Category Archives: Advent calendar

Confessions of an anxious ballet pianist day #14: Adage

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Now that's what I call SLOW. Siegfried's Death from Götterdämmerung. You might die before the music gets to the end of the bar.

Now that’s what I call SLOW. Siegfried’s Death from Götterdämmerung. You might die before the music gets to the end of the bar.

As it’s Sunday, let’s have a religious topic (adage), and an extra confession: So help me God, I hate slow music. I don’t have the patience to listen to it, and I get bored playing it.  The music example above – a fragment of Siegfried’s Death and Funeral March from Wagner’s Götterdämmerung – is for me the epitome of the kind of music that should never have been conceived, written down, or performed. I’d rather be stuck in traffic than wait for the next semiquaver. If you like this kind of thing, that’s fine. But as someone who (I’m pretty sure, although it’s not diagnosed) has adult attention deficit disorder, unless there’s more going on in the music than in my brain, I get bored and distracted (I also just don’t like Wagner’s music at all, but that’s another story).

That’s why I find adage excruciating to play for. I don’t want to see it, and I don’t want to accompany it. All I’m thinking is “how long til allegro?” It’s exhausting having to hold yourself back from every quaver, like walking in slow motion. Occasionally, people say “Oh I love it when you play that for adage” and I have to smile and pretend that I love it too, whereas I can almost guarantee that I don’t enjoy playing anything that’s slow. For one thing, if I’m feeling down, my brain has time to wander and get miserable in the space between the notes.

The Prelude from "La Traviata" - I can take slow when it's got a bit of fast in it, like this

The Prelude from “La Traviata” – I can take slow when it’s got a bit of fast in it, like this

There’s are a few exceptions, and one of them is the Prelude to La Traviata (above). Apart from the fact that it’s got a nice tune, it’s also got all those fast notes going on in the right hand against the slow tune in the left that mitigates the slowness, and gives you enough to concentrate on while you play to stop your mind from wandering. Nothing against adage or slow music, or the people who like it, but for me, I’d rather keep moving. Sadly, I discovered a couple of years ago that this wonderful piece is used for Adage in one of the Cecchetti syllabuses, and so may need a trigger warning for some dancers. 

Maybe this is why I enjoy playing for dance. At the tempo of the Wagner example at the top of this post, you begin to lose any sense of beat or metre (see paragraph 2 in Justin London’s article about metre perception, I’m not making it up). For some people, this is what they like about music – the opportunity to get lost in it, to lose sense of time passing.  For me, it’s reading that has that effect on me, and I can easily get lost in a book, and enjoy the sensation. Music has to move.

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Confessions of an anxious ballet pianist day #13: Music for stretching

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Imagine – if you’re a dancer – that the curtain’s gone down on Act I, the house lights have gone up, and the audience are heading for the bar. You head for your dressing room. Suddenly, the stage manager brings the tabs out again and your director says “OK, now dance something really beautiful for the audience to leave the auditorium to.”  That’s what it’s like when, at the end of the barre, just at the moment you think you can give your mind and hands a rest, and when everyone else has disengaged from class and music, the teacher wants you to play music for stretching.

Picture of cat on a piano to accompany article on music for stretching

Dipsy contemplating polytonality.

First of all, you thought you were going to have a rest. It reminds me of that sketch when Dame Edna Everage decides to play a joke on her hospitalised husband by telling him he’s going home, going as far as to put him on a stretcher and get him into the ambulance outside the hospital, before screaming “April Fool!” and taking him back to the ward.

Then there’s the fact that you’ve been asked to play something “beautiful” just at the moment when nobody wants to listen. Some won’t stretch, some will leave the room, and those who do stretch could just as easily stretch without music, since there’s no actual exercise. You know for a fact that left to their own devices, if these dancers wanted music to stretch to, they’d put their headphones on and select something from their own music collection. Before you came to class, you deliberately avoided thinking of music that wasn’t in eight-bar phrases. Now, the teacher wants you to play something that makes people think of relaxing and stretching, of being distracted from pain and movement. What you need is music that doesn’t put you in “class” mode.

