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Playing a polonaise is like saying this word 64 times in succession
Playing a polonaise is like saying this word 64 times in succession

It’s not polonaises that I hate, so much as polonais-ing. Playing a polonaise on the piano is on a par with sanding a dozen sash windows by hand, or scanning 150 pages of articles from books which won’t quite fit on the scanner. If God had intended man to play polonaises on the piano, he would have given us mechanical jack-hammers instead of left hands.

There are some polonaises which I quite like – the one from the end of Theme and Variations (the final bit of the 3rd orchestral suite by Tchaikovsky), but polonaising in the ballet class sense means taking everything that I like about a work like that (starting with the fact that I’d rather listen to it than play it) away from the experience. Gone is the long lead up to the big tune, the orchestral sound, the rubato, the changes in mood and tempo, the developmental bits, the odd phrases.

The grand sweep, the nobility, the spectacle, all emasculated into a RUMP-ti-ti-tum-tum-TUM in the middle of the piano, the left hand barely making it from one repeated chord sequence to the next, the right tripping over notes that were designed to be bowed on a violin, not picked out on a keyboard. It will – in my hands, at least – resemble a ‘polonaise’ as much as a car-park in Dorset resembles Lapland.

I could go on. And I will. Add to that the fact that Polonaises are all about ceremonious, processional stepping in ball attire. And in the ballet class? The purely metrical features of the music are extracted and exploited in order to do an ‘Up and a point and close’ grand battement exercise, like using your child as a draught-excluder because it’s about the size of a door-frame when laid flat.

And so it was that in one of our many classes together, Chris set an exercise, came to the piano and said ‘That’s a…’ and then just ‘tutted’ and rolled his eyes heavenward, meaning – of course – a polonaise. I use that example whenever I teach teachers as an example of how good communication isn’t about uttering more and more words and subject-specific vocabulary.

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Jonathan Still, ballet pianist