Playing for ballet class tips #1: Listen to yourself and the room

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The Christmas tree at Elmhurst. It’s HUGE.

This is day 1 in my 2012 Advent Calendar. I’m blogging about playing for ballet classes. I call the posts ‘tips’, because possibly what I learned along the way might be useful. There’s no reason why my experience should be like yours, but you never know. 

If you play for class a lot, it’s easy to get into a habit of being so focused on what the dancers are doing, and what the teacher wants, that you stop listening to the sound you’re making. Playing becomes a kind of mindless typing, except you don’t know what you’ve written.  Your hands fall on the piano keys, letting gravity decide what kind of a sound comes out. Notes fall out of your fingers like water from a leaking ship.

There’s only one way to stop this, and that’s to listen. Not just to yourself, but to the room – how much sound are you making? How much does the studio need? Have you so filled the room with noise that no-one can actually hear anything any more? When you listen, is it just one huge wash of undifferentiated sound? What noise is there when you stop?

One of the best tips about playing I ever had was from a (dance) teacher and movement coach for actors. He said ‘Imagine there’s a small child in that corner [at the far end of the studio], and you’ve got to try and cheer them up with your music.’

Apart from engaging your heart and soul in the process of making music, it also changes your focus. Perhaps what you need is less volume but more articulation. More legato, or less pedal. More interest, more variety. Anything, in fact, but the kind of amorphous  ‘ballet noise’ that  you might have been making up til now.

The good news is that the more you play less, the easier it is to do more. If you have moments where you bring everything down a notch, the teacher (usually) says less, and when you need to give volume, it’s less effort. The more there is to listen to, the more people listen. And if they don’t, well, at least you did it for yourself.

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