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A honey-spoon. Collect musical honey-spoons for those rainy days when you might need them.
Collect musical honey-spoons for those rainy days when you might need them.

Repertoire for ballet class: the problem of threes

A ballet teacher friend asked me a question at a party about an exercise that he’d set in a class that day – he just couldn’t get the right music for it. (Sadly, this is what happens at ballet teacher parties after a couple of glasses).  I was 90% sure I knew what the problem was going to be before he showed it, and sure enough I was right.  It was a  jump in 3, but there was detail in the step that needed room between each of the three beats of the bar. Waltzes and (some) mazurkas have a lilt to them which compress the beats, so although it’s just possible to make the step fit, it feels wrong. “Is it my exercise?” asked the teacher. No, it’s the music.

The first piece that came to mind to solve the problem was Marionettes from Glazunov’s Scènes de Balletwhich has a metronomically stable 3-in-a-bar (in 3/8), held together by the continuous semiquaver motion in the right hand. When I say ‘held together’, actually, it’s more like the beats are held apart by the semiquavers, the musical equivalent of webbed feet.

A strong metrical accent is achieved by the triplet on the first beat of each pair of bars, and importantly, at the same time as giving the accent, it slightly lengthens the beat, whereas in a mazurka or viennese waltz, the temptation would be to slightly shorten it.  Again, the effect is to maintain space (for dancing) between the beats. Those triplets have the effect of making this piece a kind of a 6, rather than a waltz, so your perception of the music stays at the ‘steppy’ level, it doesn’t drift into the 8-count phrase that holds it together at a higher level.  What the teacher wanted out of the exercise – detailed footwork in 6 – is built into the structure of the music, the design doesn’t allow you to drift.

It’s not that I have an encyclopaedic store of repertoire that I can search like a computer when these problems arise. I just have a collection of ‘weird’ stuff that I put in a musical cupboard for later.  I was searching for a word for these one day, talking to Christopher Hampson.  ‘The baroque hornpipe’, I said, ‘is one of those pieces that’s really useful when you need…’. Chris jumped in with his usual unfathomably fast mot juste: ‘…a honey-spoon?’

“Musical honeyspoons” — oddball music repertoire for ballet class

Yes. That’s what they are, musical honey-spoons, implements that are only useful for one thing, but good to have just for that one thing when it occurs. Many of them happen to be triple meter – check out an earlier post on that topic, if you’re interested., which  Here are a few musical things I think are  worth having in your collection.

  • Hornpipes in 3
  • Triple jigs
  • Quick, light, jumpy polonaises (the opposite of the processional Chopin ones) like Swedish polskas, or boleros, like the one from I Vespri Siciliani (page 251 in this score). 
  • Things in 12 bar phrases
  • Slow music in 3 sets of 8 or 16 (for those adages or pliés which only need 3, rather than 4 sets)
  • Things in five that have five beats in a bar, as opposed to music like Take Five which is more about irregular pulses. The valse à cinq temps is the search term here.
  • Grand allegro music that’s in 3, but has an accent every bar, rather than every two bars (the coda to Diane and Acteon is the classic example)
  • Things in a slow 3 that have lots of notes in so that they bear being played slowly. See a previous blog about the Redowa from Les Patineurs. 
  • Really slow waltzes, for the person that wants a waltz, but doesn’t want it to be a waltz. La plus que lente, for example. ‘English waltz’ or ‘valse Anglaise’, valse lente are all useful search terms, but not everything comes so handily labelled. But it does help you find a page like this, which lists smoochy waltzes for French weddings.

Repertoire for ballet class: Have a system for collecting and tagging it

It’s not that you go looking for these things, you just stick them in your collection when you find them. What I’ve now started doing is to keep a spreadsheet at Google Docs for ‘pieces worth remembering’. I’ll put the name of the piece, a link to Youtube or wherever I’ve found the music, and a short description of why it’s useful. I started doing this after I had to trawl back through 800+ pieces of music looking for the one that I knew I’d found one day that was in 12 bar phrases (I needed an alternative to something that was already in 12). If only I’d kept notes…

See also: A year of ballet playing cards: 52 free pieces of sheet music to download for ballet class


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Jonathan Still, ballet pianist