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Confessions of an anxious pianist #26: Same or different music on the other side?

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Although the “anxious ballet pianist” series is officially over, I’m adding one more post now, because I realised today that after thirty years of playing for class, I still often ask myself the same question: shall I play the same or different music for the other side of an exercise?

Sitting on the fence about music on the other side

Same or different music for the other side: cat sitting on a fence

Sitting on the fence about the “same or different music on the other side?” issue.

What’s made me think about it is that I’ve just played for a teacher that I first worked with maybe 28 years ago, who made me bristle (back then, that is) by saying “Please play the same thing on the second side” after one of the first exercises at the barre. I bristled for a long time, because variety was my shtick, and was what I believed you were supposed to aim for in class: avoid boredom and sameness at all costs (see previous post on fear of repetition). I remember crying into my beer with another teacher, who cheered me up by saying “But it always feels different on the other side anyway — it’s not the same thing.

That was 28 years ago. A few months ago,  I played for that teacher again, and with the wisdom of experience, I remembered that he liked the same music on both sides, and so that’s what I did, without any bristling.  Experience had also taught me that he was a highly respected teacher with a securely individual approach and style, and that he had known exactly what he was doing when he asked for the same music on both sides. Looking at him and his class again, I realised that I had been lucky to have the correction, because it had given me something to think about for thirty years: only problems generate solutions.

Playing for him again more recently, I reminded myself not to alternate at the barre, but this introduces another anxiety: I know why I’m repeating the same music, but the class doesn’t. Do they care? Does it matter? Will they think I’m dull, or lazy? Part of me thinks that nobody probably gives a damn, they’ve got other things to worry about. And particularly in this case, the exercises are hard enough that the music needs to be there to help, not distract.

“Same or different music for the other side” is a constant dilemma (literally, a choice between two unpleasant alternatives). In another class recently, after I’d played the same music for three groups in adage in the centre, I decided maybe I could do better, so I changed the music. The teacher (one of the most experienced and musical I know) stopped me and said something like “You’ve lost them. Play what you played before, they can’t find what they need in the music.”

Now that’s an even more difficult dilemma: what I was playing wasn’t great, but it at least had the virtue of familiarity after a couple of groups. Possibly, what I was going to play would have been better had I played it the first time round, but now it was too late: better the devil you know. It’s the wise choice, but it runs counter to the pervasive idea that progress and change are unquestionably a Good Thing.

From both sides now

The trouble is that there is no right or wrong about this issue:  you just have to make a reasonable guess about what’s right in each situation, and risk getting it wrong. I probably got the idea that changing the music was a good thing because I learned my trade playing for syllabus classes where any diversion from the set music was a welcome relief. The teacher who said “It feels different on the other side” was right, and there are other occasions when changing the music has a positive effect. But there are other times when you have to let the music listen to the exercise, so to speak: when it’s new, difficult, or to achieve a very particular thing. As I’ve discovered, that might not only be with children: it can be at company class level as well, but you have to know when and where what is appropriate.

I got it wrong last week, I realised half way through pliés that the tiny rhythmic hint that the teacher had given in the marking was not just incidental or accidental, it was in fact exactly what she’d wanted. I changed the music to something more suitable halfway through the exercise, and she smiled and nodded at me.  I felt great for a moment, and then thought “Why didn’t I just do that the first time around?”  Was I clever to have sorted it mid-exercise, or stupid for not getting it right at the beginning? I don’t know.  That’s another anxiety to add to the list.

Happy 2015: A new year’s ramble about Black Swan and other ballet anomalies

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Bet you haven't seen this before: a piano reduction of Drigo's orchestration of Black Swan female variation

Bet you haven’t seen this before: a piano reduction of Drigo’s orchestration of Black Swan. Click on the score to download your free version.

As it’s the first day of a new year, I’ve decided to do something about one of the greatest annoyances in my list of ballet-pianist anxieties: the Black Swan female variation from Swan Lake (see earlier post for the full version of why it’s annoying). After 28 years of only ever knowing the bits that are missing from the score by guesswork, hearsay, memory and oral tradition, I’ve done a piano reduction of Drigo’s orchestration, and here it is as a free download (pdf file). Eduard Langer – who did the piano reduction of the 1895 Swan Lake – put this and other interpolations at the end of his piano score, but left them as Tchaikovsky wrote them (i.e. as piano pieces), rather than as reductions of Drigo’s orchestrations, so they are missing vital detail.

It wasn’t as easy as you might think: although the Drigo orchestration is a published score, and Drigo is out of copyright, the orchestral score isn’t yet available at IMSLP. This is when you need a friendly orchestral librarian to help you, so I asked Lars Payne at English National Ballet, if I could scan the relevant pages from their orchestral score to make the reduction. While I’m at it, let’s just pause to give an internet round of applause to Lars.

naughtin

Matthew Naughtin’s book on Ballet Music: essential

The anomalies of Swan Lake that I blogged about very briefly in that earlier post are multiplied over and over again in ballet music. It’s one of the curious things about ballet that the more well known and popular something is, the harder it is to find the score. Most of the things we know so well from galas are pimped up diverts interpolated in earlier, less interesting 19th century ballets, and if you can find a score of those at all, it doesn’t have any of the interesting bits in at all, or they’re in the wrong place. The pimped-up, hand-written version has to be faxed to you from a cupboard in Minsk, or you give up and get someone else to orchestrate it for you.

Or you ask Lars, because if anyone knows where it might be, it’ll be him – except don’t ask him, buy Matthew Naughtin’s Ballet Music: A Handbook published last year. Naughtin is music librarian at San Francisco Ballet (see interview with him in the Music References Services QuarterlyAll those questions that no-one else bothers to ask about ballet scores are answered in here, and the answer is often “Lars Payne” (see all 24 mentions in the Google books version for an idea of what I mean), because Lars has been gradually cleaning up all these problems and making decent scores for the ballet world for years.  To anyone who has enjoyed the orchestral music on RAD’s Grades 1-3 or Grades 4-5 (if you haven’t seen it, here’s a link to an 8 minute documentary about the making of the music for that project), you should know that had Lars not been in the middle of it all, answering questions, providing scores, knowing everything, it would never have happened. To you it’s just a CD, but actually, in librarianship terms, it was a bloody miracle.

And finally… I wrote that it was Julia Richter who taught me how to play all the bits that are missing from the Black Swan variation, when I played for my first Genée ballet competition back in 1987.  By coincidence, on Monday this week I passed by the RAD on my bike on my way to ENB to play Swan Lake. It was a clear, bright and freezing cold day which brought back memories of that occasion 28 years ago. By even greater coincidence, when I got to ENB, Julia (who was there too) said “Of course, it was about this time all those years ago we were doing the Genée competition,” and we got chatting about the Black Swan – and I discovered then that Don (Anthony) Twiner was the one who taught her how to play it.  So here, 28 years later, is the score, in case you don’t have anyone to tell you how it goes.

Creative Commons License
Black Swan (piano reduction) by Jonathan Still after Tchaikovsky/Drigo is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

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.