Confessions of an anxious ballet pianist day #20: Too much attention

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Souvenirs, novelties, party tricks. It’s a bit like playing for class.

In Why’s she looking at me like that? I mentioned Erving Goffman’s brilliant term “civil inattention” for the kind of social interaction where part of being civil is making it clear to others that you’ve acknowledged their presence, but you’re not going to demand interaction from them, or pay any more attention to them than they want. Sharing an elevator with a stranger, for example, or trying not to look down when you encounter a nudist. It’s the opposite of the kind of forced banter that you get at an M&S checkout when they ask things like “Hello sir. Have you enjoyed your shop with us today? Did you manage to find everything you were looking for?” when all you want to do is just pay and get the hell out of there.

There’s a parallel in playing for ballet class. Yes, you want to be acknowledged, for people to listen to what you’re playing, and to be appreciated – but you also want to be left alone to do your own thing. This is what 99.99% of ballet teachers do. In fact, I think it’s what attracts us ballet pianists to the job. We don’t want to be on stage at the Wigmore Hall, with an audience focused on every note we play. We want to be part of what’s going on, not the centre of attention.  We don’t mind being told to slow down and speed up, but we do want a bit of licence to play the occasional wrong note, or be forgiven for improvising badly, or picking a tune that no-one knows or likes. We want the freedom to stay in the background, and for dancers to tune in and out a bit, if they need to. The conventions of ballet class interaction are such that you and the teacher are intensely and closely connected at one level, but you stay in your own worlds, like the surgeon and patient in remote surgery.

But just occasionally, you get too much attention, and you squirm.  The worst I’ve encountered was decades ago when a guest teacher who I’ve never seen since came up to me before class and, after introducing himself,  told me that he wanted only improvised music for the entire class, no tunes. He kept turning to me and the dancers, giving a running commentary on each exercise and how it was going like a driving instructor taking someone on a motorway for the first time. In the middle of a frappé exercise, he gave the dancers a direction, then suddenly glared at me excitedly, and said “The harmony’s really important here!” (like I had a chance to do anything about it) and began to make the kind of face that he would make if I played exactly the harmony he wanted. A couple of counts later, it had turned into a disappointed grimace when he didn’t get it. I think it weirded-out the dancers as much as me.

Fortunately, that kind of prurient attention to music is so rare, I can’t think of any other examples in that league. “Civil inattention” to music and musicians is so effortlessly learned by being immersed in the ballet world, that it is second nature to most teachers, and that’s just fine the way it is. If you think that you should make the class pay more attention, or that we’re not appreciated enough, and you should make everyone stop and listen, think twice. The chances are, we’re happy in our corner being left alone. Carry on as you were.

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