Monthly Archives: May 2016

Organizing music for ballet class: problems and solutions


Organizing music for ballet class: where to put stuff, and where to find it again?

I’ve had a blog post brewing for years  on the topic of organizing music for ballet class, but I’m glad to see that someone has saved me the job. Trevor Hewer’s The best way to organize music for free ballet class sums up the problems, but he’s also got a nice picture of a folder with coloured tabs. For the blog post I never wrote, I wanted to collect pictures of people’s folders and discuss their approach to categories and ordering. It’s a fascinating topic.

I agree with all Trevor’s points – memorization seems the best way to me, because sometimes things work for reasons that you can’t categorize. Conversely, once you start categorizing, you build boundaries around the objects you’ve categorised. As I’ve written about before, time signatures (for example) can blind you (deafen you) to the possibility of hearing something in 12/8 as a waltz, or a waltz as being effectively 12/8 or 4/4 with triplets. The other day I got myself out of two difficult corners when I suddenly realised I could use a tango instead of a slow march, and a tarantella instead of a quick one. The less you know in these circumstances, the better, because you don’t rule out things on the basis of their category.  I also found that as much as I like ForScore on my iPad, I find it very difficult and time consuming to catalogue my music on it – and it would take me forever to do it well; and as Trevor points out, “extreme ease of adding new music means less emotional connection with it” — quite. What I’ve found with my own “year of ballet playing cards” project is that the act of choosing, inputting, arranging and practising and blogging about each piece embeds it much better in my memory. You have to love your repertoire into practice.

None of this makes the problem of categorization go away, however. You still have to categorize your memory, or find ways to deliberately overrule it. Sometimes, when I’m stuck, I think of music titles beginning with a letter of the alphabet, or in a certain key; or I think of a word or word-type (songs about love, or food, or places). Sometimes, a particular teacher will get repertoire out of me that I’d forgotten about, and I couldn’t tell you why. Some miniscule difference in the way a teacher marks, or what you know about them, or the way they interact with you. More worryingly, some teachers seem to elicit the same narrow repertoire from me every time, and I have to find ways to avoid the rut.

The thing about memorization is that it potentially allows you random access, whereas a book requires you to think about order and category, titles, subtitles, genres, and so on. I had to make decisions about it several times in my previous job. One of the things I learned is that if anyone else is going to use your system, your plan has to align as best it can with the way that the user thinks about the topic, otherwise it will never get used, or will fail.

String and categories

It’s interesting to see how supermarkets deal with the same problem. For example, the other day I helped a woman in Wilkinson’s who couldn’t find a plain ball of string anywhere. She’d looked without success in “household” (where you’d think it might be), she’d settled for a ball of overpriced, fancy, “hobby” string in the toy section (for making necklaces and so on). I eventually found what she was looking for (plain string, 50p a ball) in the stationery area, on the packing and parcel materials shelves.  We had to try to understand the “mind” of the shop in order find it. 

Categorizing music presents similar problems:  what are the chances of someone else working out where you have put a piece of music? If someone else has devised the system, you have to be able to understand their mind and their culture in order to retrieve an object. Trevor makes a good point – you might as well put your repertoire in alphabetical order, since the thing you’re most likely to remember is the title.

Faceted navigation

But that only gives you one chance of finding it – if you don’t know the title, you’ll have to go through all your library piece by piece. The best chance you have is to assign multiple categories to each one, so that you and others  have several chances of finding what you want. On different days you might want the same piece for different reasons: because it sounds French; because it has a long anacrusis; because it’s in 3/4; because the teacher likes it; because you didn’t play it last week; because it’s in E flat and in a related key to what you’re playing right now; because you can adapt the rhythm and feel easily to the exercise (which is an affordance somewhere between you, your imagination, the music, what you’re playing it on, and the exercise – it’s not a property of a sound object). I have a piece in mind right now, the Petite Valse by Joe Heyne which has been all of those things to me.

I came across faceted navigation in Paul Lamere’s “Social Tagging and Music Information Retrieval” (article, free to download) when I was writing about similar issues in training ballet teachers to deal with music (given that the immediately relevant categories of music-as-heard and danced-to are not the same as the notational ones, how do you start talking about music, especially when the music can be categorised in various ways?).  Faceted navigation means being able to locate or select a piece of music by using any of a number of its attributes (“facets”) not all of which are “inherent’ in the sound at all, but cluster around the object through discourse, cultural conventions, use and personal experience.