Years ago, I used to bring a few things with me for these moments  – like the Rachmaninov Vocalise, or the 2nd movement of the Shostakovich 2nd piano concerto, but the fashion for asking for music for stretching has all but disappeared (and I’m rather glad) so it’s now a bit of a shock when it happens, and I’m not prepared. It’s not so bad if the teacher doesn’t put too much weight on it – I liked it recently when a ballet master looked over to me at the end of the barre, and made “playing the piano” movements with his hands while shrugging his shoulders,  in a gesture that meant “Just play any kind of tinkly piano shit you like while they’re faffing around before the centre.” That’s fine. It’s when they close their eyes, cross their hands over their heart, and say “Something beautiful for stretch, maestro.” Thankfully, it hasn’t happened in a long time. Please don’t start now.

Update: Since writing this post, I started going to the gym. Like most gyms, mine plays a continuous selection of music to which I’m usually indifferent; but one day, while I was mid-plank, the music stopped. Inwardly, I screamed “TURN IT BACK ON! PLEASE! I DON”T CARE WHAT IT IS, TURN IT BACK ON!” I had always thought one of the teachers I work for was joking when she’d said “Play anything you like to take their [the children’s] minds off the pain.” Now I know she must have been deadly serious, because I’ve experienced it first-hand. So while I still hate playing music for stretching, for all the reasons I’ve mentioned above, I apologise for the misunderstanding, and of course, I’ll willingly play any kind of tinkly piano shit you like while you faff around before the centre.

PS: There’s a gratuitous cat on today’s post, because it’s St Lucy’s day, and Daria Klimentová’s cat is called Lucy.  She featured on St Lucy’s day on last year’s St Lucy’s day post, with a free download of Santa Lucia for your Swedish Christmas ballet class.

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Confessions of an anxious ballet pianist day #12: Wrong notes

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nutcracker-pas_0002

One of my worst ever wrong notes. I haven’t completed the second bar, because I can’t remember how I got out of it. It wasn’t pretty.

“You should play more wrong notes, then people wouldn’t notice so much.” That was the kind, but impractical advice given to me by a good friend in a company many years ago, after I’d played for class, and accidentally hit the most spectacularly wrong note in the middle of a very well-known tune. There was a ripple of laughter, and half the room turned and looked at me with a grin, as if I’d done it on purpose for the comedy factor. There was something in what my friend said: the price of a tendency to be accurate is putting a spotlight and a gold frame around your mistakes.

The way to play a really terrible wrong note for comic effect is to be utterly convinced that you’re going to play the right one. It’s hard to do on purpose, because all your training will guard you from attacking a wrong note with the confident authority that you’d give to the right one – only the genuine accidents is truly funny. I’ve played the Nutcracker pas de deux probably thousands of times over the last 25 years or so, and while I’ve missed a lot of notes (or not aimed for them in the first place, which is the key to being accurate) I have never, ever, done what I did in a rehearsal the other day, which was to play the whole three bars preamble, and then place a fortissimo F natural at the beginning of the cello tune. It could have happened any one of the thousands of times I’ve played it, but no, it had to happen while I was playing for one of the most famous ballerinas in the world.

Musicians amongst musicians (i.e. when they’re not playing for dancers) find this kind of thing funny – they’ll grin at each other, maybe even quietly applaud it. But the trouble with playing for dancers is that ballet is just too hard and serious to muck about with. They’ve usually heard the orchestral version of the music more than you have, and so they’ll be more aware than you are if there’s something wrong or missing.  I have a theory that the less diatonic the score, the worse it is: play one wrong note in a complex chord in Romeo and Juliet and everyone know’s that there’s something wrong, even if they can’t tell you exactly what it is. As the musician, you’re often the last person in the room to know, if – as often happens – you’re (mis)reading a score that everyone else knows by ear.

I’m glad I’m not playing for any rehearsals today. After my post about getting lost in phrases yesterday, I got horrendously lost twice in the same class, as if blogging about it was a self-fulfilling prophecy rather than, as I’d hoped, an inoculation against future danger.  On that basis, my guess is that today would not be a good day for accuracy. I’m staying in.

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Confessions of an anxious ballet pianist day #11: Getting the phrasing wrong

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A house with the number 42 and half to accompany an article on musical phrasing in balletAs I’ve already mentioned in posts about  the difficulties of playing slow threes (like mazurkas and polonaises), where you can end up accidentally thinking in six-count units instead of eight-bar phrases. It will be no surprise then that I’d rate getting phrasing wrong as one of my worst fears as a ballet pianist. There is nothing quite so embarrassing as losing your place in a musical phrase.

