Playing for ballet class tips #25: respect the ritual

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Class has a ritual, liturgical quality to it, particularly in a company. It is daily, it happens at a particular time, with such religious regard for punctuality that a teacher will begin class without music, rather than be late. It must be done regardless of whether anyone feels like it, and there are rules and formalities to be observed. In companies or open classes especially, teachers are more like ‘celebrants’ or ‘officiants’ than teachers in the conventional sense of the word.  Experienced teachers have a way of vocally marking exercises for a class in a way that is both reassuring and instructional, like a priest intoning a blessing.  To ‘take’ class, significantly, can mean both to do it or to teach it.

It probably doesn’t have to have music. People do class without it, if they have to. But music seems as integral to a class as it does to a religious ritual, and probably  for the same reasons. It connects people, it gives them something meaningful to do together; it’s the vital medium through which the ritual is enacted, and it’s part of the ritual itself.

And oddly enough, some of the arguments about what is right or wrong for class have parallels in the ecclesiastical world. Some people  think that popular music has no place in the church, the only way to God is through Palestrina, others think that the church will die unless it embraces the popular. And speaking of death, what classes as ‘funeral music’ these days is whatever people have at a funeral, not a category of music with specific features. Some churches insist on live music, or that you use their particular organist, others don’t have an organ at all. For some, only an organ will take you nearer to God, for others, the guitar, the piano, or the bagpipes will do just as well.

You can probably guess that I think a lot of  similar arguments in ballet are pretty nonsensical – live music won’t automatically make someone a better dancer; children won’t automatically become better dancers  by playing classical music at them; ‘ballet music’ is anything that people use for ballet, it’s not a thing that has universal qualities; there is nothing intrinsically ‘correct’ about using a piano for class.

That sounds like I’m saying that nothing matters and anything goes. I’m not – quite the opposite, in fact. My point is that music matters toomuch to people to reduce playing for class entirely to a system, a set of rules, a technique, a book of ‘suitable’ or legitimate repertoire that you can impose from outside.

So the final tip is this: don’t listen too much to people (like me) who offer advice on how to do it.  Respect the ritual, the people who enact it, and your place in it, and you’ll find new ways of interpreting it, giving it meaning, and making it work.

Happy Christmas!

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2 Responses to Playing for ballet class tips #25: respect the ritual

  1. Trevorwer says:

    I just wanted to say, a big thank-you for writing these posts. I am a brand-new ballet pianist, just a few months into the job, and I have all these posts printed and on hand with my music, marked up with highlights. They have been indispensable in helping me to realize the key issues that a ballet pianist needs to be aware of.

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