Can I have the wrong music please? Revisiting music for ballet class

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

I wrote the article “Can i have the wrong music please? Revisiting music for ballet class”  for Dance Gazette (2) in 2001.  Reading it again, 17 years after it was written, and with an MA in music education and an almost-finished PhD under my belt (also on this topic area) there’s so much of it  I disagree with, I’ve decided to briefly say why, here and there. I’ve dated the excerpts so it’s clear. If you are tempted to quote  anything I say in the original article, please bear in mind that it largely doesn’t reflect my views any more. 

[2001] It would be a strange and unpopular tap-class where students learned tap to the Moonlight Sonata, or jazz dance to quadrilles.  Singers and dancers aspiring to be in Cats do not warm up for auditions with bel canto arias; b-boys do not practise headspins to Rameau. Music for training and practice in these genres is largely reflective of music for performance.

[2018] Fair comment, but even it’s true (and to be honest, I have no idea how people warm-up for auditions, or practise headspins),  I’d be much more interested these days in some empirical research, rather than armchair hypothesizing.

[2001] Yet when it comes to ballet, it is not uncommon to find a pianist (or a recording of one) playing a repertoire of mazurkas, waltzes, polkas, nocturnes and other light salon pieces from the 19th century in eight-bar phrases, while ballet companies are dancing in works which use a much wider variety of music:  Hans van Manen’s Five Tangos [1977] – Astor Piazzola,  new tango;  Michael Clark’s I Am Curious Orange [1988] The Fall, post-punk group; Balanchine’s Agon [1957] – Stravinsky at his most abstruse, polymetric and microrhythmic; William Forsythe’s In the Middle Somewhat Elevated [1987]  – Thom Willems hi-tech sampled percussion at extreme volume; Twyla Tharp’s “Junk Man Pas de Deux” from Known By Heart [1998] –  music played on “junk” instruments by Donald Knaack, or Balanchine’s Who Cares? [1970] lush, Gershwin songs orchestrated by Hershy Kay.

[2018] But there’s a good reason for that. How would anyone ever teach, if the repertoire could be anything that was in anyone’s repertoire? How long would it take to set an exercise if you were using Agon or Five Tangos? How long to carve up the music into useful chunks? How much extra work for the teacher? 

[2001] I have deliberately chosen examples from the 20th century repertoire to argue the case for using 20th music for class.  However, even the nineteenth-century repertoire is ill-served by the format of class exercises themselves. Think of the introductions to the Mazurka or Csárdás in Coppélia [1870], or the long preambles to the “Waltz of the Flowers” from The Nutcracker [1892. These have a sense of grandeur and expectation, they are portents of exciting things to come, not just four bars of “oom pah pah” to give the dancer an idea of the tempo. Very often, these introductions are at a different tempo to the music they introduce anyway.

[2018] But I don’t actually argue the case at all, either way. Reading this back, there’s a much stronger, implicit case for keeping class music as simple as the structure of the class. 

[2001] Apart from the four bar introduction, the regular eight bar phrase is another passion-killer. Tchaikovsky’s waltzes in particular have skilfully crafted endings built-up over long time-periods, which keep the listener in a state of musical tension until the music finally – and noisily – resolves. These are the sections which end-up on the cutting-room floor because they “don’t quite fit” the exercise.  As I will argue later, doing things that don’t fit is a musical skill which needs to be trained.

[2018[ But whoever said that class was the kind of place where you want musical tension and delayed resolution? 

[2001] The nineteenth-century ballet repertoire is not well-served either by being played on the piano. Playing a single sustained note on the piano (which is, after all, a percussion instrument)  is like throwing a stone into a pond – after an initial splash, all that is left are ripples fading into nothing. The percussive nature of the piano renders music which was written to played by stringed instruments lifeless, it cannot empathize with movement as the violin or cello does.

[2018] True, but there’s also something rather nice about stuff that’s been arranged for piano, and about the unity, the homogeneity of the sound of a solo piano, too.

