Playing for ballet class tips #17: Composing and improvising

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Today I’m delighted to have a guest blog by Andy Higgs, friend, composer and musician who’s currently company pianist at Ballett am Rhein in Düsseldorf. This all came about because he asked if I was going to do something about composing for class. I said that I was going to, but more as a footnote – because I think that class is all about working within rules, conventions and constraints, and as such has much more to do with improvisation than ‘composition’ in the usual sense of the word. But who better to talk about composing than a composer who plays for class? So I asked Andy if he’d be willing to be a guest expert blogger.  As it happens, what he’s written touches on a whole bunch of  issues that lie at the heart of playing for class, and I believe (as I think he does) that it’s holding those different things in constant tension that make a good accompanist, and that’s about as good a tip as you can get about this job.  The improvisation/composition point he raises at the end is a whole other topic, so I’m going to deal with that tomorrow!

Guest blog by Andy Higgs:


I am writing this as I have just played for class and so the thoughts and feelings are fresh in my mind. I was observing myself reacting to the ballet mistress’s requirements and trying to consider exactly how composing original music can be a help as well as a hinderance for class.

If you are a composer, I think it is an excellent idea to have a few of your own creations to add to your repertoire. Good ballet accompaniment requires some variety, and there is room for completely new music within that. The unspoken rule of good party music is something for everyone – not listening to a Madonna CD in its entirety – and I think it is healthy to approach ballet class in the same way. Playing a class entirely of my own music would be a mistake, and teachers who use CDs tend to like to mix and match and not rely on only one for the whole class. I noticed today that the best decision I made after playing something quite experimental for pliés – a piece I had sketched a few days earlier – was to launch immediately into a jazzy Irving Berlin tune for tendus, because it completely altered the atmosphere in the room.

This evening I was playing a short 45 mins warm-up before the performance, and the  dancers usually appreciate a bunch of fun tunes to help them relax or lift their spirits before the show. For daily training in the studio, however, there is room for experimentation, and if you are lucky enough to work with an appreciative director and dancers who like to be challenged, then it is a great opportunity to try out some of your own creations. Playing for ballet often involves throwing yourself into it with the focus being on momentum, energy and expression and it can be a good way to come up with ideas that you can work into proper pieces later. The way ballet is constructed made me think a lot about how music is put together in the simple ways I’d forgotten about at music college, where I’d learnt to obsess over pitch and trying to sound original.

In my experience this experimentation in the studio is more helpful than sitting at a desk and trying to come up with something suitable using my composing brain. There is always that feeling of, ‘it doesn’t quite fit’, when I do this. It is different if you have written and recorded a CD of your music, as the teacher is likely to prepare exercises to the music at home, but expecting your composition to just work to something in morning class isn’t always realistic, especially with very imaginative teachers. A good ballet pianist won’t just play Gershwin’s Stairway to Paradise  for grands battements, they will play their own version of it, responding to the important rhythmic elements of the exercise. Similarly, I find I have to adapt my compositions slightly to make them suitable. From this perspective it is the ability to improvise, adapt and be spontaneous that remain the most valuable skills in the ballet studio.

Also, ballet has an insatiable appetite for music and devours everything that comes into its path, and anyone who has tried writing for class will know that music – which can take hours to write – disappears in a matter of seconds. It’s gone. You have to compose some more. It could take a fairly industrious composer maybe a month to write an hour and a half of music for one class, and even then, how often are you going to use it (the exception being, of course, if it was written for official syllabus work)? You’d need vast amounts of music as you’d soon tire of playing these pieces. Certainly 64 bars of composed music for a Grand Valse is not going to get you very far playing for company class. Even if you have something composed as a foundation, you will soon find yourself having to launch into something else, or extemporise around the piece to keep it sounding fresh. Sounding stale and uninspiring is possibly a ballet accompanist’s biggest fear and I have noticed that this is more likely to happen if I rely too much on one system of playing (for example if I only improvise, or if I only play show tunes). The more tricks I have up my sleeve to get out of this sticky situation the better.

I think there is a certain confidence and completeness about a nicely worked composition that is difficult to achieve with improvisation, which has a risk factor which can work for or against you. But what is required in the ballet studio is very different. It is changeable from moment to moment, and it would make the job less enjoyable by attempting to solve this problem with only one approach to the music making.

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