Daily Archives: December 7, 2012 8:15 am

Playing for ballet class tips #7: Listen to orchestral recordings


These blog posts make me sound like I know what I’m talking about. But they’re actually a catalogue of the mistakes I’ve made, and what I learned from them. One of my worst mistakes (and I still make it) is to focus on trying to play a piano reduction before I know what the orchestral original sounds like. It’s a stupid thing to do, because it’s usually a liberating experience. You get a feeling for the grand sweep, colour and drama of the music, which relieves you of the need to play every note on the page as if you’re entering an exam. You hear what’s focal, what’s marginal, and what’s not heard at all. Sometimes that means doing more than what’s on the page, sometimes less.

If ever there was an example of what I mean, it’s the Silver Fairy variation from Sleeping Beauty Act III.

Silver Fairy: Grace notes? Don’t waste your energy.

I bet I’m not the only pianist who’s detested this solo in its piano reduction (above).  You can’t move for those pesky grace notes everywhere – you can’ t play the tune or the accompaniment without being told ‘Play this! Play that! Embellish this! Prettify that!” Not even Czerny would have written a grace note study that was so dastardly to play.

But now listen to the original orchestral version  (click the image on the left to see the score – pg.99 onwards) – can you actually hear the grace notes in the right hand at all? No. Because they’re not there. They’re an attempt to reproduce the glockenspiel E flats which are on the beat, not in front of it. As for the ones in the left, they’re inaudible as musical detail – piano offbeats in the violins. What you get by listening to the recording is a sense of the overall point of the variation which is that it’s a pretty little polka-ish thing with a piano solo in it. What you want to hear is that solo, more than anything, so if you mess around trying to play those grace notes, you’re obscuring the point of the piece, and making your life needlessly difficult.