[2001] Nor does the piano do a very good job of representing the orchestra at its loudest and most exciting.  The music for the coda of Tchaikovsky’s “Black Swan” pas de deux from Swan Lake, for example, is very loud, with a drum beat in quality and prominence not dissimilar to a lot of rock music.  It is fast, loud and vulgar in the very best sense of the word.   However hard you hit a piano, you cannot make the sound of bass drums, cymbal crashes and triangles.

[2018] But the piano can be very dynamic.  In fact, a lot more dynamic than orchestral music squeezed through a tiny, suboptimal sound system or portable hifi. I owe this observation largely to my friend and colleague Andrew Holdsworth.

[2001] How much does the way that music is used in a ballet class really train students in the musical skills that dancers need?  Teachers and pianists expend time and energy on finding the “right” music for class, by which is understood eight-bar phrases, four bar introductions, suitable rhythm, appropriate tempo,  music for balancing, music for stretching, music for révérences,  music that ‘makes’ you land on one, jump on one, plié on six and so on.  Many of these musical choices, however, are predicated on assumptions about the relationship between dance and music which are simply not borne out by practice. 

[2018] Well for one thing, you can’t train for every eventuality that you might meet in choreography. It’s in doing repertoire/choreography that you learn to do this stuff. 

[2001] In performance, for example, a dancer frequently needs to be able to hear, but not listen to the music. What may be musically a quiet, peaceful ending may well be choreographically the cue for a dancer in the wings to run on stage and begin a virtuoso solo. Similarly, in a choreographic canon –  as indeed with a musical one –  it is important to be aware of one’s position in time relative to the previous person or group, not in relation to the absolute passage of musical time.  And of course, if a murderer arrives on stage six counts late, only the most obsessive dancer would insist on dying before he had been shot for the sake of musical  correctness.

[2018] Yes, but for heaven’s sake, how many times is there a shotgun murder in a ballet? I was thinking of the duel in Onegin, but are you really going to train for that? On the other hand, learning to come in on time in sequenced groups is something that is always useful. 

[2001] Close inspection of the relationship between choreography and music does not always indicate the felicitous correspondence between, say, melody and movement that is implied by the exhortation “listen to the music!”.  The opening of the “Kingdom of the Shades” from La Bayadère [1877], for example, requires the dancer to move independently of and at counterpoint to the rhythm and shape of the melody.  Hans van Manen, coaching the Fifth Tango in his Five Tangos, told dancers at City Ballet of London “don’t move until you have to”[1]: to achieve the musical effect he wanted, dancers had to effectively be ‘late’.  It doesn’t look late – in fact, it looks extremely musical – but this musicality is gained by ignoring the music, not listening to it.

[2018]  Apart from the fact that I hate the cumbersome language of that paragraph, you cannot “inspect” the relationship between choreography and music. The relationship is a product of analysis, and a story you tell about what you see and hear. It’s not there in the world. And the rhythm of the steps  I had in mind here is constantly in the accompaniment, it’s the beating heart of the music. What was I thinking of, writing this stuff?  If I was re-writing this today, I would want to say something about how “listen to the music” doesn’t really mean that literally, it’s just a kind of symbol, a shorthand for being on the music, for being rhythmic, attending to your own rhythm.  Just as “watch out for the bus” really means “run like crazy.” A couple of teachers I’ve worked with recently have talked to students about being “in” the music, which I like a lot. It conveys the dual phenomenon of both listening as well as being contained, swept away, moved, by music. It’s really quite ingenious.  

[2001] If dancers sometimes have to ignore the music, there are also occasions when the music ignores them.  In a 1958 film[2] of Le Corsaire [1856], Alla Sizova ends the female variation from with the following:

Grand fouetté relevé into attitude derrière en croisé,
Relevé à la seconde
into double pirouette en dedans [arms 5th position] (repeat 3 times)
Grand fouetté relevé into attitude derrière en croisé Relevé à la seconde, plié in 5th position, relevé in 5th position, arms 5th position[3].

– and all this to Anton Simon’s dreamy, sentimental waltz Souvenir du Ball. There is almost nothing in this music which supports or gives impetus to the movements, nothing which hints at the effort required: it is soft, lyrical and practically without accent.  This is not to claim that the music is inappropriate – on the contrary, it is the ‘effortless’ music which helps to make Sizova’s performance look effortless too. Les Sylphides [1909] is also full of examples of “big” jumps done to “small” music.

