On Monday I interviewed an expert on Hungarian fiddle playing, so I just loved this article on the Henle Verlag website about Michael Struck’s re-decoding of a postcard from Brahms that had already been (wrongly) decoded once in a book over a 100 years ago. Superficially, this looks like nerdy Urtext stuff, until you read the detail and watch the video of what the re-interpretation of those tiny markings in the Brahms score mean in practice.
I only ended up watching Len Goodman’s Dancing Feet because I’d been stood up, so instead of seeing Life of Pi in 3D in what would have been my first trip to a cinema in almost a decade, I sat self-pityingly at home, trying to decide between Steam Iron Sale Pick of the Day and Alice in Wonderland, the ballet.
In the end, I turned to iPlayer, and Len Goodman’s Dancing Feet, a documentary about the golden age of British Ballroom dancing, and within minutes, was hooked. What I loved about this programme is that from the very start, Len Goodman told you without any sadness or regret that what he was talking about was already over, a thing of the past. Peggy Spencer was talking matter-of-factly about the 1950s and 60s when she said that ballroom went ‘underground’, and became a thing for dancing schools rather than dance halls, whereas the heart of ballroom, years ago, she said, had been to go out and meet people.
Near the end, about 57 minutes in, Mary Lee, singer with the Roy Fox orchestra, smiles warmly and reminisces “it was lovely” in a tone of voice that tells you instantly how lovely it was, but again, with no hint of regret, just a fond and respectful memory. “It was lovely,” she repeats, “You were hearing good music, and with a wee bit of luck, you got a wee cuddle and a kiss on the way home. You know. It was nice.” You have to hear the way she says ‘nice’, and see the expression on her face to understand that nice can, after all, be full of meaning.
The researchers pulled in musicologists, musicians, dance teachers, writers, singers and dancers, visited dance halls, and included intelligent discussions about changes in music and the social history of dancing over two centuries. It was more intellectual weight and good sense than I have seen thrown at ballet in a long time. What absolutely no-one did in this programme, was to make any claim for ballroom-dancing as a thing, as some autonomous form that lived independently of wider society. No-one talked about ‘dance’, it was all about dancing, and what that meant in real terms – the materiality of dance halls, dance bands, going out, meeting people and kissing them.
It was warm and but not sentimental, accessible without dumbing down. I’m not a fan of ballroom, or of Strictly Come Dancing, but I’m a huge fan of trying to make sense of culture. It’s just a shame that the BBC couldn’t have thrown similar resources at a programme that could explain why we still make ballets that portray an upper-class tea party in Victorian Oxford. I can’t help feeling that the assumption is that we’re supposed to believe that ballet is timeless and autonomous, and hence needs no explanation. I for one would love Len Goodman to investigate.
Class has a ritual, liturgical quality to it, particularly in a company. It is daily, it happens at a particular time, with such religious regard for punctuality that a teacher will begin class without music, rather than be late. It must be done regardless of whether anyone feels like it, and there are rules and formalities to be observed. In companies or open classes especially, teachers are more like ‘celebrants’ or ‘officiants’ than teachers in the conventional sense of the word. Experienced teachers have a way of vocally marking exercises for a class in a way that is both reassuring and instructional, like a priest intoning a blessing. To ‘take’ class, significantly, can mean both to do it or to teach it.
It probably doesn’t have to have music. People do class without it, if they have to. But music seems as integral to a class as it does to a religious ritual, and probably for the same reasons. It connects people, it gives them something meaningful to do together; it’s the vital medium through which the ritual is enacted, and it’s part of the ritual itself.
And oddly enough, some of the arguments about what is right or wrong for class have parallels in the ecclesiastical world. Some people think that popular music has no place in the church, the only way to God is through Palestrina, others think that the church will die unless it embraces the popular. And speaking of death, what classes as ‘funeral music’ these days is whatever people have at a funeral, not a category of music with specific features. Some churches insist on live music, or that you use their particular organist, others don’t have an organ at all. For some, only an organ will take you nearer to God, for others, the guitar, the piano, or the bagpipes will do just as well.
You can probably guess that I think a lot of similar arguments in ballet are pretty nonsensical – live music won’t automatically make someone a better dancer; children won’t automatically become better dancers by playing classical music at them; ‘ballet music’ is anything that people use for ballet, it’s not a thing that has universal qualities; there is nothing intrinsically ‘correct’ about using a piano for class.
