Playing for ballet class tips #14: Make your intros clear

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The introduction to the mazurka from Swan Lake.

One of the ironies of playing for class is that you often feel unsure of what you’re doing until the exercise has started, because until that moment, all you’ve seen or heard is the teacher marking it. Yet what everyone in the room needs from you, in order to show you the exercise full out, is absolute security about the tempo, the dynamics, and most importantly, when to come in.

What’s more, the only way to get useful feedback from the teacher in the space of the introduction as to whether you’re on the right track or not, is to let them know in advance exactly what you intend to do when the exercise begins. And for that to happen, you need to have made your mind up what you’re going to do before you  lay a finger on the keyboard, so that the teacher can infer your tempo and style from the first two beats/bars/counts of the intro.

It’s counterintuitive, particularly if you’re not very experienced, or don’t feel very confident. But you have to have the courage to be wrong with all the confidence you can muster in the introduction, otherwise it’s a wasted opportunity.

The score on the left is the introduction to the mazurka from Swan Lake. No fancy clever stuff here, it’s just foolproof, functional intro writing: the D7 chords tell you eight times that you’re about to fall off the harmonic precipice; the rhythmic pattern for the mazurka is banged out like a drum in the first two bars, the 1/4 note tempo is hammered out in the 3rd and 4th;  the melodic line leaves you in no doubt where you’re going, and how long it’s going to take, and reiterates the D7 yet again; the flourish on the anacrusis throws you like a breaking wave into the tune.

Here are a few more tips about introductions:

  • A rule of thumb is to assume that everything will have four in, unless you’re told otherwise. Don’t keep asking how many counts in if the teacher doesn’t tell you. Pick a number and do it clearly and consistently, and they’ll go with you.
  • Once you’ve set up the tempo, land on your first beat exactly on time. No fancy hesitation, rits, or waiting for the dancer to do something. You have to lead, not follow.
  • Keep intros simple so that you can use your maximum attention on fixing the tempo with the teacher, rather than on composing  an elaborate melodic vorspiel. 
  • Aim for maximum clarity, using every rhythmic, harmonic and melodic device to let your dancers know when the beginning of the exercise is coming. This is particularly true when teachers ask for just two in for an exercise.
  • If an exercise is going to be in a relatively slow three (polonaise, slow waltz), go for two bars intro, but make it abundantly clear that this is what your doing, using harmonic/melodic implications.

Teachers vary as to how much musical direction they give, and some can be absolutely bang-on with tempo and rhythm, but that’s quite rare.  More often, mutuality is the key:  the teacher gives you as good a guide as they can, you offer something back that’s as good an estimate as you can offer, and between you, you find the tempo. And as nice as it is to have clear direction all the time, it’s those times where you have to use your judgement and take a risk that you strengthen your own sense of tempo.



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