[2018] We’ve just done this solo in a repertoire class, and one thing is sure—there are so many versions of this score that you can’t generalize. Also, it’s possible that if you rehearse it to the dynamic sound of the piano, by the time you do it to orchestra, you have embodied the dynamics of the piano. Or the movements themselves invest the music with an imaginary quality. Perception is like that. 

[2001 An extreme instance, perhaps, of “not listening” is to be found in Neumeier’s Ondine [1994], in which dancers initially learn one section to a recording of Thomas Hampson singing Begin the Beguine, but only later in the rehearsal period perform it to Hans Werner-Henze’s dense, atonal, modernist score of 1958.  Neumeier’s aim was for the audience to see the dancers embodying the lush, warm elegance of Cole Porter that they had rehearsed to, while they heard Henze in full angst.

[2018] Why bother citing an extreme instance? If it’s extreme, then the few occasions on which that skill is needed are not worth training for in everyone’s class. What I didn’t say in the article was that it was a brilliantly clever idea that to me didn’t “read,” even though I knew all about it. 

[2001] And what about the skill of not moving to music?  As any corps de ballet member who has danced in the second act of Swan Lake will attest, there is a lot more to standing still to music than just standing still.  Similarly, during the pas de deux of Les Sylphides, the transition from stillness to movement in the changes of the corps de ballet require a dancer not only to know precisely when to move, but also how to move.  While some may argue that this is simply stagecraft or choreography rather than a musical skill, “when” and “how” are fundamentally musical questions.  Coming in at the wrong time with an inappropriate quality is the essence of musical slapstick; it is the basis some of the funniest sequences in Jerome Robbins’ The Concert [1956].

[2018] Again, these are skills that can be learned in the actual repertoire classes. 

[2001] Then there is the skill of moving to no music at all. Many pianists, faced with the task of accompanying pas courus or running steps, will hear the word “run”, and play lots of fast notes high up on the keyboard. Yet dancers frequently have to run in silence – at the beginning or end of a solo for example.

When running is accompanied by music in ballets, there is rarely a like-for-like correspondence between “running notes” and “running feet”.  If the music can be assumed to bear any relationship at all to running, it may perhaps highlight the motivation of running  – anger, despair, madness, love, fear, for example, or hint at the goal of running  – a lover, a murder victim, an elusive sylph.  In perhaps the most famous instance of pas courus – Myrtha’s entrance in Act II of Giselle [1841]the music yields almost no sense of tempo, rhythm or metre at all: nothing but ethereal high strings accompanied by the harp in an extremely slow six that almost defies recognition.

[2018] It’s a good principle, but it has little to do with music. Good teachers do this anyway: they tell their dancers what they want out of the movement, and how it should relate to the music (assuming there is some). 

[2001] Perhaps the most important musical skill of all, though, is to be able to adjust to differences in tempo.  Andria Hall, ballet mistress at the Deutsche Oper Berlin, would frequently ask the pianist “can we have it at the wrong speed now please?”   Although in an ideal world, conductors would attend rehearsals frequently, would get to know their dancers well and remain in constructive dialogue with them during the performance period, the reality is all but ideal, and dancers should be prepared for the just-tolerable, if not the worst.

[2018] Yes, that’s fair comment, though this is supposed to be a class, where you want the pianist (if there is one) to try and help the dancers achieve their best, at the level that they’re at. Playing things at the wrong tempo is not a great use of resources. The principle is correct, but it doesn’t relieve pianists or conductors of the responsibility to know how to accompany dance, and learn how to play at an appropriate tempo. 

[2001] Always finding the “right music” for class can be like giving an alcoholic another drink – it keeps one problem at bay while masking other more important ones. That is to say, at the very point at which the dancer’s musical skills might be developed by being forced to deal with a musical problem (such as the wrong tempo, music which seems inappropriate to the movement, music which is not in eight-bar phrases – or, indeed, not having any music at all), teachers and pianists are often tempted to try and make the problem disappear by “correcting” the music.