I’m now writing about similar things in my thesis, but with the additional theme of boundary objects. Perhaps the strangest and most elusive thing about musical “objects” in the ballet world is in the context of use, a piece of music becomes “something I can do this to” where this is gestural, and does not become particularly musical (rhythmic, metric, dynamic, etc.) until the music is drawn into it. Try categorizing that.


Long after I first  wrote this post, I discovered a fascinating article about the conceptual boundaries between  chorography, topography, and geography (that’s chorography, not choreography), and how you can disambiguate them and understand their complex interrelationships in practice by looking at the development of ZIP codes and direct-marketing. There are lots of ways that his ideas can be applied interestingly to navigating supermarkets and music books. It seems to me that chorology might be the best way to approach the notion of the middle of Lidl or an end-of-aisle display, for example: items there belong to no useful logical category for the shopper or nutritionist, nor are they there because they are logically related to the contents of the nearest adjacent aisles, they are “zoned” there in order to be promoted and shifted fast.  It tempts me to make an “end of the world” section in my next anthology, where all the things that should be consigned to outer darkness like triple jigs and slow sissonnes  in 2/4 could be bunched together. 


Curry, M. R. (2005). Toward a geography of a world without maps: Lessons from ptolemy and postal codes. Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 95(3), 680–691.

Roast Chicken, Shostakovich, and Gogol Bordello


Roast Chicken/Цыплёнок жареный

I’m so relieved: I’ve finally discovered the name of the song that appears in Shostakovich’s operetta Moskva, Cheremushki and Gogol Bordello’s Start Wearing Purple.  It’s taken me nearly twenty years.  I loved the music in one of the dance scenes in Moskva Cheremushki, and for years, thought it was original Shostakovich. But then around 2000, I bought Gogol Bordello’s album Gypsy Punks Underdog World Strike, and fell in everlasting love with “Start Wearing Purple.” After a while, I noticed that somewhere in the song, they played a tune that was identical to the Shostakovich. Were they quoting him? Or were they both quoting a folk song?

Here’s the Shostakovich (should start immediately at the right place, but if it doesn’t, it’s at about 2 minutes in)

And here’s the Gogol Bordello song: (should start automatically at the right place, but if not, it’s around 2:44)

Phase 3: help from a Russian

Then one day recently, I was playing class for Irek Mukhamedov, and almost by accident, started playing the tune. He looked round and smiled, and said “What is that song? Something about a prison, is it?”  That gave me a clue and a reason to start searching, and it only took a few minutes to find that in fact, prison does feature in the song.  Tatyana Kabanova’s version of the song has a translation, albeit not a particularly good or accurate one, but roughly speaking, there’s a chicken that gets arrested and sent to jail. It’s a song dating from the “war communism” period of Soviet Russia during the civil war (1918-1921), though it seems likely that it’s based on a folk song that predates this. Despite the song’s references to St Petersburg (such as the Nevsky Prospekt), S. Yu. Neklyudov’s history of “Roast Chicken” (with a table of comparative versions of the lyrics) cites other versions that place it originally in Moscow.

Here’s a recording of Arkady Severny singing it – appropriately, since Severny was known for his prison songs.

The Vyborg Side, anarchy and Shostakovich’s “Roast Chicken”

The song has a long history of being associated with anarchists, but that may be due to the way that it has been used in films. It exists in several versions, and is known as a childhood song as well as a war-time one. The history of “Roast Chicken” at has an interesting chronology of the books and films that have referenced it since about 1918. In one of the films, The Vyborg Side/Выборгская сторона, a band plays the tune of “Roast Chicken” as a group walk past with a banner saying “Long live anarchy!” And the film’s composer? Dmitri Shostakovich. According to the BFI page on this film, Shostakovich’s music “wittily riffs on Kurt Weill in depicting the (implicitly German-influenced) enemies of the Revolution.” Really?

Clip should start automatically at 18.42:

Later, Platon Dymba (played by Mikhail Zharov) sings the song  (clip should start automatically at 35:19)

In the film Alexsandr Parkhomenko, it’s sung by a group of anarchist sailors on an armoured train called Anarchy (of course). Clip should start automatically at 7.42.