It’s horrible to see anywhere in class, because it’s so difficult to get out of it once it’s happened. At the barre, when you see the whole class turn to the other side when you’re in the middle of a phrase, it makes you feel slightly sick. The worst part is that it probably happened because you were distracted, so at precisely the point where you need all your concentration to pull yourself out of the hole you’ve dug, you’re not even aware of what’s happened, like falling asleep at the wheel. If you’re lucky, an on-the-ball  teacher will have realised what’s happened and will glare at you and give you a very loud “five six SEVEN EIGHT” to help you get back into sync with the exercise. Worst of all is when no-one knows where they are, not you, the dancers or the teacher, and you just keep dribbling on at the piano, adding two-count phrases to what you were playing until the exercise grinds to an untidy halt. In an allegro, you may wrong-foot people so badly that you just have to stop and start again.

The more experienced you are the worse it is, because teachers and dancers get used to the idea that you’ll just be with them all the time, so that when it goes wrong, it feels really wrong and the teacher and class all turn and look at you in slight shock. If you’re lucky, they laugh, but I reckon you’ve got fewer lives than a cat when it comes to doing that in a company, so it’s not something that’s easy to laugh at yourself for.

The moment when it happens is excruciating, and it’s one of the reasons that quite early on in my career, I decided to be one of those pianists that played tunes more than I improvised. If you know what a tune does, then you know how to save yourself if you suddenly see that an exercise is going to be three phrases on one side, rather than four, and you don’t run the risk of adding an extra two counts to a phrase because your improvising brain thought it would sound nice.

But tunes can trick you sometimes too: I’ve given up playing The Girl from Ipanema for class recently, because it’s so easy to forget how many times you’ve played the middle-eight phrase. Instinctively, it feels like it should come twice, but it actually comes three times, but when you do this, three times feels like too many so it’s tempting to play it a fourth time to round it up, and then you’re in real trouble. The better written the song, the easier it is to be distracted. One of the things you realise early on as a tune-hunter is that some of the best melodies aren’t regular at all, but sound as if they are, or sometimes sound as if they aren’t, when they are: What’s so clever about that middle eight in The Girl from Ipanema is that the first three phrases of it are in a slow 2 (Oh…/How…/Yes….), but the end of it (But each day….) effectively doubles in tempo, which enables a five-line stanza to fit into a four-square musical phrase. Now that I’ve finally worked out what has wrong-footed me all this time, I might start playing it again.

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Confessions of an anxious pianist day #10: The Polonaise

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Polonaise from the Tchaikovsky/Balanchine ballet "Theme and variations"

Things you can do with a polonaise if you’re Tchaikovsky, and you’ve got time to think.

About once a year, I buy a Fry’s Turkish Delight bar, a slab of faintly fragrant sugary pink jelly covered in chocolate. It has no nutritional value, no crunch, no layers, a single, slightly weird flavour, and so there’s nothing new to experience after the first bite. I’m faintly disgusted by it, yet I have a compulsion to keep trying it now and again, because I’m not quite sure whether secretly, I rather like it. I still can’t be sure. I feel the same way about the polonaise.

I dread having to play polonaises because a) my left hand doesn’t have enough strength or stamina to play the characteristic rhythm pattern more than a couple of times without seizing up, b) like the slow mazurka, if you’re improvising, it’s easy to get lost inside a six count phrase and forget where you are, and screw up the exercise for everyone, and c) it’s hard to invent the kinds of things that make polonaises interesting off the top of your head, like tricking the listener into thinking the music’s in two, then falling back into three, or cramming dozens of fast notes and dotted rhythms in between the beats as Tchaikovsky likes to do.

onegin-polonaise

The polonaise from Cherevichki Act 3 No. 19 used in Cranko’s Onegin. Brilliant, but virtually unusable, because it’s just too darned clever to throw your legs up to.