[2018] I think there’s a kernel of truth in this, but good teachers do develop dancers’ musical skills. What would make a huge difference is not changing the music, but more teachers doing more of that. 

[2001] When the purpose of class is to prepare for a rehearsal, or to warm-up for a performance, ‘four-in, four phrases of eight’ is a very valid and useful shared model which helps to make class run smoothly.  Within this structure, there is the possibility of drawing students’ attention to music, by working against the music rather than with it.  Suki Schorer’s account of Balanchine’s use of music in class in this way gives some excellent examples of how this can be achieved. [4]

[2018] So why did I not mention that in that same book, Schorer mentions that Balanchine liked Minkus and show-tunes for class? He thought the pianists might not do more serious music justice. I suspect what he meant was that the nature of class meant that it was difficult to do justice to other kinds of music. 

[2001] If ballet classes are to distinguish themselves significantly from aerobics and educate students musically, though, there is no better place to start than with occasionally asking for the ‘wrong’ music – too fast, too slow, too loud, too quiet, too irregular.  It is deviation from the norm that makes music interesting;  it is how dancers and  choreographers deal with music that makes ballet interesting.  Having the “wrong” music for class is not a mistake, it is a place where the art of music and ballet meet.

[2018] Oh God this sounds so pompous.  I wish at the time I wrote this, I’d read John McPhee’s book about writing, in which he says something  about one of his editors cutting final paragraphs that had take-home points. It can’t have been that important, if you waited til the final paragraph to say it. That’s brutal but excellent advice. How appalling that I knew that there would be people out there who really wanted to distinguish themselves significantly from aerobics teachers, so I used that to get a point across. At the time, I hadn’t read Tia DeNora’s article on music in aerobics classes, which reveals how much thought, time and work some aerobics teachers put into putting their playlists together, amongst other things. 

[1] reported by Christopher Hampson, ballet master of City Ballet of London, circa April 2000.

[2] Matheson, J. Simons, C. (Prod.) The Glory of the Kirov. London: NVC Arts, 1996.

[3] My thanks to Lynn Wallis for transcribing these steps.

[4] Schorer, S. (1999) Suki Schorer on Balanchine Technique. New York: Knopf

© 2001 Jonathan Still

4 thought on “Can I have the wrong music please? Revisiting music for ballet class”
  1. I’m a ballet pianist too, based in Chicago. My style is really different from other ballet pianists — few classics, no sheet music, lots of folk and contemporary. I get sore (but can say nothing) when a teacher says “Play one from the Book” –the Book being a collection of deservedly obscure, deadly dull 8-bar twiddles, none less than 150 years old.

    You make some really good points here. How can we pianists share our experience other than on the web? Most of us became what we are by a “sink or swim” method — is there any training out there? Conferences? Workshops? College courses?

    And like dancers, we are all individuals with our own styles. One plays a Strauss polka, another plays the Lollipop Guild.

  2. Thanks for the comment. I know what you mean about the ‘sink or swim’ method, but I’m getting to the point where I think this is what makes good dance pianists, because in the end it’s about developing a relationship with the teacher that you work with, in that particular context. There are some courses out there, the occasional seminar/conference. For me, the most useful thing was to sit in on someone good and see how they did it. But even then, I wasn’t always convinced – like you, I developed my own style, and I think it’s very unrewarding unless you do.

    Where I disagree with myself in this article now is that I don’t think it’s really about repertoire, it’s about what’s appropriate and what works in a context, and about a person and how they fit into the group (i.e. the class & the teacher).

  3. This is a great site. I’m a ballet pianist in San Jose, CA. And I’m glad to hear that I’m not the only accompanist that stresses out over whether a particular piece of music is appropriate or not. I feel like the range of tastes among different teachers is the central fact of playing a good class. Some teachers want to hear Chopin, some want to hear Radiohead, some want to hear Gershwin, some want to hear Philip Glass. If I’m playing for a new teacher for the first time, I play a mix of stuff and try to observe what they respond to.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Jonathan Still, ballet pianist