A year of ballet playing cards #6 (S6): A barcarole for port de bras

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Music for port de bras, anyone?

One of the things that has slowed down this 52 cards project is my dearth of new ideas for adage or port de bras. I was delighted, then, to come across this the other day, which I kind of knew, but had never considered for class before. I love it, but I have a feeling this one is going to stay in everyone’s cupboard for a long time, because in my experience, it’s very rare for teachers to set exercises with this kind of tempo and metre. I wish they would though, because this is such lovely, emotive, expressive music, so well known from films (I noticed it in The Father with Antony Hopkins and Olivia Colman, but it’s also in The Man Who Cried, in a beautiful version with piano provided by the Labèque sisters), and from dozens of performances in popular classics concerts.

The complexities of simplicity

I’ve put it in the “Spades” category (see explanatory page), which is my sock-drawer for music where the meter is irrelevant, because it’s the tune and feel that counts, and you’re not looking for foot-stomping beats, i.e. this is adage/port de bras territory. However, I can’t help being fascinated by how this apparently simple piece is metrically very difficult to sort out, starting with the fact that Bizet probably should have notated it in 12/8 rather than 6/8. For that reason, this would make a great piece to use for a class on why you shouldn’t get hung up on time signatures: it’s in 2, 4, 6, and 12 all at once, but the shape of the phrase always outdoes the metrical accent.

The first time I tried it out, I couldn’t decide what introduction I should give. The motif in the accompaniment takes four counts, so giving one bar feels like it’s not enough. But if you give two, that’s 8 counts, which feels like too many. Or is it a slow four (i.e. each bar is 1 and 2 and etc.)? This is one of the reasons that I smell danger with this piece. I was chatting about all this to a colleague who was watching the class, and he said the music felt “very anacrusis-y”—in other words, each bar (or more accurately, hypermeasure—i.e. four count unit) seems to be a bowl of upbeats of increasing urgency, rather than having a feeling of settledness. There’s something in that, I think.

I’m intrigued by why this apparently simple music doesn’t sound banal or predictable. I was astonished to find that it was actually in regular eight-bar phrases, and have double-checked yet again, even though I’ve recorded it and input the score. I still don’t trust my ears and eyes. I think it’s that high B towards the end—it seems to come out of nowhere, or rather in the middle of nowhere, though it’s actually on the final count of an eight-count phrase. For health and safety reasons, I’ve tamed the fermata into a tenuto in my ballet class version (“I say tenuto to Bizet’s fermata“) but one day, you’ll be playing for an exercise where that fermata coincides exactly with a potentially huge hold in the movement, and people will think you’re a genius for finding the perfect music.

Metrical accent versus expressive accentuation

When I recorded this, I didn’t notice that even though that note is the highest note in the piece, has a fermata on it, and is like the the crest of an enormous wave, it’s marked pianissimo, and is the unaccented end syllable of the word ivresse (intoxication, or drunkenness). A masterclass in how to get a point across through understatement.

More than any other piece that I’ve played for class, I think, this one demonstrates the independence of melodic or expressive accent from metrical accent. I’m indebted to an article on this by Nicholas Baragwanath , for clarifying my thinking on this. It seems obvious that ballet is essentially different to music, but reading Baragwanath’s article about text-setting in Italy, you realize that even within music, you can have two (or more) planes of accentuation that are not blood-relatives, so to speak. That’s what’s going on in that bar with the high B in: metrical accent is all but irrelevant. In theory, this should be a “weak” accent, but it’s got a fermata and a high note on it; but then, it’s marked pianissimo, and is given to a weak syllable. Nonetheless, you feel a huge, intense “accent” but not in the sense that word usually implies.

It’s this kind of thing that makes music (and dance) interesting, and I suppose we’re getting near to working out here what one definition of being “musical” might be—finding the meaningful high point in a phrase, and deciding how you’re going to play it (or dance it).

One of the key points of my recent chapter in the Oxford Handbook of Time in Music is that when (music) teachers select musical examples to demonstrate principles of time signature, they tend to choose the ones that match the point they want to make, rather than deal with the multitude of anomalies that make life interesting and musical. I sometimes call them “problems in C major,” after that famous phrase supposedly used by Schoenberg—that there was still plenty of good music to be written in C major. Likewise, there are still plenty of musical problems in “C major,” as it were. This is one of those pieces.