Chopin polonaises are generally too fancy and pianistic to do barre exercises to, the Tchaikovsky ones (Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, Eugene Onegin (the opera), Cherevichki (used in Onegin the ballet, the finale of Suite No. 3 used in Theme and Variations ) don’t go on for more than 8 bars without some change in the phrase structure that means you can’t use them. Operatic ones can be quite good, except that they tend to be faster than what you need for a grand battement exercise, and they’re not called “polonaise,” so you can’t hunt them down easily.  It seems to me that the more suitable for a grands battements exercise a polonaise is, the less interesting it is as music. There are couple of exceptions, and I’ve worn them threadbare playing them for class.

Then there’s the fact that when teachers want a polonaise for a jump, what they need is nearer to a bolero than a polonaise – though, annoyingly, boleros usually have a two bar vamp in the middle that make them unusable (like the Spanish in Swan Lake, for example). Occasionally, you get a cross between a bolero and a polonaise (a bolernaise?) that does the trick nicely – the “tempo polacca” on page 35 of this pot-pourri from Esmeralda is a good example (though it’s a bit dull, frankly).  But usually, if you play a polonaise for a jump, it’ll be too heavy, and if you play a bolero, the chances are it’ll be too fast or light. Most of the time, a triple jig works just as well, if not better, but it’s not a good idea to go there, because it sounds too different to what the teacher marked, and they’ll think you’ve misunderstood.

Oh, and then there are those awkward moments when a teacher says “Mazurka, please” and marks the exercise with a mazurka rhythm sung at polonaise speed, or “Polonaise please” and then proceeds to do the exercise on a mazurka.  If you play what they meant (and showed in their voice), rather than what they said, you risk showing them up, or making them think that you didn’t understand. To save face, I usually play the introduction in the rhythm that they asked for, and then start playing what they meant when the tune comes in, by which time it’s too late for them to start a discussion, so we’re safe. I don’t care what anyone calls it, by the way – I’m as prone to misnaming dance rhythms under pressure as any dance teacher.

The trouble with the polonaise is that it has overtones. It’s grand, it’s marchy, it’s processional, it’s sparkly. It’s an opportunity for metrical tricks and conundrums. It wasn’t designed to do ballet exercises to, and by the time you’ve trimmed off all the things that you need to to make it work, you’re left with its rather dull, boxy three-ness and not much else, like a tailor’s dummy.

But for all that, I’ve grown to rather like polonaises in the same weird way that I can’t keep away from Fry’s Turkish Delight. There’s something icky about them that make you want to keep going back and having another look. When you get an exercise that is at just the right speed to make an operatic one retain its operatic excitement, it’s exhilarating. If nothing else, they’re a refreshing change from playing wall-to-wall duple meter As Kath and Kim would say, it’s nice, it’s different, it’s unusual. 

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Confessions of an anxious ballet pianist day #9: Oh no! What was that?!

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There's a lot to be said for leaving gaps when you mark an exercise.

There’s a lot to be said for leaving gaps when you mark an exercise.

You sit at the piano, and watch the teacher address the class, rattling off directions, her hands a blur as she marks movements with her hands at 8x fast forward speed (women are for some reason always faster at this than men in my experience).  You know it’s a warm-up of some sort, but no more. Then, about five seconds earlier than you expected, she suddenly turns to you and says “AND!” and then away, back to the class, leaving you to it.

What was that? Slow? Fast? Two? Three? Accented? Smooth? The same speed throughout? Absolutely no idea at all. But the indication to start has already been given, and so start you must. You put your hands down on the keys, and play an introduction in whatever key you land in. At the same time, you look over anxiously at the teacher for signs that you might be playing the right kind of thing, and then at the dancers to see what kind of exercise it was that was just marked.

I’ve sometimes got to the last note of an introduction, and thought “am I playing in 3 or 4?” followed by “oh no, what do I know in D flat in 3/4?” Under pressure, you just play something, and wait for your brain to work out what it’s going to be in time for the beginning of the exercise. It doesn’t always work out that way. I’ve sometimes dribbled away in a key for about four bars, and then thought “Oh that sounds like…” and decide half way through the first phrase what it’s going to be.

At this point in this post, and in this advent calendar generally, I should confess that I actually enjoy the adrenalin ride of company class, and of moments like the one I’ve described when you work for someone for the first time, and you don’t know what their thing is.  I enjoy the high-stakes gamble of moments like this where you know that you’ll either get it more or less right, or terribly wrong.

