Monthly Archives: April 2020

Andrew Holdsworth and Lockdown Friends: The Same Sun

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The Same Sun is a song, written by Andrew Holdsworth and performed by some of the pupils from the school where he has taught music for 25 years, and brought together into a YouTube video that he put together from their performances filmed in lock-down. It’s a tribute to what’s possible when your music teacher is a nice bloke and an all-round genius.

Andrew’s comments on the video:
The Same Sun is a song about friendship, wellbeing and positivity in these difficult times. This group of children is from Surrey in the UK and we’d invite teachers from all over the world to do their own version of this song with their pupils. A sing-along lyric video will shortly be available on this channel. All you need is someone who can put a video together for you! Positivity and wellbeing is as important for children as education at the moment. We hope all teachers will encourage creativity, openness and dialogue with their pupils during lockdown. Music and lyrics (c) Andrew J. Holdsworth 2020 Any proceeds from streaming or broadcast of this song will be donated to Childline.
 

Some of you may know Andrew as the creator of high quality ballet class albums (see his Spotify page) or as the producer and engineer of all the RAD’s music products for over 20 years, including the Studio Series and syllabus projects  (see the short film we made together about that).

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Ballet Piano Podcast transcript now available

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Logo of the Ballet piano podcast

Click here to go to the Ballet Piano Podcast (and transcript)

My enthusiasm and admiration for the Ballet Piano Podcast, which I posted about a few weeks ago, continues to grow. Talking to Matt Gregory the other day, I said that I might get round to transcribing one of the podcasts, for some people (I’m one of them) a transcript can be more accessible than listening—particularly, it occurs to me, if English isn’t your first language. Also, if you’ve heard the podcast and want to go back and find a particular passage, it’s much easier to search text than scrub through audio.  I also happen to love transcribing (if you think I’m kidding, see my eulogy to USB foot controls, and blog post on transcribing methods.  That’s one of the reasons I loved Kate Atkinson’s TranscriptionTranscribing is not a simple matter of taking down content by dictation, it raises all kinds of fascinating issues and questions along the way.

So when Matt mentioned that my name cropped up in this week’s podcast, I was too proud not to get straight down to transcribing it. Download the transcript of the latest podcast from the Ballet Piano Podcast here: 

Transcribing this podcast gave me a chance to reflect on just how good Ballet Piano Podcast is. It’s got David Yow as legendary experienced teacher (and also one of the most serene people I’ve ever worked for), three pianists, of whom one (Matt) is also a dancer, so you have a rounded and respectful view of both dance and music. There’s also a wealth of experience from both the vocational school and company side. To be really valuable, you need to know about both fields. 

If I’m really honest, I don’t really share this team’s enthusiasm for adage (see an older post for why) but I learned a lot from listening to (and transcribing) this podcast.  Trying to describe the difference between adage and ports de bras music is quite difficult in musical terms, but hearing David Yow describe it this way, made it so obvious: 

The fuller it [the music] is, the better, because that’s exactly what the movements are like, the biggest, the fullest movement that you can do.

If you’d asked a lot of musicians (or some teachers, who’ve been led to believe that you can categorize exercises by time signature), they’d say “a slow 6/8, like a barcarolle.”  I remember asking a teacher once what she thought adage music should be, and she said “it should express infinite hope.” Try finding that in your musical dictionary, but it’s inspired me for years. 

Ballet piano nerves

There is so much in the discussion that I can relate to. Here’s Akiko & Chris Hobson talking about the sheer physical and mental effort of playing for classes in new situations:

Akiko: I remember when I started, I played for one class, you know, one hour and a half or so. After one class, I was so tired, I was so hungry, and I just wanted to have a nap.

Chris:  I still get nervous now, if I’m going to a new company where I know I don’t know the ballet master and I might not know any of the dancers, I still get nervous, maybe two decades in, I don’t think it’s ever going to leave.

As I heard that, I remembered a time a few years ago when I was playing for a visiting company in London. It was just four days when I had to turn up, play for an hour or an hour and a quarter around lunchtime, and then I was free. In theory, perfect for someone who needs several hours in the day to do a PhD. But no: from when I woke up til when class started, I fretted about what I was going to play, and who for (it was three different teachers over four days, none of whom I’d worked with before). And when I’d finished, I was so exhausted mentally (and already thinking about how to make the next day interesting), that it was difficult to settle to anything else afterwards. It was a long time before I realized that summer schools are so exhausting, even if your workload is light: it’s not the number of hours, it’s the intensity of having to instantly form effective working relationships with several new people. It’s a strain for the teacher as well, who also has to deal with the new group of  dancers in front of them, and sometimes as a pianist, it feels like you’re the lightning conductor for the tension in the room.