Answers on a postcard please

I think this is potentially a great piece of music for class, but I would be willing to lay bets on the fact that I’ll rarely be able to use it. I suspect that too many years of pianists playing O mio babbino caro for adage has resulted in that metrical template being imprinted in ballet teachers’ brains so that they can’t think of anything else when they come to set an adage. So in the interests of changing the ballet world, one barcarole at a time, here’s a recording I made earlier. I’m really interested to hear (in the comments is best, so other people can read them too) what teachers think this music would be best for in a class, and why. I guess I need to add a proviso here: what I want to know is what immediately springs to mind, rather than what exercise you might choreograph to it once you’d got used to it.


Baragwanath, N. (2014). Giovanni Battista De Vecchis and the Theory of Melodic Accent from Zarlino to Zingarelli. Music and Letters, 95(2), 157–182. https://www.academia.edu/6056167/Giovanni_Battista_De_Vecchis_and_the_Theory_of_Melodic_Accent_from_Zarlino_to_Zingarelli
Posted in A Year of Ballet Playing Cards, Free sheet music for ballet class, Music | Tagged , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Me in conversation on a podcast

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Out today on the Ballet Piano Podcast, an interview I did a couple of years ago. I’d forgotten what we talked about until I listened to it. I was surprised to find that hearing myself talk about why I’d decided to do a PhD in what “music for ballet training” means, and how that affects what you teach and how. In it, I refer to an article by Howard Becker that I couldn’t remember the title of—but if you’re interested, it’s “The etiquette of Improvisation.

I love that article so much, I’ll quote the bit I was referring to in the podcast. The context (in case you never hear the podcast) is that we’re talking about the lessons you learn by just being scared witless in a ballet class, getting it wrong, and, metaphorically getting your fingers burnt. However much you prepare through research and preparation beforehand, you get neither the sense of urgency or achievement if you don’t sit in that chair. I feel there’s a comparison to be made there with the way that Becker talks about learning the etiquette of playing jazz with others:

No one taught us these rules, nor had we read them in an etiquette column in Downbeat. We learned them by quietly observing, as youngsters, what older players did, and noting what happened when someone (usually a novice or some other unsocialized type) failed to obey these rules. The grossest examples I ever saw of someone failing to follow these rules came years later when groups of sociologist-musicians played together at sociology conventions. A few of them had not had the years of playing in such sessions the rest of us shared and would break in on other people’s choruses before those players had finished their allotment and stop before they had finished their own. We never knew what to do with such people, believing that if someone didn’t know any better than that by now it was too late to try to teach them.

It sounds like I might be advocating learning through fear, surprise, and lack of preparation. I’m not. You need kindness, help, and a lot of preparation. But it’s amazing how much and how quickly you learn when you find out the rules of the game as you’re playing.

Also, since I talk a lot about what prompted me to look further into the whole question of why it seemed that teaching time signature as “music theory” for ballet teachers was so problematic, you might be interested in the (open access) article I wrote in the Empirical Musicology Review, How down is a downbeat? Feeling meter and gravity in music and dance. If you have access to Oxford Handbooks online, there is more where that came from: “The Politics of Musical Time in the Everyday Life of Ballet Dancers. I also wrote a chapter on music in Ballet: The essential guide to technique and creative practice which has, hidden in the cracks, some of the same ideas if you know where to look for them.


Becker, H. S. (2000). The Etiquette of Improvisation. Mind, Culture(3), 171–176. https://doi.org/10.1207/S15327884MCA0703_03
Jackson, J. (Ed.). (2021). Ballet: the essential guide to technique and creative practice. The Crowood Press.
Still, J. (2015). How Down is a Downbeat? Feeling Meter and Gravity in Music and Dance. Empirical Musicology Review, 10(1–2), 121–134. http://emusicology.org/article/view/4577
Still, J. (2021). The Politics of Musical Time in the Everyday Life of Ballet Dancers. In M. Doffman, E. Payne, & T. Young (Eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Time in Music. Oxford University Press. https://www.oxfordhandbooks.com/view/10.1093/oxfordhb/9780190947279.001.0001/oxfordhb-9780190947279-e-20
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Music, time and politics in the ballet studio

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Delighted to announce the online publication of my chapter in The Oxford Handbook of Time in Music, The Politics of Musical Time in the Everyday Life of Ballet Dancers. It’s about 10,000 words pondering the minutiae of counting schemes, music notation and ballet. The wider point I’m making is that music theory, such as it’s usually taught or learned in the ballet world, could do with a bit more detail about individual examples from repertoire. In ballet, as soon as you start looking, cracks and anomalies appear in the theory that actually make it more interesting and less confusing.

