Confessions of an anxious ballet pianist day #4: Classical music
The other side of my anxiety about not playing pop tunes for class (see yesterday’s post) is anxiety about playing stuff that’s too classical. When I say “classical,” I mean it in the narrowish sense of Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn, Schubert, particularly Schubert, since some of his pieces have been associated with ballet class music for going on a century.
It’s not paranoia. Over the years, I’ve heard teachers say don’t play Gershwin, don’t play Schubert, don’t play Swan Lake, don’t play Les Sylphides, don’t play the Skye Boat Song, don’t play Ivor Novello, don’t play Scott Joplin, do play Scott Joplin, don’t play 40s music, it makes them swing their hips, don’t play that Beethoven piece, it sounds so low and heavy, when I hear that kind of music (Mozart) for class, I feel sick, I hate Shostakovich, I hate Don Q, I love Don Q, et cetera et cetera. A colleague told me of one company class where the teacher’s first words on meeting him were “No jazz, and no minor keys.” It might have been the same teacher who, on seeing a copy of Gershwin at the PIano lying on the piano, picked it up with a grimace between finger and thumb as she’d found a dirty handkerchief on a chair, then dropped it symbolically back on the piano as if to say (or maybe she did say it) I don’t think so. By contrast, more recently I heard of a teacher who looked uncomprehendingly at a pianist whose playing wasn’t to their taste and pronounced witheringly “I usually have jazz pianists for my class.”
In other words, you can be pretty sure that someone somewhere is going to hate what you’re playing, but someone else will probably like it. Managing my anxiety as a ballet pianist for me has meant charging on ahead, knowing that I can’t please all the people all the time.
Nonetheless, I’m still never quite sure with Schubert. The C major tune (Andante and Variations) from the Octet D. 803, which I first became familiar with when Christopher Hampson used it in his Christmas Carol, played nicely on a nice piano (I actually don’t like it in the original octet – too stringy) in a nice studio seems to bring elegance, calm and decorum to a slow tendu exercise that feels like the two things (the music and the exercise) were invented in the same year. I’m never sure, however, whether what seems like rarified, attentive silence from the dancers is in fact utter boredom or disinterest. The better the dancers you’re playing for, the harder it is to tell, because part of being good at ballet is looking like you’re enjoying the music.
I like to think that it’s not what you play, but the way that you play it. According to Suki Schorer in her book on Balanchine technique, Balanchine wasn’t keen on pianists playing classical music for class, not because he didn’t like it, but because he thought they could usually not do it justice. I can’t be sure, but I think that’s the issue with Schubert and classical music for class – playing anything badly is going to sound bad, and vice versa. The proof of this for me came when I worked with Fares Marek Basmadji, a wonderful concert pianist and friend who plays for ballet classes. In between takes at a recording session, he played that Schubert F minor moment musical piece that people sometimes
play massacre for battements glissés in a way that was so beautiful, I learned to rehear it in an instant. We’ve got it on tape somewhere, but meanwhile, here’s Fares playing the Chopin Mazurka Op. 17 No. 4, at the end of the same session. Sitting in that massive, empty auditorium while he played this was the musical and emotional highlight of 2013 for me.