A Dance Class Anthology

Picture of "A Dance Class Anthology"

A Dance Class Anthology—now back in print, and available from RAD Enterprises Ltd

One last thing: it’s worth mentioning that The Dance Class Anthology, which Chris Hobson mentions towards the end of the podcast, is now back in print again, and available from the RAD Enterprises—though until the Covid-19 lockdown ends, they can’t dispatch any orders. 

 

 

Nureyev’s Siegfried solo in the White Swan pas de deux

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Extract of full score of Nureyev's Siegfried solo in Act 2 of Swan Lake

Nureyev’s Siegfried Solo in Act 2 of Swan Lake

Maybe I’ve just led a sheltered ballet life, but after 30+ years of playing for more rehearsals and casts of the white swan pas de deux from Swan Lake Act II than I can remember, I was astounded the other day to discover that there was a bit of the score that I didn’t know—never heard it, never seen it. For a recording project, someone asked me for a piano version of Nureyev’s solo for Siegfried from Act II. I hope you’re all going what act 2 solo? with me. 

So here it is: 

Le lac des cygnes – act 2 Siegfried variation from seminkova on Vimeo.

I almost despaired to the point of emailing Lars Payne, orchestral librarian at ENB  who knows everything [see earlier post] there is to know about ballet music, particularly Swan Lake, but I’ll admit it, I was too proud to confess that I didn’t know what it was. So I started searching, and found something on the Nureyev Foundation website that said “Nureyev restores the prince’s variation which used to be habitually cut after the dance of the big swans.”  Again, I thought “which variation?!”  I had already looked through the 1877 version of the score at least twice, trying to find it, and through the 1895 Langer version, to see if was something that had been added posthumously. As I listened, I began to doubt myself: is this Tchaikovsky at all? Since I had already promised to record it, I began to dread that it was (as turned out to be the case in another Nureyev restaging) John Lanchbery had quietly faked a Tchaikovsky-like solo to save the day. 

I had another look at the Kashkin score—which by the way, I’ve used for years—and sure enough, there at the end of the pas de deux (not after the dance of the big swans, actually) is the so-called “prince’s variation,” which is more like a coda for the pas de deux couple. In fact, my experience was what made me miss it in the first place: I was so used to the conventional ending to the pas de deux, that I wasn’t expecting to see anything novel there—so I didn’t. You can find it yourself in the Kashkin score on IMSLP, but in case you miss it and to save time, here are the relevant pages in a two page file

It’s in nicely rounded 8-bar phrases except for the last phrase, which is 6 bars—though you could cut it or extend it easily. In typical Tchaikovsky fashion, there’s a kind of trompe l’oreille effect, whereby the first motif sounds as if it’s an anacrusis, but it is isn’t—it keeps chasing its own tail like a Möbius strip. 

Eventually, I remembered that I had seen it once before, though without registering any of the notes. I was playing for the Ballet Masterclasses in Prague, where we were going to White Swan in the pas de deux class. I said very casually, oh yes, it’s fine, the score’s on IMSLP, no need to worry. With about 5 minutes to go before the class, I printed it off, and then to my horror, noticed that the ending I was expecting. Fortunately, we did have a score of the right version. 

Everyday life as a ballet pianist: a cartoon by Marlene Spiers

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Cartoon by Marlene Spiers of a ballet pianist

Everyday life as a ballet pianist, a cartoon from the “Dance damn you, Dance” collection by Marlene Spiers. © unknown, but was sent to me in 1990

I have cherished this postcard for the last 30 years. I have never found anything that expresses so perfectly the world of the ballet class pianist as this. I am terrified of losing it, so while I can still find it, I’m posting it online. This is an illegal act for which I hope Marlene Spiers or her estate will forgive me, and I will take it down, or pay a reasonable sum to put it online if the copyright holders contact me, but it’s too good not to share.

The card was sent to me by Susie Cooper—by the strangest coincidence, since I literally just picked this out of a box at random—on 6th April 1990, almost exactly 30 years ago today. It was a lovely encouraging postcard and a letter continued on another sheet, and it gives me such joy to be able to say that the conversation still continues today.

