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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.

6 thought on “Confessions of an anxious pianist #26: Same or different music on the other side?”
  1. Jjj… I completely agree. I think always less is more. What I use to do is to play the same music but “in a better way”. I mean, trying to adapt more to the accents and to the phrasings of the exercise, being more clear with the motives and with the endings (if I improvise, of course). And of course, trying to enjoy more by myself with the connection between me and exercise. Sometimes the first time you miss or lose details. So then you have a second chance.
    I think dancers need also this kind of calm to feel that, in the second side, they recognize the music and that they can connect easily, in a way, with the pianist.
    I really like these post about the anxious pianist!
    Thanks for sharing your feelings and thoughts.

  2. Jonathan, you are a wonderful pianist and we (ballet world) are lucky to have you!! I think you are right: there are no hard and fast rules about repeating , it is trial and error. And sometimes I don’t get exactly what I sing – sometimes it is BETTER so some mistakes are for the best!

    1. Aw thank you! I think this will be my next “anxious” post: the fear of getting it too right. One of the teachers/dancers I interviewed said that she actually sometimes preferred a pianist who got stuff wrong from time to time, because it made her more alert and responsive to the music. When the pianist gets it right all the time, they become imperceptible, the class gets dull. I don’t think this is down to the pianist totally, though: there’s a kind of a class where the teacher marks an exercise, says “Ronds de jambe,” and you play a slow waltz, and for everyone, it’s as automatic as driving on a motorway. Openness to getting it wrong and dealing with it seems to me to be the only way to learn on both sides of the relationship. Sadly, I think there’s a lot about the present ballet world (reliance on freelance contracts, for example) that means it’s very hard to develop that kind of vulnerable mutuality.

  3. Hi,
    as a dancer it is very confusing to have different music for the same exercise on the other side. It’s hard enough to do the exercise on both sides equally good. It’s easier if on the left side only the side is new and not also the music.

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Jonathan Still, ballet pianist