Confessions of an anxious ballet pianist day #15: Tempo

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One way or  another, tempo is at the heart of most of the anxieties in this advent calendar. Playing for ballet is like driving on a busy motorway in torrential rain: there is no such thing as the right speed in isolation, only in relation to other drivers and events, and getting it wrong is fatal.

Tempo in the ballet world

Outside of dance, musicians mostly just don’t get this, and I was the same when I started. I couldn’t understand why dancers and teachers didn’t care how expressively or technically brilliant I’d just played, all they cared about was tempo. They’d tell you when it was wrong, and say nothing when it was right, something which I and other novices used to gripe about, fantasizing about a world where we could be free to express ourselves and be appreciated for it.

Cat jumping out of the music section of my bookshelves, to illustrate tempo article

One of the cats jumping out of the philosophy of music section on my bookshelves. Luckily for her, it’s not my favourite subject, so there’s a space.

Nowadays, I feel totally different. Nothing brings me greater professional satisfaction than getting through an entire pirouette exercise without any tempo adjustments from the teacher. If a ballerina says “that tempo for the manège was perfect” you go home with a big glow in your heart.  When – at the beginning of an exercise – you have to adjust the tempo, and then you get that smile and a nod from the teacher when it’s right – that’s job satisfaction.

That’s why playing for Le Corsaire last year was terrifying and gratifying at the same time. It’s one darned difficult solo after another, the tempos change every 16 bars, and you’ve got about five casts, each of them slightly different in their approach and speed. It was almost never entirely right, and you have to face that look when they stop that says “it’s not entirely your fault I didn’t manage that diagonal, but I could kill you for the 20% that was.” But getting it right at all is exhilarating.

Bach, the dancing master

I said that musicians mostly don’t get this. Some do. Bach’s obituary, for example, said that he “was a really accurate band leader. When it came to tempo, which he usually laid down at a very brisk pace, he was 100% reliable” (cited on page 7 in an article by Philip Tagg, that’s well worth reading).  I once saw Eartha Kitt singing live at The Fridge in Brixton. She was like a snapping attack dog to the band at the beginning of Old Fashioned Millionaire, insisting on exactly the tempo and feel she wanted (at that thousandth of a metronome mark that combines genteel, filthy and seductive) before they’d got to the end of the first bar of the intro. In that moment, I realised tempo is everything in her songs: beyond the voice, the music, the arrangement, it’s her subtle and precise sense of tempo that creates the magic. It’s probably no coincidence that Eartha Kitt was a dancer too (here’s a picture of her and James Dean in Katherine Dunham’s dance class).

Some ballet teachers have this hyperacute sense of tempo and how to get it from others. From the outside or to a beginner, it can come across as severe or controlling, but in fact, it’s great to work with someone like that. You know that you’ll always get the right tempo, because someone will be on your case until you do: the anxiety comes when no-one in the room really knows what it is that they want, or what to try next.

“Living richly” in slow tempo: an update

Strictly speaking, this is about tempo in ballet so I shouldn’t put this here, but it saves me writing a whole new post. One of the delights of 2018-2019 was depping as an accompanist for historical dance classes at RADA. I loved how different this world of dance was to ballet. For one thing, actors work as a team. I’ve never been in a group of students where working together was so highly valued and respected. Of course, it makes sense: what is theatre, but ensemble work? But even though the same is technically true of a ballet company, you don’t see it reflected in the classes, where each space at the barre is like an invisible monastic cell. 

Anyway, in the spring term, we did a couple of sessions on Russian style, and the teacher talked about how tempo was such an important part of the expressive features of the dance: speeding up, either gradually, or in sudden shifts, for example, or starting a step much slower than its eventual tempo would be. She asked me to bring the tempo right down for the beginning of one of these dances, and gave one of the best directions I’ve ever heard, in relation to tempo. Slower, she explained, was about so much more than tempo, it required a different approach to the movement: “Live richly in the new tempo” she said, and I instantly put it in italics  my brain. 

It’s very difficult to explain this to people who have got used to just pressing a button a few times on their playback machine to “change the tempo.” Particularly when things are slower, you have to change your whole approach. Slower can imply ease (the real meaning of adagio), or luxuriance, despair, lethargy, sadness, opulence, and that makes a difference to how you shape a phrase, how you place a note. You have to inhabit a tempo, feel your way around it, know what it can do for you, and adopt it as your own, make it familiar and safe both to you and to someone watching/listening. You have to recalibrate your internal sense of pulse so that you can predict the next beat, and that might need a physically different movement: the change from a nod of the head, to a side-to-side sway with some weight in it, even if only imagined.  That’s why live richly in the new tempo is such a brilliant way of expressing the difference. 

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3 thoughts on “Confessions of an anxious ballet pianist day #15: Tempo

  1. Melanie

    As usual, I’ve enjoyed reading what you’ve shared. I’ve never played for dancers (outside of little kids in my living room who are just having fun). Your recent posts highlight why. It takes an astonishing amount of skill and perseverance to do what you do. You give me new thoughts to consider and ideas for how I can improve at the level I am at on a regular basis. It’s a tremendous gift. Thank you! May you be blessed with a joyous Christmas and a brilliant New Year!

    Reply
  2. Chrissie

    My pet hate is the teacher who says “That’s not right – what we need is …” and then proceeds to count the exact same tempo you were playing at. Aaargh!

    Reply

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