A Year of Ballet Playing Cards is a collection of 52 pieces of downloadable sheet music for ballet class with a blog entry attached. That’s one piece a week, starting today, 8th January. There will be two jokers, at some point. I’m going to blog at other times, but this is my attempt to make my blog entries a bit more regular and frequent, rather than than nothing for a month, then three at once.
I decided to use a deck of cards, because there are 52 cards in pack (excluding jokers), and 52 weeks in a year. I also like the way that cards – flashcards, vocabulary cards, revision cards, and so on – enable the collecting and memorisation of information that can be rehearsed for fun. In fact, if I could pick a job that I could do for life, it would be working for a company that made novelty packs of cards (like British Wildlife, or Hungarian composers).
The idea came out of my 2014 advent calendar, “Confessions of an anxious ballet pianist” where I blogged about some of the problems of playing for class that still bother me after all this time. A lot of those problems are to do with repertoire – making sure you’ve got something that fits the exercise. All ballet pianists spend time collecting new repertoire, and since I need to do this for myself, I thought I might as well share some of the findings and the process as I go – it’s an incentive to do it. I find the discipline of the Advent calendar helpful, but when I looked at the pattern of my blogging over the year, I could see it was rather random, and that’s not great either if you’re writing or reading.
The pack: Suits
I have used the suit order of French decks, Spades, Hearts, Clubs, Diamonds, because as Doug Dyment explains, the French cards have “points” in their symbols, Spades (1), Hearts (2), Clubs (3) Diamonds (4).
I have used this ordering to come up with the following metric classification:
1 Spades – Slow (adage) pieces where it does not much matter whether they are in 3 or 4, or where you can discern tripleness or dupleness in different levels if you choose. The logic behind this (not that it is that logical) is that what you’re counting if you’re counting at all, is just a slow unit of time, a pulse, without much consideration for what passes between. In reality, this is actually still duple because the phrasing will be in eight, but spades is the “don’t really mind” meter, where the classification is not by the kind of music, but by the attitude of the listener.
2 Hearts – 6/8s, or “false” triple meter, that is, pieces which are essentially in 2 with triple subdivision. This means most waltzes, minuets and so on, but also jigs, and tarantellas. There is some overlap in dubious cases.
3 Clubs – True triple meter. See numerous posts of mine on this topic, but the repertoire in the Club suit will explain the concept. As with Hearts, there will be some dubious cases.
4 Diamonds – Duple or quadruple meter (I’m not really convinced that the distinction is important, unless you’re talking about the difference between “truly” quadruple meter which has a secondary, weaker accent on the third beat, and “compound duple” in the sense of two bars of two joined together for the sake of saving bar lines. See a long and complex earlier post about this topic if you’re really interested.
The Ace in each suit will be in some way exemplary, outstanding, unusual, and a an introduction to the concept of the particular suit. Don’t read too much into the music that falls in this slot though – it doesn’t mean that I think it’s necessarily the best or most interesting piece.
Face cards (Jack, Queen, King)
The Jack, Queen and King of each set will be more solemn, slower, or elevated in style than the others. This is to reflect an interest of mine in dance rhythms as topics in music. See Ratner, Monelle and Agawu on this , but most significantly, Wye Allanbrook, whose book on dance in Mozart is a classic. It’s in this book that the expressive potential of meters is outlined in a simple table. As a simple example, in the Clubs suit (truly triple meters), the face cards (JQK) will be polonaises, sarabande, ballroom mazurkas. The triple meters once they get slow tend to be regal anyway – my theory is that they require more learning, because unlike what Allanbrook calls the “danceless dance,” that is, the meters that are at walking speed with a variety of subdivision underneath that is irrelevant to the person walking, the slow triple meters demand a greater memory for “true” meter – that is, grouping of beats into a formal pattern, perhaps over six counts.
If it appears that there is some inherent gender bias in this because the queen comes before the King, I apologise. That’s the order the cards come in, but don’t read anything into whatever I place in those positions. Remember, in dancing, a King and Queen can dance together as a couple, with equal rank.