I don’t mind getting it wrong if I was at least trying, but being distracted is a different problem altogether, and much more embarrassing. I was recently distracted for just a few seconds while the teacher was setting an exercise in the centre. Unfortunately, those few seconds must have been the moments where he explained what category of exercise it was. Lost in my thoughts, I heard him say “and,” and trying to work out what to play, I remembered seeing him mark something that looked like a pirouette, so I started playing a big thumpy introduction for a pirouette exercise. After a bar and a half, he looked over, smiled and made a “cut!” sign, and said “It’s adage, maestro.” It’s to avoid the shame of moments like that is what keeps you concentrating even harder next time you go into class, but I like that.

When you’re on good form, you can look at someone’s exercise, and fill in the musical gaps, and between you, you make something that works. Although it’s nice when teachers are so clear musically that you can be in no doubt as to what they want, I think on balance, I prefer it when there’s a bit of ambiguity, when they leave it to you, rather than prescribe everything in advance.  That’s a whole other topic that I’ve already written about in an earlier post but the Prausnitz comment from Score and podium: a complete guide to conducting (p.115) is worth repeating.

A timely caution: one good subdivision does not necessarily deserve another. Given the fact that most music is made between beats, it follows that the fewer the beats, the more music making can take place.

That’s what I mean.

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Confessions of an anxious ballet pianist day #7: The dreaded 2/4 sissonne

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Variation from the ballet in Donizetti's "La Favorite," useful for 2/4 sissonne exercises

Variation from the ballet in Donizetti’s “La Favorite.” Possibly good for a 2/4 sissonne

A short but apposite entry today, because I’m off to record a whole bunch of examples of exactly what this post is about: music for that kind of sissonne exercise that demands a slow, marchy kind of 2/4 that, you know, doesn’t sound too slow or marchy. Done well (as it always does when you’re playing for a company) the step looks fantastic – lithe, bouncy, strong, aerial, assured, elegant, noble.

It’s not the exercise that I dread, but the fact that once I’ve exhausted the two OK-ish bits of music that still sound more or less like music, I’m going to have to start improvising. Given the speed, rhythmic structure and tempo of the exercise, and my lack of ideas of how to make it musically interesting,  what will come out will almost certainly be a stream of limp, diatonic drivel.

Boring but useful: the uses of diatonic drivel

To some extent, if what you’re playing has the right tempo, rhythm and feel, and the class is in the mood to jump, then a bit of diatonic drivel can be forgiven: you’re at least providing them with the structure within which to jump, and that’s better than sounding clever or entertaining, but at the expense of the exercise. Unfortunately, though, I know too much: I’ve seen the faces light up when you finally find a good tune; I’ve heard a principal say how much she loves it when she finally hears something she knows. So my anxiety is that you’re just boring these poor people to death with your improvising, yet you can’t think of anything else to play.

There’s no need to say “Oh but Jonathan, I’m sure what you play is fine,” because I know other pianists have the same anxiety. One told me that before a live TV broadcast of a class, she begged the teacher to try and steer away from that kind of 2/4, for precisely this reason. In the heat of the moment, no doubt as a result of nerves of her own, the teacher didn’t. I’m sure nobody really noticed that much, but for you as the pianist, it’s a horrible, sinking feeling as you have to keep playing stuff that you know is dull, but you’ve got nowhere to hide, and no time to think of anything better.

La Favorite: not my favourite music, but it’ll do for a 2/4 sissonne

There’s a variation in the ballet to Donizetti’s La Favorite that always seems to work well for this, and is the rhythmic model that I use for searching for other pieces, though even better is one that has accents on the offbeats, like one variation in Dom Sebastian (also Donizetti) that I can’t find right now. Things like Stairway to Paradise just about fit the model, and just about work, but somehow, there’s something about these old ballet variations that have the right amount of air, strength and ballon in them, and it’s very difficult to find something different unless it’s just a pastiche of the same style. Maybe part of the problem is that it really has to be in 2, not 4, that is, with a good solid accent every two beats, not with a half-accent in the middle of a 4/4 bar.  In the Donizetti example illustrated, despite appearances suggested by some of the accompaniment (bass + 3 equal chords), the melody, and most of the harmonic changes, suggest that this is another case of compound duple, i.e. two bars of 2/8 combined for notational convenience into 2/4, but it’s not “4/8” in the sense of having a half-accent in the middle of the bar (see earlier post for more).