That sounds like I’m saying that nothing matters and anything goes. I’m not – quite the opposite, in fact. My point is that music matters toomuch to people to reduce playing for class entirely to a system, a set of rules, a technique, a book of ‘suitable’ or legitimate repertoire that you can impose from outside.
So the final tip is this: don’t listen too much to people (like me) who offer advice on how to do it. Respect the ritual, the people who enact it, and your place in it, and you’ll find new ways of interpreting it, giving it meaning, and making it work.
The advice to ‘watch the teacher’ is so obvious, it should have been one of the very first tips. But if there’s a reason I’ve hesitated so long, I think it’s because like many apparently simple concepts, ‘watching the teacher’ turns out to be not that simple after all. Here are just a few things that ‘watching the teacher’ involves:
- Sightlines: Set up the piano so you can see the teacher easily (and let them know that’s why you’re doing it)
- Interpersonal skills: establish a relationship with the teacher such that they’ll know it’s worth looking over to you and giving you direction while you play (and that takes more than eye-contact – see ‘Talk to dancers‘ and ‘Talk to teachers‘)
- Congeniality: be amenable to changing tempo (or even metre) during the exercise, rather than demanding to know everything in advance.
- Simplicity: choose music that you can play or improvise so well that you can release most of your attention to communication with the teacher (see Play from memory)
- Phrasing: choose music that communicates its structure clearly enough that the teacher can sense where they are in it (if they can’t tell that you’re getting to the end of a phrase, they can’t give you adequate warning you that they’d like you to make a repeat. See “Phrase clearly” and “Make your intros clear”).
- Modularity: Choose music that is modular in structure (like many fiddle tunes, popular songs or quadrilles, so that you can do the following things easily:
- go straight to the other side of an exercise or repeat it without stopping
- add four bars between groups in the centre
- add music for a balance or port de bras at the end of an exercise
- stretch the tempo between sides at the barre to give time for dancers to turn and start again
- repeat an exercise immediately, but faster
- Alertness: Be aware of the directions that the teacher is giving to the class about the quality of movement required during an exercise, so that you can make small changes to articulation and accent as you play
If you’re prepared for all of this and get nothing back, then maybe you’re working for a teacher who doesn’t much mind whether they have a pianist or not. But more likely, they’ve got so used to working with CD players that they’ve forgotten what it’s like to work collaboratively and spontaneously. You have to work hard to remind them, and the first step towards that is eye-contact.
If you’re improvising or harmonising a melody, there’s a lot to be said for just sticking to simple harmonies, and avoiding chromaticism or excessive modulation for the sake of it. It’s not a competition to see who can fit the most chords in. On the contrary, dance music depends on a certain amount of harmonic simplicity for its dance quality and feeling of lift and lightness.
It was one of my dissertation students who first drew my attention to this: if you look at some of the most famous and well-loved waltzes you can think of, many of them of them follow the pattern of Swanilda’s variation, which is to stay on the tonic for 6 bars, and then move to the dominant only in bars 7 and 8. In the case of Swanilda, what then happens is the reverse, like a harmonic palindrome – 6 bars of dominant 7th, followed by 2 bars of tonic.
Strauss does it, and Tchaikovsky does it. Another variant is to stay four bars in the tonic, and four in the dominant. Whatever happens, you get very simple harmony with a bass line toggling between the 1st and 5th degrees of the scale, little more. I looked at Oskar Nedbal’s Valse Triste for ages, trying to work out how he had achieved such subtle and unusual beauty, only to find that most of it was down to what he doesn’t do – he never moves from a bass line of G and D in the first 8 bars; and again, the harmony is tonic for 6 bars, dominant(ish) for 2.
Likewise, two of the most famous codas in the ballet repertoire, the one in Don Quixote pas de deux and the one from Black Swan pas de deux, sit on a tonic pedal for ages, and modulate properly only right at the end of the phrase.
Yet the temptation when you’re improvising or composing is to try and throw as many tricks as you can into 16 bars of music, like you’re loading your plate at the salad bar. I’ve seen 16 bar compositions for tendu exercises that have already modulated to a remote key by bar 4 (with a change of key signature), chromatic inner voices and bass-lines, interrupted cadences, and hardly a simple tonic or dominant chord in sight. I’d like to say that the result is a real dog’s dinner, harmonically, but in fact, dogs’ dinners I’ve seen tend to make more culinary sense.
If there’s a principle to follow, it’s to remember that 16 bars of music in a dance class have to be imagined as being a ‘clip’ of something larger, not a self-contained miniature. In fact, who writes 16 bar miniatures? There isn’t enough time to develop and resolve musical tension, so don’t try.
