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There's a lot to be said for leaving gaps when you mark an exercise.
There’s a lot to be said for leaving gaps when you mark an exercise.

You sit at the piano, and watch the teacher address the class, rattling off directions, her hands a blur as she marks movements with her hands at 8x fast forward speed (women are for some reason always faster at this than men in my experience).  You know it’s a warm-up of some sort, but no more. Then, about five seconds earlier than you expected, she suddenly turns to you and says “AND!” and then away, back to the class, leaving you to it.

What was that? Slow? Fast? Two? Three? Accented? Smooth? The same speed throughout? Absolutely no idea at all. But the indication to start has already been given, and so start you must. You put your hands down on the keys, and play an introduction in whatever key you land in. At the same time, you look over anxiously at the teacher for signs that you might be playing the right kind of thing, and then at the dancers to see what kind of exercise it was that was just marked.

I’ve sometimes got to the last note of an introduction, and thought “am I playing in 3 or 4?” followed by “oh no, what do I know in D flat in 3/4?” Under pressure, you just play something, and wait for your brain to work out what it’s going to be in time for the beginning of the exercise. It doesn’t always work out that way. I’ve sometimes dribbled away in a key for about four bars, and then thought “Oh that sounds like…” and decide half way through the first phrase what it’s going to be.

At this point in this post, and in this advent calendar generally, I should confess that I actually enjoy the adrenalin ride of company class, and of moments like the one I’ve described when you work for someone for the first time, and you don’t know what their thing is.  I enjoy the high-stakes gamble of moments like this where you know that you’ll either get it more or less right, or terribly wrong.

I don’t mind getting it wrong if I was at least trying, but being distracted is a different problem altogether, and much more embarrassing. I was recently distracted for just a few seconds while the teacher was setting an exercise in the centre. Unfortunately, those few seconds must have been the moments where he explained what category of exercise it was. Lost in my thoughts, I heard him say “and,” and trying to work out what to play, I remembered seeing him mark something that looked like a pirouette, so I started playing a big thumpy introduction for a pirouette exercise. After a bar and a half, he looked over, smiled and made a “cut!” sign, and said “It’s adage, maestro.” It’s to avoid the shame of moments like that is what keeps you concentrating even harder next time you go into class, but I like that.

When you’re on good form, you can look at someone’s exercise, and fill in the musical gaps, and between you, you make something that works. Although it’s nice when teachers are so clear musically that you can be in no doubt as to what they want, I think on balance, I prefer it when there’s a bit of ambiguity, when they leave it to you, rather than prescribe everything in advance.  That’s a whole other topic that I’ve already written about in an earlier post but the Prausnitz comment from Score and podium: a complete guide to conducting (p.115) is worth repeating.

A timely caution: one good subdivision does not necessarily deserve another. Given the fact that most music is made between beats, it follows that the fewer the beats, the more music making can take place.

That’s what I mean.

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Jonathan Still, ballet pianist