A year of ballet playing cards: the music
What’s in this pack is of necessity out of copyright – I wanted to make available a set of music that could be downloaded and printed by anyone. It’s within everyone’s reach to find music that they know and like to play for class, from musicals, from the charts, from composers like Prokofiev, Shostakovich, film composers, and so on. But you can’t publish that online without going through complex and costly (and sometimes impossible) copyright clearance: I know, because I spent seven years in my previous job at the Royal Academy of Dance sorting out copyright clearance for music publications.
It’s not just about copyright, though. The other thing is that earlier music (especially 19th century) offers good models for improvisation, and there are some steps and combinations in ballet classes that just work with this kind of music. Once you’ve understand the principle behind the piece, you can find something else that works, but not always: sometimes, you just need something that only another repertoire will provide.
This collection is therefore a set of examples, oddities, tools, models for improvisation, and so on, it’s not a hundred best tunes for class (although I’ve done my best to find things that are nice to play, and maybe people will be happy to do class to). These are functional pieces above all, that well get you through a sticky moment when you need them.
Very little of the music here is original, or unavailable somewhere else, apart from things that I’ve arranged myself. The only difference is that it’ll be nicely typeset, edited so that it’s usable for class, and numbered so that you could, over the period of a year, put it all together in a book or file.
I’m not blogging the pieces in order, as that would be too much pressure, but I’m numbering them so that if at the end of the year, you want to put them in order (which is the idea) you can. I’m sure I’ll tweak the details as I go, that’s the fun of blogging rather than committing yourself to a whole book at a time.
Why am I doing it, and why am I doing it for free?
Partly because one of the most frequent searches on my site is for “ballet class music” as pdf downloads. It’s such a small market that no-one wants to publish it, but the Internet makes it possible to share knowledge, and I like that. I can’t say any more than I like what I’m writing about, I like writing, I like sharing music, and one the values I hold dear is that if you can pass on help and information to someone, you should. I depend a lot on the projects that other people have put up for free – free to me, that is, not to them (Wikipedia, IMSLP, Zotero and so on). I have an idealistic belief that if we all shared a little bit of what we can, whether that’s money, knowledge, power or a hug, the world would be a better place. I have surfed on the kindness and generosity of others, I don’t mind giving a bit back.
Having said all that, this is also my career, and this website is part of how I promote myself and let people know what I do, and I make no pretence about that. It’s supported by the work that I do outside, and if that dried up, then I’d have to close down the website. if you want to donate a small amount to the upkeep of this site – I pay for it myself so that you don’t get bombarded with adverts – then please do. All donations gratefully received, once I’ve found a way of collecting them.
8 thought on “About a Year of Ballet Playing Cards”
Thanks so much Jonathan for all your ideas, comments, scores, knowdledge and sharing. Your work is so good and helpful! Looking forward to see yout cards selection! 🙂
Thanks Mariana, glad it’s helpful, and hope you enjoy the rest of the card selection!
This is absolutely brilliant. The way you’ve formatted the meter to be represented by suits is amazing. I look forward to seeing the pieces! Thank you, thank you, for taking the time to create this series and freely share it.
Thanks Emily! There’s also a cumulative links page for the series that you might like to save as a link – it collects the posts as they happen and lists them as links. http://jonathanstill.com/a-year-of-ballet-playing-cards/
Excellent categorization and description of true vs. false triple meter. Thank you for your work.
This has been such a wonderful resource for me. As a newbie coming into the art of playing for ballet classes (having just started it about 3-4 years ago), finding this resource and reading the blogs have been such a tremendous resource. I’ve recommended your website to all of my pianist friends in university who are curious about playing for classes. Thank you for this service and know that it is still helping the younger generation (like myself) come in with a better knowledge and set of tools to the dance studio.
Hi Jacob, thanks so much for leaving this feedback, it means a lot to me to know that the blog and resources have been useful to you and others.