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The Guards Association Band playing a you-know-what in Leicester Square, 2004.
The Guards Association Band playing a you-know-what in Leicester Square, 2004.

In the years that I’ve been playing for student ballet teachers, I’ve always found the notion of asking for ‘dance rhythms’ a bit silly, unless dance rhythms are your thing. Fine, if you’d rather have a mazurka than a waltz, and you know that for sure, but if you don’t know a hornpipe from a tailpipe, or a polonaise from a Polynesian, asking a musician (who may not have a clue either) for such things is not going to help anyone. It’s also needless, if you’ve already indicated tempo, rhythm, metre and dynamics in your voice.

What makes it worse is that dance rhythms tend to be specific to certain periods or styles – if you’re an early dance person, then you’ll be OK with galliards, branles and pavanes, and if you like ballroom, you’ll know a cha-cha-cha from a paso doble. 19th century specialists will be able to tell a polka from a galop, and a mazurka from a polka mazurka. But to roll all these (and more) into a multi-cultural heap and ask a student ballet teacher to take their pick is asking for trouble.

As I’m known to rant on about this at length, it’s a favourite pastime of friends who know me well, to come over to the piano during class and say ‘Can I have that on a…’ followed by something absurd.

The worst example – so bad, that even thinking about it made me laugh so much I had to pull over and park in Kingsway in case I crashed the car – comes from Chris (again).

“It would be funny, wouldn’t it” he said with a quiet giggle, “if a teacher were to mark an exercise like this…and then say ‘can I have that on a MARCH!

bellowing the word ‘march’ with all the force of a psychopathic sergeant major in a parade ground. I could – and would rather like to – write a dissertation on how and why the humour works. There’s the simple element of surprise  – the sentence itself was an analogue of the andante from Haydn’s “Surprise” symphony.

But, as in the last blog entry, it’s also about the humour of recognition. What are ‘marches’, bombastic music  for armies of gun-toting men, doing in a ballet class? We say ‘march’, but we mean a kind of feminized, theatrical, educational march, not the real thing. As soon as the real thing enters the sentence – it’s absurdly out of place.

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Jonathan Still, ballet pianist