Confessions of an anxious ballet pianist day #2: Fear of repetition

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An octopus in the market in Tooting Broadway.

This post has nothing to do with octopuses, it just so happens that I won a bet with a friend today that you could buy octopus in Tooting Market. That was the main excitement of the day.

I’m relatively relaxed about repetition, because over the years a few dancers have told me that sometimes it’s nice to hear something familiar, either because they like it, or because it’s easier to think forward about what’s happening next in the exercise. With music that has lots of different sections, like waltzes and codas, it can be satisfying to anticipate the bit you know comes after the one you’re hearing now. Maybe it’s your favourite bit, so you might just do the allegro twice if that bit comes up soon. Association helps: hackneyed though it may be, hearing Don Q might just put you in the right frame of mind, or be reassuring in its familiarity when you’re trying to do something difficult.

I’m fine with that kind of considered, conscious repetition where you think “On balance, it’s probably better to go with a coda they know, even if they’ve heard it a thousand times.” There are other times when you can play something you’ve played a lot already, but it’s for a completely different exercise, or it happens to be just perfect for a particular thing, so that mitigates the repetition.

What makes me anxious is when it’s Thursday, it’s ronds de jambe, and you just cannot get rid of the lugubrious, pot-stirring Viennese operetta waltz tune that descended on your brain like bad weather on Monday; or you inadvertently start playing the same thing for pliés that you played yesterday, and you’ve started, so you have to finish.

Then there are those times  when someone sets an adage that needs something for which you have the perfect music, but it doesn’t bear listening to too many times. When the exercise starts, you realise that it’s longer than you thought, so you have to repeat the same piece four times. Then there’s three groups. Then they repeat it. Then there’s “one more group.”  A lot of the fear of repetition is as a result of the fact that teachers sometimes set exercises for which the bandwidth of really appropriate music seems very narrow (though maybe I’m mistaken – maybe they wouldn’t care what I played? I don’t know). An example is the slow rather dull tendu, for which the slow, rather dull The Two Guitars (that Russian folk-ish song ) or the slightly less slow and dull Adios Muchachos seem to work every time, like nothing else. Can I find something else that does the same thing? Not easily, though I keep trying. What I do to avoid it is improvise, hoping that bad improvisation is harder to spot than repetition. Please don’t answer that question.

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9 thoughts on “Confessions of an anxious ballet pianist day #2: Fear of repetition

  1. Sarah

    This is the thirtieth article I’ve read of yours in the last hour. I JUST found your site after a playing a frustrating class this evening. I have played confidently for more than 20 different teachers over the last three years, but eh woman I played for tonight would not be happy with anything. I am so happy to find some one who knows all my fears and anxieties(repetition is a huge fear of mine) and also has so many solutions and resources. Thank you thank you.

    Reply
    1. Jonathan Still Post author

      Thanks for the feedback! So glad to hear you found the site at the appropriate time. Since writing those articles last year, I played what felt like my worst class after nearly 30 years doing it; it seems like there’s no escape from that feeling, or from the teacher that’s going to make you feel it one day!

      Reply
    1. Jonathan Still Post author

      I guess it’s the main reason: exercises in a company come quick and fast, and unlike a school class, dancers will often repeat them several times without any interruption/correction from the teacher. Pirouettes from the corner might involve at least 5 minutes of continuous music before you get a brief pause before the other side; grand allegro similarly. You can also improvise while you’re working out in your head what else you know that would work. I do this a lot—a lot of filler before you find the killer.

      If there is a particular technical point to an exercise, or a tricky moment which needs support from the pianist, that technical point/tricky moment might occur 80 or 120 times (here’s the maths: 30 dancers, 3 in each group, going twice on each side, the exercise contains an internal repetition: so, 10 groups of 3 x 2 times x 2 sides x 2 “tricky moments” in each pass of the exercise=80 times, or 120 if they do it three times on each side). You can find the same perfect 8 bars of music and repeat it 80 times; you can play different tunes as far as possible, but that runs the risk that you’re not going to be helping those tricky moments as the music changes; improvising is your best bet, really.

      You might also need to be able to improvise in the sense of adapting music on the fly: that adage is 3 phrases long, not 4; play straight on to the other side of a barre exercise (when you weren’t expecting it); give four or eight bars in between each group as they come forward for the exercise. Or simply “Can we have something else?” and you’ve completely run out of ideas.

      Sometimes you just need to play what’s needed in the moment, rather than the best possible choice, or the thing that you would feel proud to have played. The same can be true of any class, but it’s the sheer speed and volume of content that makes company class different.

      Reply
      1. Zz

        Ah wonderful insight! I’m trying to become a ballet pianist because I’m so obsessed with the Royal Ballet, this explains why they so insist on their pianist to have experience with company classes.

