Playing for ballet class tip #2: It’s all about the left hand, not the right

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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.

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