I didn’t know any of this until I decided to try and trace the connections, but as with a lot of the tunes I play for class, I had an inkling, and I like the idea that someone, somewhere is going to look up from their tendu and go “Oh my God, did he just play that?” It only happens about once every 20 years, but when it does, it’s worth the wait.

And finally

This has nothing to do with “Roast Chicken” but in the same film, there’s a fabulous scene in a bar, where the character Tapersha (played by Faina Ranyevskaya) sings a sentimental waltz-song “Cruel Romance” (by N. Bogoslovskii, lyrics here) on an out-of-tune piano, with a cigarette drooping out of the side of her mouth. If you want to know what playing for class feels like some times, just watch a few seconds of this (should begin automatically at 13:16)


Confessions of an anxious pianist #26: Same or different music on the other side?


Although the “anxious ballet pianist” series is officially over, I’m adding one more post now, because I realised today that after thirty years of playing for class, I still often ask myself the same question: shall I play the same or different music for the other side of an exercise?

Sitting on the fence about music on the other side

Same or different music for the other side: cat sitting on a fence

Sitting on the fence about the “same or different music on the other side?” issue.

What’s made me think about it is that I’ve just played for a teacher that I first worked with maybe 28 years ago, who made me bristle (back then, that is) by saying “Please play the same thing on the second side” after one of the first exercises at the barre. I bristled for a long time, because variety was my shtick, and was what I believed you were supposed to aim for in class: avoid boredom and sameness at all costs (see previous post on fear of repetition). I remember crying into my beer with another teacher, who cheered me up by saying “But it always feels different on the other side anyway — it’s not the same thing.

That was 28 years ago. A few months ago,  I played for that teacher again, and with the wisdom of experience, I remembered that he liked the same music on both sides, and so that’s what I did, without any bristling.  Experience had also taught me that he was a highly respected teacher with a securely individual approach and style, and that he had known exactly what he was doing when he asked for the same music on both sides. Looking at him and his class again, I realised that I had been lucky to have the correction, because it had given me something to think about for thirty years: only problems generate solutions.

Playing for him again more recently, I reminded myself not to alternate at the barre, but this introduces another anxiety: I know why I’m repeating the same music, but the class doesn’t. Do they care? Does it matter? Will they think I’m dull, or lazy? Part of me thinks that nobody probably gives a damn, they’ve got other things to worry about. And particularly in this case, the exercises are hard enough that the music needs to be there to help, not distract.

“Same or different music for the other side” is a constant dilemma (literally, a choice between two unpleasant alternatives). In another class recently, after I’d played the same music for three groups in adage in the centre, I decided maybe I could do better, so I changed the music. The teacher (one of the most experienced and musical I know) stopped me and said something like “You’ve lost them. Play what you played before, they can’t find what they need in the music.”

Now that’s an even more difficult dilemma: what I was playing wasn’t great, but it at least had the virtue of familiarity after a couple of groups. Possibly, what I was going to play would have been better had I played it the first time round, but now it was too late: better the devil you know. It’s the wise choice, but it runs counter to the pervasive idea that progress and change are unquestionably a Good Thing.

From both sides now

The trouble is that there is no right or wrong about this issue:  you just have to make a reasonable guess about what’s right in each situation, and risk getting it wrong. I probably got the idea that changing the music was a good thing because I learned my trade playing for syllabus classes where any diversion from the set music was a welcome relief. The teacher who said “It feels different on the other side” was right, and there are other occasions when changing the music has a positive effect. But there are other times when you have to let the music listen to the exercise, so to speak: when it’s new, difficult, or to achieve a very particular thing. As I’ve discovered, that might not only be with children: it can be at company class level as well, but you have to know when and where what is appropriate.

I got it wrong last week, I realised half way through pliés that the tiny rhythmic hint that the teacher had given in the marking was not just incidental or accidental, it was in fact exactly what she’d wanted. I changed the music to something more suitable halfway through the exercise, and she smiled and nodded at me.  I felt great for a moment, and then thought “Why didn’t I just do that the first time around?”  Was I clever to have sorted it mid-exercise, or stupid for not getting it right at the beginning? I don’t know.  That’s another anxiety to add to the list.