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A year of playing cards #5: An operatic adage by Dvořák

"Song to the Moon" by Dvorak

Click to download

The curse of the operatic adage 

I think I only have about three of these in my repertoire, which is why it was high time I got another. The way that some ballet teachers mark adages, you’d think the world was just full of voluptuous music that went “and one and a two and a.” I guess my worst fear is when you’re thinking of what to play, you settle on something fairly plain that will work, and then the  teacher does that inclined head thing, gives you a knowing smile, and says “Something inspiring.”  You have to hope they don’t add “…for a change”. This is the stuff of nightmares, because it usually wipes out what you’d decided to play (which is another reason not to decide what to play until the last minute. You never know what tempo or adjective is going to hit you in the few nanoseconds before you play the first note of the introduction).

This aria from Rusalka is just about perfect. The tune really does go “one and a two and a” so there’ll be no fumbling about while the class finds the beat, and half way through, it goes all Maria Callas. I’m afraid I’ve had to do inexcusable metrical surgery on the first part, leaving out a whole 8 bar phrase in order to make it regular, but it’s hard to hear the joins unless you know the aria really well.

Playing tips

You have to have heard this before trying to translate it into piano music. The opening muted strings are hard to reproduce on a piano, and you have to do a lot of work to get the tune out on top, but If you’re lucky, you won’t have to fill it out with semiquavers, though that’s a possibility if you don’t have a very good piano or nice acoustics.

Watching this video is a rather fascinating lesson in how to play for adage well. Listen to the elastic, free, fluid vocal line in the “chorus” bit, and look how the harp accompanies it with almost metronomic rhythmic precision. It must be really precise, because in fact, the last semiquaver that you hear in the bar (part of a single group in my piano reduction) is not the harp (which is silent on the last semiquaver of the bar), but the last note of the pizzicato string figure (quaver, quaver, semiquaver semiquaver) that accompanies the harp.

Pianists tend to be “expressive” and pull the timing around in the bar, but for adage you need to choose your moments very carefully. To provide the right kind of support for a dancer who is doing the equivalent of the vocal line, you have to be as rhythmically solid as that harp and those strings, but at the same time hint at the elasticity of the vocal line. It’s something like the Chopinesque rubato where the accompaniment remains steady while the right hand floats free, but somehow conceptually different. Hard to put into words, but easy to see in this clip.

Metre issues

I’ve put this in “Spades” (Adage) because it’s quite definitely an Adage (see here for an explanation), but on the other hand, it’s about as truly triple metre as metre gets, which is common in some Czech music. Yet more proof that “three” is a big subject in music: so many ways to be triple.


A year of ballet playing cards #50: A chameleon-like march by Granados (DJ)

Screen-grab of the Marcha Militar by Granados. Free piano music for ballet class

Click to download the score of this chameleon-like music

The march that isn’t a march: one of the perennial problems of music for ballet class

Another problem that I could have added to my “Confessions of an anxious ballet pianist” series is the search for something march-like  that can nonetheless immediately adapt to its surroundings without losing its identity:  a musical chameleon that can be staccato and legato, slow and  fast, up and  down on the beat, but not too much; loud and  soft, rhythmed and even; even but not mechanical, strict but not rigid. You need this for a certain kind of battement jeté exercise that tries to be all things to all women, and is neither fish nor fowl, musically. Enter the Military March by Granados (Marcha Militar).

Originally for piano duet, this little march is great for those occasions when you start playing and then realise, horrified, that you misread the exercise in the marking: it turns out to be slower/faster, louder/softer, more down on the beat, more up on the beat than you thought, and so on. With the Military March by Granados, you can pick various levels of the meter and emphasise them. There are different sections that vary from soft and fluid to sharp and detached, but within those sections, you can also alter your articulation and dynamics without causing any life-threatening injuries to the music.  I found it thanks to Susie Cooper, who recommended as something for a children’s piece in a school on a Facebook thread. I heard two bars, and fell in love with it. Thanks, Susie.

How fast is a march in music for ballet class?