        On another note, how do you avoid repetition within the improvisation? For example with the same/similar harmonies, after so many recurrence, how do you avoid the same figuration in the melody?

        Btw, I’m finding this blog a great treasure for self-learning! Thank you for sharing!

      2. Jonathan Still Post author

        How do you avoid repetition within the improvisation? I don’t think you can, it’s bound to happen, and it’s very easy to get stuck in a rut—but how many people would notice, I’m not sure. (but people do notice I think if you keep improvising, but never throw in anything that anyone vaguely recognizes from time to time). If I feel myself getting in a rut, I try things like focusing on the bass, rather than the melody, so that the movement of the bass line forces you into a different harmonic progression, which in turn suggests a different melody. One of the most useful things I ever discovered was to use words (silently, in your head!) to give yourself a rhythmic pattern, and perhaps that might also suggest a melodic contour too. Right now I’m staring at a book, and reading the spine, “Zadie Smith—Feel Free.” Those words can suggest several rhythmic patterns, not one of which I would have thought of if I had not had the words to provide it. It’s particularly good for waltzes, for some reason. Make up a tune for “I wish this exercise would end!” and you’ll find it soon sounds like an undiscovered Strauss waltz.

        So glad you’re finding the blog useful, thank you for the great feedback!

  2. Sarah K Richards

    I don’t think any of us have not experienced that fear. Even if I managed to add three or four new tunes for every kind of music needed, I find myself coming back to the really good ones. I am lucky in that I sometimes play for three or four different teachers and classes in a week so I can play the same staying for plie up to four times in a row if it is something I am really enjoying playing.
    But yes, for those long combinations and several groups, it can be fatiguing to everyone in the room to hear the same 32 measures 8 times.
    I play off of a tablet, and something I have tried to do is line up several pieces of music that will work together so I can swipe back and forth. I tried to do a large rounded binary, every 3rd group in sets of four gets a different piece of music.
    as far as improvising, I just tried to keep it simple and usually stick to the chord progression of whatever piece I have been using. This helps my awful improvising not sound so awful.
    And to our friend who just had a very difficult teacher to work with, it’s okay! You are a great pianist! You have had more than twice my experience in years and I’m sure you are just wonderful. Every once in awhile a teacher comes along who is either not musically educated and is very self-conscious and takes it out on you, or they come from such a different tradition that you have a hard time talking to each other.
    I trained in the vaganova ballet tradition as a student, but when I was learning to a company, I worked with American teachers. The first few times I played for Russians, Germans, and a Korean teacher, we had a lot of difficulties because the style of teaching requires and ever so slightly different style and way of playing. and often those teachers come from schools where they will have the same pianist every day for years. They literally expect you to read their minds.
    on the other hand, I played for a theater teacher at my local University whose dance background was just a smattering of movement studies. She wanted to change all the names of our ballet steps to English! And she would give combinations in four different tempi and two or three different meters. When I try to clarify she would get flustered. She eventually asked me to leave because she couldn’t figure out how to teach with a live musician. As far as I know this Elite University theater course is still being taught to a CD, despite the several wonderful dance class pianist we have in our area.
    So it is never just your fault.
    This website has also been a great resource for me, thank you so much for producing it and sharing your thoughts.

    Reply
    1. Jonathan Still Post author

      Fascinating to hear of your experiences! It’s such a good point about teachers who’ve had the same pianist for years. It’s hard to explain to a teacher (not that I would even try!) that it’s a dubious compliment to say that a pianist can read your mind. It’s so much easier to play for a class when you don’t have to put half your effort into guessing, and the other half into worrying that you’re going to get it wrong.

      One teacher I play for is an absolute dream, because he always has an idea of something that would work for the exercise, which he sings as he does it. He’s not demanding that you play that, it just gives you an idea of the kind of thing that’s needed. What is remarkable about him is that the repertoire of tunes is amazing. In the end, I couldn’t help but ask him about it—it was so unusual. He said he actively tried not to keep singing the same tunes for the same exercises, and would actively try to think of what went with what as a fun challenge for himself.

      Rather depressingly, I heard a similar story to yours about a teacher at an elite institution who seems unable to work with a pianist, because whatever they play doesn’t match the unique idea she has in her head for an exercise. The pianist who told me the story is brilliant, and highly experienced—when you look at the teacher’s CV, you could see that the problem was really that she didn’t have enough experience in the field that she was teaching in. Unfortunately, the solution was not to get a CD, but another pianist, who will probably last a few weeks before they move on, and she will feel vindicated in her view that it’s “impossible to find good pianists these days.”

      So glad you’ve found the website useful, thanks for leaving the great feedback!

      Reply

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