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cheese_shop.jpgThis is day 10 in my 2007 Advent Calendar. This year, I’m giving the
story behind some of the music that I’ve collected for ballet classes.
All the pieces are on Studio Series Vol. 4 published by RAD

Playing for class is so easy if you just listen to what dancers tell you. They’ve been doing class since they were knee-high to a rosin-box, and if they can’t tell you a few things about what works for them and what doesn’t musically, who can?

When I first started learning my trade (at the RAD, as it happens) I used to find it difficult to know what to play. For one thing, there was a mass of specially written music for class that fell into no genre or style I recognised which I imagined one had to imitate; but then if you did imitate it, you might just as well have been generating white noise for all the effect it had on anyone (including yourself). Then there were some teachers who put on their best ‘inspired’ look (gazing aspirationally at an imaginary dress circle. like Elizabeth Schwarzkopf on a record cover) and say ‘Adage. One and a 2. Three and a 4. Five and a siiiiiiix, seven. Eight. Thank you Jonathan. AND.’, as if those numbers were so replete with meaning, emotion and musical clues that you could not fail but to pluck some appropriate piece from your musical hat.

What a relief, then, when the (then) Laban teacher Michelle Groves walked into the studio, and with a laid-back Australian directness that I have got so used to, I’ve probably forgotten to appreciate it properly, said “Ok. Tendus. [Singing] ‘Old McDonald had a farm, ee-i-ee-i-oh. And on that farm he had some…”. It was the first time that I realised that class didn’t have to involve mental torture while you fished around for music that sounded like ‘ballet class’ music.

I didn’t see Michelle again for about another 14 years when I finally I returned to the Academy, and by chance, she returned the same year. One day, we were talking about adage (probably about a mutual hatred of it, or of adage music) when she said ‘I like setting adage to My Way’. It’s odd that I’d never really thought of this before – but again, it’s one of those things that is so popular and well known, you don’t even consider it: blindingly obvious.

What I like about ‘My Way’ is that for anyone who doesn’t ‘get’ opera, it’s the nearest thing to an aria that everyone knows. It has all the characteristics of an aria without actually being one, so it’s a brilliant way of introducing lyricism, vocal expression & phrasing and drama and the whole concept of adage without really feeling like you’re doing it. It has a direct connection to all the 19th century arias, balletic adages, Chopin nocturnes and other things that people play for class, but has none of the historical baggage. In common with other popular ballads it does its whole emotional display in 32 counts, which is what you need for class. The trouble with serious music (think of the Liebestod, for example) is that as beautiful as it is, you can’t wait that long for the climax when you’ve only got a minute and a half to do the whole exercise.

So there it is, on the CD, for all those reasons, and also as a little tribute to the person who gave me the idea in the first place.

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Jonathan Still, ballet pianist