It came out of a paper with the same title that I gave at a conference called Making Time in Music at Oxford. I called it “The politics of musical time in the everyday life of ballet dancers” because it seemed then and now that in ballet, negotiations over time in music are a matter of everyday politics (my focus here is mainly about meter and counting, but it could easily be on tempo as well). My first article on this topic was called “How down is a downbeat,” and on reflection, I realize I could have called the second (i.e. the Oxford Handbook one) “How up is an upbeat?” since that’s what most of it boils down to. When I first started teaching, I think I believed that we all (dancers and musicians) lived in some kind of container of time that had the same properties, it was just a case of naming and describing them. What’s clearer to me now was that as the title of the conference suggested, we “make time” in different ways; and of course, we experience it in different ways too, even from one minute to the next.

One of the most satisfying things about ploughing this particularly weird corner of the ballet-music assemblage, is finding that although the music theory I’m referring too is much more complex and arcane than counting three in a bar, dancers and teachers immediately recognize and understand what I’m talking about because it’s closer to the kind of confusions and ambivalences that happen in everyday life.

Anyway, for those who have an institutional login to the Oxford Handbooks, the article is here.

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“On, Wisconsin!” and La Bayadère

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Leafing through Helena Wulff’s well-known ethnography of the professional ballet world, Ballet Across Borders for references to music, I found this story about a La Bayadère rehearsal at ABT:

At the American Ballet Theatre in a rehearsal of the act “The Kingdom of the Shades” in La Bayadère, one of the coaches asked a woman principal to ‘do “On Wisconsin.”‘ This is a series of soussus, when the woman dances on pointe on the diagonal of the stage, by opening and closing one leg with every step, to a fast, catching rhythm. To my question the the coach explained “we have called it that since school”; but he did not know the origin of the term. He thought that the music was an old folk-song.”

I love these ballet traditions, so I couldn’t let that go without a quick hunt around the web to see if I could trace the connection. Here it is (I think): On, Wisconsin! composed William Purdy in 1909, is now the state song of Wisconsin, but long before that it was the fight-song of the Wisconsin Badgers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and has been sung with various versions of the lyrics by thousands of schools.

On Wisconsin (Source: IMSLP [link to file])

And the bit in La Bayadère that the coach was referring to I think was probably this:

Souce: IMSLP (link to La Bayadère page there)

And if you want to sing along while watching the dance (for a second or two) here’s the step:

It should start at 29:43 automatically, but if it doesn’t, scroll through

I love asides like this, particularly when—as in this case—the reference is so specific to another culture, another company. That was partly the point that Wulff was making in this section of the book, that moments like this are part of what makes for a culture of belonging to a particular company. At ENB, the bit of the Act III pas de deux in Ronnie Hynde’s Coppélia where the viola circles around D C# E D | D C# E D before returning to the theme was known as “Mona Lisa.”

My favourite to date, though, is a bit in the 3rd act pas de deux in Prokofiev’s Cinderella (Christopher Wheeldon’s version). The dancers, who’d been rehearsed by Jackie Barrett, kept referring to a certain part as “Stevie Wonder.” It took me ages to realize that it was because of some tiny curlicue in the middle of a melody which was identical to the tune that goes with the words “isn’t she lovely” in the song of the same name. Rather like Diana Deutsch’s “speech to song illusion” once you’ve heard the allusion in the Prokofiev, you just can’t unhear the Stevie Wonder.


Wulff, H. (1998). Ballet across borders: Career and culture in the world of dancers. Berg.
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Please do not post my free downloads on Scribd: here’s why

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I’ve noticed a few of my 52 playing cards for ballet turning up on Scribd, and it’s annoying me. Look at the screenshot above of my transcription of the Pas de Deux from Le Talisman, and you’ll see what I mean. As with all the playing cards I’ve posted here, there is a notice saying clearly that the music is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share-Alike Non-Commercial licence. That means you’re free to share it, distribute it, rework it etc. but only under the same conditions that I made it available, i.e. free. Scribd is a commercial site that charges a monthly fee to access the material that people upload to it. If someone puts my arrangements on Scribd, it means that Scribd are getting income from material which shouldn’t be behind their paywall, and they’re also directing traffic away from my site, and on to Scribd, to get the same material.

