Playing for ballet class tips #15: Talk to dancers

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I owe pretty much everything I know about playing for class to dancers, something I’ve already blogged about in my 2005 ‘Dance Inspirations’ Advent calendar. Even with teachers, it’s when they were talking about their experience as dancers that was most useful. Although this is mostly relevant to playing for open or company classes, the principle works all the way down, to some extent.

Dancers, rather than teachers, are your main audience. It certainly helps to play music that inspires your teacher, but in the end, there’s no point in playing the teacher’s favourite music if it has no effect on the ones doing the class.  And one of the first things you find by talking to dancers is that music affects people different ways, and being a ‘good accompanist’ is not finding exactly the right thing to play for an exercise according to some system or method, but offering enough choices to the class that there’s something for everyone, and having the judgement to play the right thing for a particular moment – a kind of phronesis, maybe.

This dancer hates Gerswhin, but loves Shostakovich; this one hates Shostakovich, but loves it when you play bits of ballet repertoire; this one hates it when you play ballet repertoire, but loves musicals; this one hates musicals and wishes you’d play Mozart; this one hates Mozart but loves it when you play Balkan music; this one wishes you would improvise because they don’t like to be distracted by stuff they know; this one wants music they know to distract them from the pain they’re feeling today. This one loves opera, that one loves Edith Piaf, that one loves film music. This one likes to be woken up by huge, dramatic, full-on emotional music for pliés, that one has a hangover and wants to be left alone with quiet, soothing music.

Those examples are all real – they’re all things that I’ve heard talking to dancers in green rooms, at parties or at the piano between exercises. It’s liberating, because it relieves you of the need to get it right all the time.  If you can find music that has meaning for dancers as a group, that they feel belongs to them as a community of dancers, that is wonderful. But it’s rare. More often, it’s about picking off particular people one by one – this is for you, this is for you, and that’s for you. And OK, this is for the teacher.

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