Confessions of an anxious ballet pianist day #24: Happy birthday

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fatherchSpecial occasions make me nervous. Take birthdays, for example. It’s someone’s birthday, and so one of the dancers comes up before class and says “Can you play happy birthday for so-and-so, please?” Sure I can. But the question is, when?

Before class feels wrong. If you suddenly play a C7 arpeggio on the keyboard just while the teacher is trying to take charge of the class, you interrupt her flow and usurp her authority. Once she realises what’s going on, the face will crack a smile, we’ll do the song, and then get on with the rest of the class, but for three horrible, uncomfortable seconds that seem like an eternity, you’ve acted as inappropriately as an altar boy booty-shaking like Beyoncé during communion while the priest wasn’t looking.

If you wait til after the barre, you run the risk that the birthday girl/boy, or his/her best friends, or the person that asked for the tune in the first place have all suddenly run out to go to the loo/check their phone/read the schedule – especially difficult if you don’t actually know the person by sight to know whether s/he’s in the room or not. At the end of class can be even worse, if it’s one of those days where only a few are left standing – or just when you’re about to play, someone wants to do turns in second or fouettés, so everyone else leaves, thinking there’s nothing left for them. Your indecision just ruined someone’s birthday.

Usually, once you start it’s fine, except for those days when it takes half the song to realise what’s going on, then by the time it gets to the “dear _____” line, everyone’s looking round the room to see who ______ is. It’s not your fault that the community singing collapses in confusion at this point, but you started it, so it feels like it is. And yes, I have once played happy birthday while the person it was intended for wasn’t there. It’s like having an entire battery farm lay eggs on your face.

Don’t let that stop you asking me to play happy birthday. But sometimes I wish someone would invent a protocol for this, so that just as  pliés come before grands battements,  Happy Birthday would  be allotted its own place in the barre to avoid embarrassment and confusion. The trouble is, singing happy birthday is one of those subversive moments in class that needs to stay just as it is: ignoring the teacher’s control and power while you wish your classmate a happy birthday is all part of the celebration.  It’s just that arpeggio that makes me anxious.

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