The published score is marked allegretto: poco lento which would give this a warm, demure, leisurely, slightly pastoral feel: a parade in a country town after lunch, not the Red Army Choir or The Dambusters.  In fact, it’s more of a literary march than a military one, to borrow a concept from Raymond Monelle, who talks about the “cheval écrit” — the literary horse.  If there’s anyone marching here, it’s not an army, it’s  the pianists, dressed up in toy soldier uniforms. It was written in 1904, and  dedicated to King Alfonso XIII of Spain.  However indirectly, the favour was returned later: when Granados and his wife died in 1916 as a result of the torpedoing of the SS Sussex , King Alfonso set up a collection to raise money for the orphaned Granados children.

There’s a nice performance of it here, (as the original piano duet) and another one in the clip below, for brass band. Both are faster (at least to my mind) than necessary, and lose some of the potential for elegance and subtlety —but they demonstrate how it could be played fast, as well as slow.


The arrangement

In making the arrangement, I’ve tried to keep almost everything in, so you can see what the chord voicings should be, but it would be impossible to keep that up all the way through. I’ve shown an ossia at the beginning to give an idea for what it could be, when simplified.  I find myself that even when I know that an orchestra would double the bass at the octave, I’m nervous to actually do it unless I see it written down, so my principle in reductions is to put it all in and let the player decide.

The manuscript of the Military March by Granados

For some details about the composition/publication history (in Spanish) see this short article.


Playing for ballet class: links, books, suggestions


I’ve had a few messages recently asking for my advice on where to look for help on playing for ballet class, so it seemed like a good time to do a page on the subject. Please add your own suggestions in the comments. This isn’t a comprehensive review of what’s out there, it’s what I know, and a lot of it is stuff that I compiled myself. If you search for “ballet class sheet music” on the web, you’ll find links to loads of sites where people sell collections of improvisations/compositions for class. The lists below are to collections of music from the concert or ballet repertoire that are suitable for class.

Playing for ballet class is a bit like catering for a multi-faith wedding with food allergies: the suggestions below are the knives, chopping boards, saucepans and staples. Improvising and bringing in tunes that have local relevance or currency are ingredients.

Image of the score of a csárdás: a useful piece if you're playing for ballet class

A life-saving csárdas by Röszavölgyi – one of my “52 ballet playing cards” pieces that you are unlikely to come across in the standard piano repertoire.

Playing for ballet class: resources on this site:

A year of ballet playing cardsThis is a growing list (which will eventually grow to 52 pieces) of free, downloadable music for class, with sometimes lengthy explanations and illustrations.  Although the list is only about half-complete so far, there’s almost enough in there for a class already.

Tips for ballet pianists:  Not all the links here have music suggestions, but many do, these in particular:

Playing for ballet class: Anthologies of music 

  • Russian Ballet Technique, As Taught, by Alexis Kosloff. [free, online]  It was published in 1921, but nearly 100 years later, there’s plenty in there that hasn’t changed. The link is to my blog entry on the book, which links to the online file.
  • Anthologies of music for ballet classes from balletmusic.narod.ru [online, free] Published collections of music for ballet classes scanned as pdfs.  The site’s in Russian, but use Google translate to see what’s there if you’re not a Russian-speaker.
  • A Dance Class Anthology (Royal Academy of Dance, 2005). I edited this book of 50+ pieces for class that was designed to get you out of most ballet class problems. It’s now out of print, but you may pick one up on Amazon or from a reseller who still has stock.
  • Syllabus books of the Royal Academy of Dance. I helped to compile and edit these books since 2007. The Vocational Graded syllabi in particular (Intermediate Foundation, Intermediate, Advanced Foundation, Advanced 1 and Advanced 2) have dozens of examples of suitable repertoire for class – even if you don’t play what’s in the book, the models will be useful. In the end of these books there is a compilation of music for “free” allegro enchaînements. Putting these together almost completely exhausted my list of suitable classical repertoire.
  • Dance and MusicHarriet Cavalli. The first part of the book is a guide for musicians and teachers, the second part is a collection of music for class. The physical format of the book isn’t ideal for a piano, but the material is useful.
  • The Ballet Accompanist’s Handbook by Laurence Galian (1989). Not an anthology, but a brief and unpretentious guide to playing for classes that has excellent practical suggestions for where to look for repertoire. I’m incapable of being concise, but if I could be, this is the book I would have written. All good advice in shorty paragraphs.

