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Links to Mosco Carner's book on the waltz at the Internet Archive
Illustration from Mosco Carner’s book on the waltz

This is day 2 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. 

Nine times out of ten, the secret of being a good dance pianist is to concentrate on what your left hand is doing rather than your right.  As pianists, we tend to obsess over the right hand because that’s where the difficult fingering, the splashy runs, the big melodies are. And while you’re doing that, you start to do terrible things with the left because you think no-one will notice or care.

But in dance music, the most important thing is to set up a vital, secure, infectious rhythm that implies movement. What looks so easy on paper (it’s just a bass note and two chords, right?) needs to be imagined carefully with reference to the musical reality it’s trying to represent. Let’s say it’s a Strauss waltz. Imagine the double bass section – how many of them are there? One? Two? Six? Are they playing pizzicato or arco? If it’s pizzicato, imagine the care with which they pluck the string to get it on just the right part of the beat. If it’s arco, how long are the notes? What gesture has the conductor made to them to get the right kind of sound?

Now to those chords. Whose playing them, and how? Strings? Pizzicato, arco? Horns? Harp? What do they have written in their parts – a tenuto and a staccato with a phrase mark over the two off-beats? Two down-bows? Whatever they do, they’ll be listening for that first note from the basses, so that they place the second beat at the right time, and the two off-beats will have a different timbral quality to the downbeat. It’s in a different section of the orchestra.

I can guarantee that if you start thinking like this from the introduction onwards, you’ll have people listening to you and locking in to your beat with pleasure, whereas nobody will know or  care whether you played that tune in octaves or single notes, or whether you missed that grace note in bar 7.  As you start thinking this way, your right hand may start to fall apart, because although you thought the left hand was easy, in fact you had no idea what your musical intentions were until now.

This isn’t something you learn once and never forget. I have to remind myself of it daily – and I’m writing this as a note-to-self, so that I never again make a recording (like I did recently) where I play each bar of a four bar introduction differently, none of them correct.

The picture on this post is from Mosco Carner’s The Waltz, an old and dated and utterly wonderful book. It’s free at the Internet Archive.

5 thought on “Playing for ballet class tip #2: It’s all about the left hand, not the right”
  1. Great to know about these! I’m playing Apollo by Stravinsky at the moment, may I ask, in a very contrapuntal section, is it better to leave out one line completely, if art of it can’t be rearranged to either hands? Thank you!

    1. Oh, Apollo! That was the first piece I played on tour with ENB many years ago. I remember those pesky contrapuntal bits! Is it a particular section you have in mind with your question, or just generally?
      My thinking these days to listen to a few recordings—a few, because what you can hear varies so much depending on the performance and the recording techniques—and ask the question the other way round, i.e. what do I absolutely have to play in order to give a sense of the music, as it seems to me. Sometimes I find that what on paper looks like a really important contrapuntal thing that needs to be brought out just recedes into texture when you’re listening. And in the end, if you’re going to perform it, you have to ask yourself what is actually possible to play under stress.

      1. Thank you Jonathan for your suggestions! I”m particularly thinking of the Pas d’action, especially the bit from figure 35.

        As it is for an audition, obviously, I’m trying to impress by playing as many lines as possible — putting the intertwined melodies up front, while adding as many lines on top of that as possible, but after so much practice, I still find it so tricky for the fingers and my train of thoughts following particular lines gets interrupted by the difficulty of moulding my fingers around the key… as to my understanding the priority is to keep a steady tempo but the technical difficulty disturbs it….I’ve listened to many recordings, concerts not ballet performances, as I could only find one with ballet by POH. The good recording quality meant that I could clearly hear every single line, where as the POH version I can quite often only hear the top and bass line…for example at figure 36 there is a main melody in the middle voice (which i find so tricky to play in time and get my fingers around the keys), but I couldn’t hear that in POH version, while the top line and bass cello swells are very audible… I have been changing my voicing everyday, couldn’t come to a perfect conclusion….I thought of missing it out, but fear for the playing to be not as ‘impressive’

      2. Apollo, from 35
        I just dug out my score from back then to see which bit you meant, and I can see it caused me similar problems! It’s interesting you talk about your “train of thoughts following particular lines”— in a way, I think you just have to focus on the technical problems, because if you think too much about the performance you’d like to give, that diminishes the one you’re actually giving. I know exactly what you mean (which is why I coloured all the lines for myself), but I think I’d aim to make the top line sing as much as possible, keep the harmony intact as you can, and as you say, keep the tempo going, and hint at the inner lines as much as you can but don’t let the difficulty of producing them pull you away from delivering the overall sense—let it go, if you have to. There’s a bit in Nicholas Cook’s Music, Imagination, and Culture where he describes a piece by Schumann that is built on canonic imitation [I’ll fine the quote another time] — but he says that he never noticed that for years, and whether it really matters for the pianist to bring that out is questionable. Likewise here, the effort to bring out individual lines independently (which is an impossibility) may not be worth the trouble! Don’t assume that I actually did what I was aiming for on paper, either 😉

  2. Hahaha absolutely amazing to see your score and to know that someone also used a pink pen to outline the voice! I have came to find, just the morning, that if I focus more on reproducing the singing quality of the strings and sink more into the keys, musicality helps to overcome the technical difficulty. In the meantime because it produces richer sound, like you said, some counterpoint just becomes texture rather than those multiple lines which I struggled to trace. 😀

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Jonathan Still, ballet pianist