The alternative is for the teacher to put it on a 3 instead, but to be honest, it never seems to work as well. The 2/4 sissonne is just one of those ballet problems that you have to solve somehow, and I’m still trying.

 

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Confessions of an anxious ballet pianist day #6: Playing the Black Swan variation music

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The original piano piece, Op. 72 No. 12, orchestrated by Drigo for the 1895 production of Swan Lake.

The original piano piece, Op. 72 No. 12, orchestrated by Drigo for the 1895 production of Swan Lake.

The music that is harder to find than a black swan

Let’s start with a few facts. Although this solo, and the Black Swan pas de deux that it comes from, is one of the most famous bits of the most famous ballets in the world, the chances are that if you pick up a score of Swan Lake, you won’t find it – either the solo, or the pas de deux. There was no such thing as “Black Swan Pas de Deux” in Act 3 of the original (1877) score of Swan Lake. Most of it was taken from a pas de deux for “two merry-makers” in Act 1 (No. 5). Not only is Siegfried’s solo not there in the form that we generally know it today (most of that  extended, light, chirpy, and playful violin solo in Act 1 was removed, leaving only a bleeding chunk of tutti for the later “Siegfried” solo), but Odile’s solo isn’t there at all. That’s because it was only added in 1895, after Tchaikovsky’s death. It’s a piano solo (Op. 72 No. 12, L’Espiègle) orchestrated by Drigo, along with other interpolations and changes, documented on this Wikipedia page about the 1895 version of Swan Lake.

The original source of the black swan variation music

L’Espiègle, the subtitle of Tchaikovsky’s piece, means something like “Sprite,” “Demon,” or “Prankster.” It’s apparently related to “Eulenspiegel.” You get the idea. It’s a little novelty piece that should be cheeky, irreverent, playful, elusive, naughty. You can see why they might have chosen such a piece for Odile’s solo. Accordingly, it’s marked Allegro moderato (con grazia, in modo di scherzo. Stokowski’s Richter’s recording will give you an idea of what I mean: [many of the YouTube videos I embed get removed, which is a shame. Stokowski’s recording is orchestral, so it’s more fun to listen to and compare: listen to it here on Deezer, or here on iTunes or just use the relevant terms to search for it elsewhere]:  

But you’ll be in trouble if you play it like that. To accompany this solo, you have to ignore just about everything that’s in the score, and add things that are not there, and still aren’t printed in any version of the score that I’ve seen. Versions of the score that include the solo just reprint Tchaikovsky’s piano version (you can download one here, from IMSLSP, though it doesn’t contain the cut), not a reduction of the Drigo orchestration.  Let me list just a few examples of what I mean.

  • Time signature: No. it’s marked C, but really needs to be re-barred as 2/4 (a classic case of compound duple time – see an earlier post for more on that).
  • Allegro moderato: No. Think Air on the G String instead as your tempo ball-park.
  • Con grazia, in modo di scherzo: No. Oh no, no, no. Put such thoughts right out of your mind
  • Stringendo, ritenuto, a tempo: No. Don’t even think about it. While you’re playing this, there’s so much stuff going on in that solo, if you don’t keep a rock-steady slow tempo, you’ll be in trouble, and so will Odile.
  • Did I mention the cut? You’ll be in trouble if you try to use the original piano solo. In the ballet, there’s a cut before the tune comes back again.

Now let’s talk about this:

Ballet's best kept secret: this is NOT how it goes.

Ballet’s best kept secret: this is NOT how it goes.

  • Don’t play what’s written for the semiquavers: find the chord that each pair creates, and repeat them in pairs (F#F# G#G# A#A# etc.)
  • Don’t play what’s written for the big fortissimo chord: that actually needs to be rhyhmically performed arpeggios. There is stuff going on there that needs a beat.
  • If you were thinking about pausing for dramatic effect on that chord – don’t. Count like crazy.
  • The middle of the piano solo is cut. Sometimes, the cut is wrongly marked, or maybe there was a version that had a different cut in. The cut includes a funny half-bar.
  • When the tune repeats, ignore all tempo markings, except that it’s going to be slightly faster this time. Possibly.
  • At the end, keep it in tempo. Or at least, play it as if you’re keeping in tempo, but make adjustments just in case she’s a little bit late. But be sure not to sound as if you’re slowing up, because otherwise that might make it sound like she’s late and we don’t want that.
  • Get used to the idea that you’ll probably miss the G# in the left hand chord 80% of the time, because you’re trying to watch the end of the solo.

