Tag Archives: advent 2012

Playing for ballet class: a page of tips


In December 2012 I posted daily articles about what I’ve learned about playing for ballet class. Maybe I should have called it “becoming a ballet pianist” because the process never stops. I’ve noticed that they get quite a few hits, but it’s difficult to see the whole series at once and choose the links you’re most interested in. So here – thanks to the wonderful List Category Posts plugin from WordPress – are all those posts linked on a single page, with excerpts from each one. Click on the link to read the full articles.

Links to my articles about playing for ballet class

Playing for ballet class tips #25: respect the ritual


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.

Happy Christmas!

Playing for ballet class tips #24: Speak up – don’t act the pianist


I can’t remember when exactly I discovered this, but it was life-changing. If you’ve got a question in class or rehearsal, speak up, don’t act the pianist. If you’re going to ask a question at all, ask it loud and clear. If you act like a victim in a rehearsal or class, you run the risk of being treated like one. Conversely, if you act like you’re the professional equal of the person you’re working with, you’ll be treated as that. You may not feel like that at all, and in many ways, you plainly aren’t, but you can “fake it til you make it.”

All I’m talking about  is the volume of your voice when you ask a question, not about how to stop being a victim. You may not feel confident doing it, and you may not feel that you have enough experience to be able to do so, but feel the fear and do it anyway – just speak up.

Start as you mean to carry on

It starts from the moment you walk into a room with a new teacher. If you go and sit behind the piano sheepishly and wait for the teacher to find out your name, a) they may never ask and b) they may assume that you prefer to be left alone.  If you walk right up to them and say ‘Hello, my name is….’ and get the introductions over, you’ve established a relationship which is going to make it much easier when you have questions later. I say the same to teachers, so don’t be surprised if you meet in the middle of the studio. Much later, I discovered a great TED talk by Amy Cuddy on body language (link to transcript) that explains the problem and the solution in detail.

Only you know what your problem is: get it out there

I used to try and guess what teachers wanted if I didn’t know, or look questioningly at them, hoping they’d second guess what my problem was. It doesn’t work. And I’ve often found that even when some teachers seem overbearing or intimidating, they’ll be fine with being asked questions like the following, as long as you ask them directly, loudly and clearly:

  • “I’m sorry, I didn’t quite get that. What was the tempo again?”
  • “What kind of a 3 do you want – something butch, or more fluid?”
  • “Does it matter to you whether this is on 3 or 4?”
  • ” I’m afraid I don’t know this ballet, you’re going to have to guide me a bit. Where are we going from?”
  • “Would you mind if we just talked through the tempos of this before we rehearse, as I don’t want us to have to stop in the middle”

My theory about why this works is that teachers’ have so much stuff to deal with that they blot out whatever isn’t critical,  like someone landing a plane. If the music’s working, they won’t meddle with it. If you seem to be OK, they’ll leave you alone. The temptation for the pianist is to try not to be too much trouble, to not interrupt; to mumble the question or look needy and hope the teacher will guess what you want. This just registers as an irritation, not a call on their attention.  But if you speak up, they’ll recognize that you have an important question to ask, and they’ll deal with it.

Don’t act the pianist: the canonical example from “Stepping Out”

The clip from Stepping Out with Glenda the pianist is a classic example of how communication goes wrong in a dance studio. It’s hilarious precisely because it satirizes the wrong footing that so many classes and rehearsals begin on. What ought to be a very simple question about tempo becomes an emotional battleground and power struggle. The issue is resolved when Liza Minelli deals with the emotions. But it could have been avoided altogether if Glenda had said right from the start – ‘I’m sorry, I can’t remember what last week’s tempo was. Just mark it for me again, and I’ll try and get it back’.

That wouldn’t have been funny or heartwarming at all, and I’m glad she didn’t. But unless you’re happy for your life to be like an endless loop of this scene, and unless your teacher is Liza Minelli, go for the second option and ask the question before the rehearsal starts.

It doesn’t have to be this way: update on 25/5/2016

After thirty years of playing rehearsals, something happened recently which was almost unique in my experience, and is a model of what I’d say was best practice: maybe it’s the future. A few weeks ago, a dancer began a rehearsal of a very difficult solo by saying to the coach and me “Do you mind if we go through tempos before we do it? I won’t have the stamina to keep repeating this solo, and if try and sort out the tempos first, there’s more chance I can run it from beginning to end without having to stop because the tempo’s wrong.”

For musicians, that’s pretty normal: that’s how you’d approach a rehearsal involving people who hadn’t worked together on the same piece before. But it’s rare in the ballet world. The kindest interpretation is that everyone overestimates the skills and experience of the pianist, and so doesn’t think they need help. How it comes across, though,  is that everyone’s too impatient to “waste time” on a bit of preparation before the rehearsal starts, and thinks that getting the right tempo is a kind of magical sixth sense that you get from just looking at someone. Sometimes—but very rarely—it is. For the other 95% of cases, a conversation about tempo would be so helpful.

It’s interesting that it was a dancer who initiated the sensible approach here, not a coach. It was an extraordinary case of someone changing the world for the better from the inside. It might be that “Don’t act the pianist” will be irrelevant advice in a few year’s time. I rather hope so.


Playing for ballet class tips #23: Watch the teacher


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.

Playing for ballet class tips #22: With harmony too, less is more

Swanilda's famous waltz. The first harmonic change comes only at the very end of the phrase.

Swanilda’s famous waltz from Coppélia. The first harmonic change comes only at the very end of the phrase.

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.

Playing for ballet class tip #21: Make friends with a notator


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.

Playing for ballet class tips #20: Let dancers make the beat

Ho Wen Yang's example of multiplying rather than dividing the beat in a warm-up jump

Ho Wen Yang’s example of multiplying rather than dividing the beat in a warm-up jump

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.

Letting music ride the beat in a jump - Singing in the Rain, for example.

Letting music ride the beat in a jump – Singing in the Rain, for example.

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.