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Out today on the Ballet Piano Podcast, an interview I did a couple of years ago. I’d forgotten what we talked about until I listened to it. I was surprised to find that hearing myself talk about why I’d decided to do a PhD in what “music for ballet training” means, and how that affects what you teach and how. In it, I refer to an article by Howard Becker that I couldn’t remember the title of—but if you’re interested, it’s “The etiquette of Improvisation.

I love that article so much, I’ll quote the bit I was referring to in the podcast. The context (in case you never hear the podcast) is that we’re talking about the lessons you learn by just being scared witless in a ballet class, getting it wrong, and, metaphorically getting your fingers burnt. However much you prepare through research and preparation beforehand, you get neither the sense of urgency or achievement if you don’t sit in that chair. I feel there’s a comparison to be made there with the way that Becker talks about learning the etiquette of playing jazz with others:

No one taught us these rules, nor had we read them in an etiquette column in Downbeat. We learned them by quietly observing, as youngsters, what older players did, and noting what happened when someone (usually a novice or some other unsocialized type) failed to obey these rules. The grossest examples I ever saw of someone failing to follow these rules came years later when groups of sociologist-musicians played together at sociology conventions. A few of them had not had the years of playing in such sessions the rest of us shared and would break in on other people’s choruses before those players had finished their allotment and stop before they had finished their own. We never knew what to do with such people, believing that if someone didn’t know any better than that by now it was too late to try to teach them.

It sounds like I might be advocating learning through fear, surprise, and lack of preparation. I’m not. You need kindness, help, and a lot of preparation. But it’s amazing how much and how quickly you learn when you find out the rules of the game as you’re playing.

Also, since I talk a lot about what prompted me to look further into the whole question of why it seemed that teaching time signature as “music theory” for ballet teachers was so problematic, you might be interested in the (open access) article I wrote in the Empirical Musicology Review, How down is a downbeat? Feeling meter and gravity in music and dance. If you have access to Oxford Handbooks online, there is more where that came from: “The Politics of Musical Time in the Everyday Life of Ballet Dancers. I also wrote a chapter on music in Ballet: The essential guide to technique and creative practice which has, hidden in the cracks, some of the same ideas if you know where to look for them.


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Jonathan Still, ballet pianist