Playing for ballet class tips #23: Watch the teacher

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The advice to ‘watch the teacher’ is so obvious, it should have been one of the very first tips. But if there’s a reason I’ve hesitated so long, I think it’s because like many  apparently simple concepts, ‘watching the teacher’ turns out to be not that simple after all. Here are just a few things that ‘watching the teacher’ involves:

  • Sightlines: Set up the piano so you can see the teacher easily (and let them know that’s why you’re doing it)
  • Interpersonal skills: establish a relationship with the teacher such that they’ll know it’s worth looking over to you and giving you direction while you play (and that takes more than eye-contact – see ‘Talk to dancers‘ and ‘Talk to teachers‘)
  • Congeniality: be amenable to changing tempo (or even metre) during the exercise, rather than demanding to know everything in advance.
  • Simplicity: choose music that you can play or improvise so well that you can release most of your attention to communication with the teacher (see Play from memory)
  • Phrasing: choose music that communicates its structure clearly enough that the teacher can sense where they are in it (if they can’t tell that you’re getting to the end of a phrase, they can’t give you adequate warning you that they’d like you to make a repeat. See “Phrase clearly”  and “Make your intros clear”).
  • Modularity: Choose music that is modular in structure (like many fiddle tunes, popular songs or quadrilles, so that you can do the following  things easily:
    • go straight to the other side of an exercise or repeat it without stopping
    • add four bars between groups in the centre
    • add music for a balance or port de bras at the end of an exercise
    • stretch the tempo between sides at the barre to give time for dancers to turn and start again
    • repeat an exercise immediately, but faster
  • Alertness: Be aware of the directions that the teacher is giving to the class about the quality of movement required during an exercise, so that you can make small changes to articulation and accent as you play

If you’re prepared for all of this and get nothing back, then maybe you’re working for a teacher who doesn’t much mind whether they have a pianist or not.  But more likely, they’ve got so used to working with CD players that they’ve forgotten what it’s like to work collaboratively and spontaneously. You have to work hard to remind them, and the first step towards that is eye-contact.

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