Representations of the everyday life of a ballet pianist

The ballet pianist is such a trope in film (see the clip from Stepping Out on another page on this site), but the reality is never far off (see earlier post about the pianist in The Children of Theatre Street). One of my favourite gentle portrayals in literature is Mr Booth in Zadie Smith’s Swing Time, in the early chapters that describe so perfectly the world of Saturday morning dance classes). But the all-time prize for an honest documentary shot goes to the bit around 1’56” in the British Pathé film of Preobrajenska teaching in Paris in 1959.

The pianist smiles so beautifully at the teacher, so engaged, so totally attentive and involved in what is going on, so respectful to Mme. Preobrajenska. Nonetheless, on the music stand, open for even the documentary maker to see and film with no shame, is an open magazine. I just love the fact that she made no attempt to hide it for the camera.

Screenshot of documentary from 1959 of Preobrajenska teaching in Paris

Screenshot from British Pathé film (about 1:36″) 83 Year Old Ballet Teacher (1959) [Film ID:2726.04] [Documentary]. British Pathé. https://youtu.be/JDgEB5iK-9o For full film, see embedded clip below.

Chatelot, C. (1959). 83 Year Old Ballet Teacher (1959) [Film ID:2726.04]. British Pathé. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/JDgEB5iK-9o

 

A 19th century quadrille generator

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I remember inwardly eye-rolling when I heard a teacher many years ago claim excitedly that her pianist “never played the same thing twice.” Call me cynical, but if you’re a pianist for ballet class, you know that if you play week in week out for the same teacher and you’re playing repertoire, it’s almost impossible not to repeat yourself. You’d have to have the memory of a vaudeville savant to literally not repeat yourself.

On the other hand, if by “never playing the same thing twice,” the teacher meant that the pianist constantly improvised, and never came out with the same thing twice, then—call me cynical a second time—I still have my doubts. Improvising, particularly for ballet class, doesn’t mean producing infinitely random streams of notes, like a lottery ball machine; it involves producing music that sounds as if it’s something that you’ve heard before (see a previous post for more on this and 18th century composition primers).

The Quadrille Melodist

I had been thinking about this in relation to a brief exchange of comments on a previous post about “fear of repetition” when improvising. Then today, by coincidence, I discovered a fascinating article [full text free to download] by Nikita Braguinski on a 19th century quadrille generator, called the Quadrille Melodist, that promised to provide “428 Millions of Quadrilles for 5s. 6d.” Never one to pass up a bargain, I had to read it. It turns out, this is a box of cards, in principle not unlike Mozart’s dice game (Würfelspiel)—you have a selection box of one-bar fragments that you can combine to make an eight-bar phrase.

From the photograph, the “machine” looks a bit like one of those clocking-in card racks for employees. Instead of employees, you have bars of music on cards that you can arrange, sort, move and shuffle, but with constraints on which slot they can be placed in, to ensure the musical logic of each resulting piece.

This seems pretty close to what a lot of ballet class improvisation is (and indeed, the creation of ballet enchaînements too): the amalgamation of a limited range of permissible fragments into a more-or-less logical sounding phrase, with strict rules. Obviously the best improvisers (and ballet teachers) do more than this, but that’s a handful, in my experience; and the chances are they did their best improvisations by shedding, not on the spot.

Incidentally, Braguinski points out that its inventor, John Clinton misrepresented—perhaps on purpose—the possible combinations by several orders of magnitude: the correct figure is in fact 7,400,249,944,258,160,101,211, or just over 7.4 sextillion. If he’d wanted to to achieve the advertised figure of 428 million tunes, he could have done it with far fewer cards.

More of the same?

At the end of the article, Braguinski asks an interesting question.

At the same time, the assumption that original or new music is desirable for a quadrille is debatable. Wouldn’t the constant variation run the risk of confusing the dancers? (p. 98).

Possibly not. It depends a lot on what you mean by “the same” or “original” or “new” music, and whether you’re using the music to cue particular movements, or as accompaniment for a dance that you already know (see previous posts here and there [see under “pedadogical category” heading] ) for more on those topics).

Looking at the possibilities afforded by Clinton’s quadrille machine, the outcomes would be different, to be sure, but they are literally formulaic, and so pretty much indistinguishable from one another, as well as totally unmemorable—which is perhaps the price of endless “novelty,” if novelty is the right word at all.

See: Braguinski, N. (2019). “428 Millions of Quadrilles for 5s. 6d.”: John Clinton’s Combinatorial Music Machine. 19th-Century Music, 43(2), 86–98. https://doi.org/10.1525/ncm.2019.43.2.86