If there’s one kind of person in the ballet universe who can really understand where you’re coming from as a musician, and where you need to go, it’s someone who writes movement notation, whether that’s Labanotation or Benesh Movement Notation.
As they have to be able to dance, notate movement, and work out how their movement notation aligns to a musical score, they live in a kind of wireframe version of the world where everything is provisional until they’ve found a way of writing it all down coherently. They understand the anomalies and contradictions that time signatures bring with them in relation to movement, and have ways of marking up musical scores that indicate logically how dancers are moving in relation to them.
They can speak your (notational) language, but also understand things from a dancer’s perspective, so they can help you make sense of the dance world with reference to your own musical background. They’ll show you how to mark up a score in rehearsal so that you next time someone says ‘Can we go from the second time she does the arabesque?’ you don’t have to sit in shame playing bars at random until they shout ‘That’s it!’ (Only to shout two seconds later ‘Oh…No it’s not there, it all sounds the same, doesn’t it?). They can also tell you a lot about the ballet repertoire, and help you to judge when you need to improve, and when someone’s just being difficult and naff in a rehearsal.
If you ever meet one, grab hold of them and make friends. In my experience, they’re often very happy to help when you want to know why something didn’t work for class, or talk through music and dance problems with you (like I did only yesterday with notation expert Vicki Watts) and from the very beginning, I learned a lot of my trade from the lovely Gillian Cornish, who used to chaînée across the room for me while we tried out different bits of music. I’ve enjoyed sitting in on countless conversations about notation with Christopher Hampson and the person who’s notated so many of his ballets, Caroline Palmer. I could list many more – Mark Kay, Patricia Tierney, Marzena Sobanska, the people at the Benesh Institute that has its home now at the RAD, and of course the most remarkable of them all, Ann Hutchinson Guest.
In the last tip, I said that it was a good rule of thumb to divide by half (in your melody line) whatever pulse rate you can detect in a petit allegro jump – if dancers are jumping on quavers, you play semiquavers. Doing this creates a focus on the tempo of the jump by placing aural gridlines over it, so to speak. Now I’m going to contradict that, and say there are times when you’d want to avoid doing that. Sometimes, letting the dancers’ movements divide your beat is better, as Ho Wen Yang, one of my favourite fellow dance pianists pointed out when I published yesterday’s post (his example is shown above).
I learned today’s tip from Christopher Hampson in relation to an exercise in one of his continuous barres that consisted of a long sequence of fast battements jetés. Those classes are wonderful opportunities for trying out ideas because there’s a lot of simple repetition, which means you get the chance to test the principles of accompanying particular movements. When exercises combine movements, or are floridly choreographic, you can’t do this so easily. And as we were working together for several days in succession we could keep refining and talking about the ideas from day to day.
It turns out that doing what I described in yesterday’s tip for an exercise that has a lot of stamina-building repetition is possibly the worst thing you can do, because it does precisely what I said it would do – it draws attention to the pulse of the movement. If you’ve got to do twenty eight battements jetés, you don’t want someone (the music) shouting “17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23″ and so on at you every time you move, emphasising the effort and timing of every single movement. That’s the musical equivalent of paying for your drinks in 1p pieces.
If, on the other hand, the pulse of the music is slower (think Singing in the Rain, let’s say, where you have three ‘empty’ beats on the syllable ‘sing-’) your attention is directed away from the effort, and the many smaller things are chunked into a larger hypermetrical framework. You’ve got 4 pound coins instead of 400 one-pence pieces. Or it’s perhaps similar to the idea that a watched kettle never boils – the more you focus on the passage of time, the slower it seems to pass. For more on that, see Ian Phillips’ article Attention to the passage of time.
If I had to choose between tip 19 and tip 20, which give conflicting advice, I’d usually go for tip 20, because I think the principle of ‘less is more’ is true of ballet accompaniment (see earlier post on making ‘space’ for dancing). But I’d go for 19 if the exercise was not just simple repetition, and the class was for beginners or children, or a complicated exercise where it’s difficult for the dancers to get the rhythm right, and you need to hold the tempo back in odd corners without becoming unrhythmical (which you can do if you’ve got lots of notes to play with). I suspect that it’s got a lot to do with Boltz & Jones’ theory of dynamic attending - the difference between future oriented attending (less notes) and analytic attending (more notes).
Knowing when to do one or the other is part of the skill and judgement that you need as a ballet pianist, and the key is to have both tools ready to deploy instantly so you can switch if one of them isn’t right for the job.