny protrusion of Sellotape that caused two pages to stick together as I made the page turn.  It meant that the  children had danced (let’s say) Section 4 to the music of Section 5. I realised the only thing to do was to play Section 5 again, this time, with the right dance.  To their eternal credit, you would not have known that anything had gone wrong – the children had danced an entire dance to the wrong music, and then had to work out what I was going to do next without any communication between stage and pit. We got to the end, and it was fine. I felt shamed and awed by their professionalism.

Perhaps it was that early experience that made me obsessive about page turns in all the syllabus books that I’ve prepared over the last few years for the RAD. The thing about playing for dance is that you just have to keep going, absolutely in tempo, when you’re accompanying a dancer. You can’t ask them to wait while you handle a page turn, or correct a wrong note. In an ideal world, there wouldn’t be a single difficult page turn anywhere in a ballet score. On the whole, copyists (the people who prepare scores for print) are careful to position page turns where there is a rest, or where the music leaves one hand free to make the turn.

That’s why it’s vital to get LH and RH pages in their correct position when you make a copy. By long publishing tradition, odd page numbers are always RH pages, and even page numbers are always LH pages. One of the worst things you can do to a musician is put a score through a photocopier so that even-numbered pages come out on the RH side – easily done if you’re photocopying an extract that begins on a LH page, but you don’t put a blank page on the top of the pile to force it on to the left when it comes out of the copier. Every carefully positioned page turn will now be in the wrong place, and those places that were deliberately given two-page spreads because they constitute impossible turns, are now on a page turn.*

This was the case with a score of Nutcracker I was playing from the other day. The manège, which in every other score should be (and is) on a two-page spread, was split over a LH and RH page, and you don’t have a hand free to turn. What’s worse, I turned two pages at once, because the bottom corner of the page had disintegrated, so I accidentally turned the page behind it instead. I tried to save myself, but I discovered to my horror that without the music, I haven’t a clue  what the manège of the Sugar Plum Fairy does, even though I’ve been playing it for years.  I apologised, and we started again. I turned the corner of the page up nice and sharp, so I wouldn’t miss it this time. Unfortunately, this was one fold too many, and the corner of the page ripped off in my hand.  I think it may be time to carry my own copy around with me, or learn the manège by heart.

 

* So the golden rule is, always photocopy a score starting at an odd-numbered page, even if you don’t need that first page.