Suggestions for further reading/listening about playing for ballet class

A year of ballet playing cards #34: A triple jig medley (8c)

Image of the free downloadable piano score of triple jigs for ballet class

Click to download the score

You may never need this playing card at all. I can’t remember the last time I was asked for a triple jig, but it was perhaps only once in the last 12 months.  I suspect that it’s one of those dance forms (like the gavotte, or the sarabande) that’s part of the didactic furniture of dance teacher training courses. No-one quite knew what it was for, or why it was there, but it had been in the family for years, and might have belonged to someone’s grandmother, and no-one liked to throw it away. If a teacher asks you for one, you could probably guess within a couple of decades and degrees of latitude and longitude when and where they trained.

For all that, I rather like a triple jig for the sake of variety, but I get hopelessly lost if I try to improvise one. This isn’t the most interesting music around, but you have to understand that there’s so much going on in Irish slip-jigging that you tend not to listen the music (see below). Triple jigs are a good replacement for those quick polonaises/boleros which are too fast for the polonaise that the teacher asked for. However, as a colleague and I were discussing recently, you can’t get away with it: if they asked for a polonaise, they’re going to demand to get what they asked for, like a grumpy diner in a restaurant, even though you’re offering them something just as nice.

Triple jig: the worst of all possible time signatures?

The triple jig is usually in 9/8, which is confusing as a time signature, because you tend to hear 6  beats, not 9, and to confuse matters more, the “triple” suggests (rightly) a kind of 3.  But even more confusingly, they often feel like a kind of additive time signature, 2+1. I can’t remember who pointed this out in an article or book, but I think they’re right.  Another problem is that teachers often remember a particular 9/8, and then ask for “a 9/” as if everything in 9/8 sounded the same. Not so. Here’s one of the most famous 9/8s in the repertoire, the sylph solo from the pas de  from La Syphide – but there’s very little else like it. If you can prove me wrong and find another piece like this, let me know, and I’ll put it in as a joker in the pack.

The “Western” 9/8 is a pretty dull affair, compared to all the things you might do if you have 9 bits of beat  your disposal. Nice as it is, I don’t think Dave Brubeck’s Blue Rondo à la Turk counts as a 9/8 – it’s kind of a four with an extended last beat, or a 3/4 + 3/8. This Armenian piece, by contrast, is another matter:

However, the more I listen to the two pieces side by side, the more possible it seems to hear the sylph differently. If I had more time, I’d strip the audio from the sylph solo, and replace it, perfectly synchronized, with the Armenian music. Both pieces have a gravitational pull to the end of the bar, not the beginning. The Armenian one has a metrical pattern of 4+3+2, but the effect of that last note feels the same to me in both pieces. Here’s my attempt at a mash-up of the two (with the percussion line just indicating the metric groups).


A year of playing cards #4: *THE* Talisman Pas de Deux


Click to download the score

After my recent anxiety that I might never find any more suitable adage-y music for my card collection, The Talisman came to the rescue again.  At the time I did this, I hadn’t seen a piano score, but got hold of one just as I’d uploaded it.  Here’s my transcription of the Talisman adagio section, with a few bits of guesswork.

It’s not quite even, unfortunately, but you could make a version of it by returning to the second half of A once you get to the end of B, or do a really cheeky cut from halfway through the end of the 16th bar of the tune, into the C7 that goes into the reprise of the tune in F major (the last section is also 16 bars, although it doesn’t seem regular).  At the time I did this in August 2015, The Talisman was not particularly well known except among people who do it at galas. For some reason, that’s changed in the last year, and now I keep hearing about people doing it:  Isabelle Brouwers and Erik Woolhouse will dance it at ENB’s Emerging Dancer performance 2016, for example.

I’m a bit behind with the 52 cards project, but hoping to catch up in the next couple of weeks. Meanwhile, treat yourself to a bit Anastasia Stashkevich and Yonah Acosta in Talisman Pas de Deux. I’ve got a recording that I prefer over this one in musical terms, where the orchestra takes more time over the juicy moments, but this is one of the nicest videos.

A year of playing cards #19: A medley of (double) jigs (6h)

Image of the double jig medley

A medley of double jigs: click to download the score

I’m a few weeks behind, not least because it’s that time of year when everyone has a show, or is preparing for one. I thought that while I had O’Neill’s 1001 open (see previous post), I’d fill another gap: jigs. Good job I did, because I ended playing for a lot of children’s classes recently, and boy, do you need jigs for that. Skips, galops, horses, they all need jigs (particularly the kind called the “double jig”). I hadn’t quite finished this set when I suddenly needed it for a skipathon, and – as has happened a few times already – I became one of the most grateful users of my own 52 cards project.