I’ve looked into the form that Scribd give for notifying copyright violations, and apart from the fact that it seems you have to be a Scribd member to post it (which seems unfair?), the language they use is pretty litigious—e.g. that if you inform them of a violation that turns out not to be a genuine violation after all, they might take legal action against you. In the case of the 52 cards, I’m not willing to take that risk, because it’s not a clear case of copyright violation, it’s in some grey area that is hard to unravel.

I don’t think the pianists who’ve uploaded my Creative Commons music to Scribd mean anything bad by it, but in doing so, they are putting my free stuff behind a third-party paywall. This is against the spirit (and possibly the letter) of the licence on my 52 cards), and they’re directing traffic away from my site. I’ve paid for my own webhosting for 18 years so readers don’t have to endure third-party adverts on my site; I upload stuff for free with Share-Alike licences on it so it can be used freely in the contexts for which it was largely aimed, and I work at SEO so that if someone searches for something that I’ve arranged and posted, my site should be higher up the search engine results. At the moment, I’m seeing cases where Scribd are above me in the searches for MY material, and that’s a bit galling.

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New podcast series on folk tunes and Englishness

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As I’m slightly obsessed with fiddlers’ tune books, ever since I found that this is where I should have been looking all the time for all the gaps in my ballet class repertoire (see earlier post) I was thrilled to see that Dr Alice little from the Faculty of Music at the University of Oxford has teamed up with the English Folk Dance and Song Society(EFDSS) for a project on English Tunebooks of the Eighteenth Century. Today sees the launch of the first of three podcasts on the topic of Folk Tunes and Englishness. As a lot of my work now involves playing for period/early/historical dance (call it what you will), this is really useful stuff.

Episode 1 is called A History of English Folk Tunes, and has contributions from Jeremy Barlow (of the Broadside Band, and editor of the comprehensive edition of Playford’s English Dancing Master for Faber) Matt Coatsworth, and Becky Price of the band Boldwood. They discuss what might make a tune “English,” and how difficult that concept is when tunes travel (for example, between the north of England and Denmark) acquiring different names and subtle variations. If you’ve read this blog, you’ll know how far and wide, and for how long Bon Voyage, Cher Dumollet has travelled. Bon Voyage, indeed.

I was also nerdily thrilled to hear Becky Price say that playing for ceilidhs, she and her bandmates wanted to play 3/2 hornpipes, but people don’t tend to do those at ceilidhs, where the hornpipes are—as they are most other places—in 4/4. That’s one of the reasons they formed a band specifically to play these 17th and 18th century dance tunes where 3/2 hornpipes are a thing. I love them too (see another earlier post). The only other person I know for whom “hornpipe” means 3/2, is Mark Morris, as I wrote about in a post about the joys of playing for his class.

But the best part of the whole podcast was to finally discover the source of a fascinating theory that I heard about in a workshop years ago. It’s the kind of funny factoid I’d want read out at my funeral. In different editions of Playford’s Dancing Master, tunes appeared in one with sharpened leading notes, and in another without. One theory was that at a certain time, the printer simply ran out of sharps, so they were forced to leave them out. I love that theory so much I could eat it. I myself once published and recorded a hornpipe that I thought sounded really trendily Celtic and modal, only to hear it everywhere on Spotify played with sharpened 7ths. When I looked back at my sources, I realized I’d simply misread the key signature as one sharp instead of two. No mystery, no argument over authenticity or sources, just a stupid, schoolboy error. I’ve also let slip metronome marks that have a minim instead of a crotchet, leading to anxious emails, and who knows, frenetic performances. In his ballet Tantz-Schul, the composer Mauricio Kagel made a deliberate feature of the notational errors in the 1716 treatise by Gregorio Lambranzi New and Curious Theatrical School of Dancing by Gregorio Lambranzi, on which the ballet was based (see review in Gramophone).

So I have loved the theory ever since I heard about it, but never knew whose theory it was, or any more detail. Thanks to this podcast, I now know: it was Jeremy Barlow, in a paper for the Historical Dance Society in 2001, called “Tunes in the English Dancing Master 1651: John Playford’s Accidental Misprints?” [hyperlink will take you to the full text of the paper).

Another interesting talking point was the contribution of instrument design on tune notations: on a pipe that had no possibility of playing a leading note in the lower octave, it might be replaced with the 2nd above (in D, for example, that means D3-E3-D3 rather than the physically impossible D3-C#2-D3). Since so much of the character of tunes hangs on these cadential differences, it’s good to know that of all things, they are the most liable to alteration.

See also: Playford’s Dancing Master online, complete.

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