Make mine a double: the difference between a single and a double jig

If you need jigs at all in a class, double ones seem to be better than singles almost all of the time (double jigs are the one with the continuous 8th notes and slightly slower than single jigs, which—like Humpty Dumpty Sat on a Wall—alternate between long and short notes). I think it’s because they are (sorry about this) truly triple. By that I mean they’re not just 4/4 with a bit of a lilt, the melody actually moves in 3 (see an earlier post, And now for something completely sextuple for a fuller explanation). I can’t really identify what my criteria are for choosing these jigs rather than the many, many others in O’Neill’s 1001, except I like the ones that sound a bit like a The frost is all over that I heard on a friend’s album when I was a teenager – I think it was Planxty, but it might have been The Chieftains. I couldn’t resist including the jiggy version of Green Sleeves. The Vaughan Williams version is lovely, but it could do with a rest.

Harmonising these tunes for the piano is not as easy as it you’d think it ought to be, and I change my mind several times no sooner than I’ve put down a version. It helps to listen to some bands playing the tunes. Guitarists often use fewer chord changes than you’d be tempted to make on the piano, and bassists make particular shapes with their bass lines. Here’s a version of the first of the set The Joy of My Life. 

A year of ballet playing cards #47: A tango by Tárrega

Tango by Tárrega: image of the sheet music

The tango by Tárrega: click to download the sheet music

Short and sweet today, a little tango by Tárrega that is barely arranged at all from the original guitar piece. It’s tempting to fill it out (and I probably would a little in class, by doubling the bass occasionally, and doubling the thirds of the tune in the left hand where possible). On the other hand, part of the appeal of the piece is its simplicity. I kept changing my mind about whether the first tune would sound better an octave lower or not. I think you could probably experiment with playing the first half an octave lower, and the second half an octave higher.

The cool and restrained tango, for a change

It was also tempting to cover the piece with Grainger-esque articulations and dynamics to try and mimic the touch of the guitar, but thought it might look a bit presumptuous. It was also tempting to pimp it up Godowsky-style. To play a piece like this, which has so little in it, is hard to do well, whereas the Godowsky arrangement of the Albéniz Tango has voluptuousness built into it, so it sounds pretty good even if you don’t play it well. To make the original, much thinner piece sound like something, you have to work much harder, and so it is with this. I figured that you can fill it out yourself, if you want.

The reason for choosing this unassuming piece is because the holy grail for the ballet pianist searching for new repertoire is the “tango”-that-isn’t-a-tango, the kind that teachers request for battements fondus, and which also work well for slow tendus, because they have a perpetual feeling of in-and-out in their rhythm.  This piece is in the right area, I think. If nothing else, it’s a lesson in less-is-more. The reason improvised tangos often don’t sound effective is because there’s a temptation to throw every harmonic trick going at them, or fill them out with masses of chords, forgetting that the real thing tends to just toggle between dominant and tonic a lot of the time – the interest is in the rhythm, and the way it’s played.  It’s interesting that in the second half, the G major section, the peak of the phrase is every second bar, which creates an interesting tension between the metre and phrasing. So far, my favourite performance is the one in the clip below:

Tárrega: the bloke that composed that Nokia ringtone

I came across this  because I was going to upload a piano version of the Gran Vals by Tárrega, better know as the Nokia tune/Nokia waltz/Nokia ringtone  as this week’s card. (My thanks to the student who told me it was originally by Tárrega). It would have been fun, but the more I looked at it, the less I could see how it could be useful in class, except for the fact that the last four bars (the ringtone) happen to be in truly triple metre, whereas the rest isn’t, so it would be great for an exercise that needed detail at the end of the phrase, or to slow down as you turned around on the barre or something. But the truth is, there is little use for the bog-standard waltz in class, because it’s essentially duple metre with triple subdivision. So apart from the increasingly rare occasion where a teacher actually asks you for a “little waltz” during tendus, say, there’s no reason to fill your toolbox with them (it’s probably full of them anyway).