As with the White Swan of yesterday’s post, it doesn’t get any easier, no matter how many times you’ve played this, for how many ballerinas. If it hadn’t been for my colleague Julia Richter, who initiated me into the secrets of this solo (like the arpeggios) when we were playing at a ballet competition together in 1987, I wouldn’t have known, and would have made a fool of myself for I don’t know how many years before someone told me. 27 years later (and 119 years after the first production), we’re still playing it, and there’s still not a proper piano reduction of it floating around – and Drigo’s orchestration isn’t available online to do the work yourself (if I’m wrong about that, let me know).

Update February 2015:  where to find a piano score of the black swan variation music
I did do it myself in the end – see my Black Swan page if you want some background, or just download it from IMSLP.

And finally – a dodgy comedy version of the black swan variation music

A little bit of unknown, or rather, just forgotten ballet history. Back in about 1992 (I think?) I was so sick of this solo, and so captivated by my new Yamaha SY35 keyboard and MIDI technology, that I did the only thing that would save my sanity: I turned it into a silly kind of ballroom number. Christopher Hampson made a solo to it for that year’s ENB cabaret that he called a TBA, that was danced by Alex Foley. I don’t remember anything about the solo (he probably doesn’t either) except that she had long black gloves on. It was made on an Atari computer over 22 years ago, and I no longer have any of the files, but it was on a cassette tape somewhere. I thought it had been lost forever, but then in 2008, Chris found it in a box he hadn’t unpacked since moving house several years before. Here it is. Dodgy timing, and restored to MP3 after years in a box.

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Confessions of an anxious ballet pianist day #5: Playing for the White Swan variation

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I’ve already written an entire recent post about one problem with accompanying this variation (The perils of musicality when you’re accompanying a ballet solo) but that’s not the end of the story.  Oh no. For only a day or so later that episode, another problem came up with another part of the solo. The whole piece is like a slow-motion assault course, and 28 years of playing it for students in vocational schools, candidates in competitions, and dozens of ballerinas hasn’t made it any easier. In fact, the most recent experience, which was with one of the most musical ballerinas I can think of, and the most musically perceptive coach I’ve ever encountered, made me feel I’d had to go back to school and start again.

You say tenuto. . .

The bit in question was the two-note anacrusis at the end of bar six (F# E#) going on to the  two-note slur at the beginning of bar seven (G# F#). Yes, a life hanging on four darned quavers. “Don’t slow down!” said the coach. We tried again. The rehearsal stopped. “Just play it in tempo, don’t go ‘dah dah da dah,’ [exagerrating the anacrusis]  just play it straight. Don’t follow her.” I tried again. The rehearsal stopped again. This time, the ballerina said “Don’t follow me, just play it straight, even if you think it looks like I need more time, because I can catch up, but if you slow down, I can’t do the step.”

Another tricky corner in the "White Swan" variation

Another tricky corner in the “White Swan” variation

This time, I had to speak “I’m really sorry,” I said, “I thought I was playing it straight. I’m trying my best to do it, but I don’t even know I’m not playing it straight any more.” Before I’d even finished, they both said “No, no, it’s fine, don’t worry, it’s natural. With this phrase you want to go “da dah da dah” because that’s what you want to do musically, but you just have to do it straight.”

So once again – how many times is this now? Four? – and this time, finally, I got it right, and do you know what, they were right. It took me that long (28 years, plus four repeats in a single rehearsal) to realise that I’d never played those four quavers straight in my life. I like to think that the explanation is something to do (again) with Justin London’s “many meters hypothesis” that I referred to in the “musicality” post, i.e. that a time signature like 6/8 isn’t a single, arithmetically precise metrical framework for music, but a model that has many variants in a musical culture, each of which can exhibit different types of squeezed and stretched microtiming effects in different parts of the bar: a bit like taking one of those molecular models and bending it in your hands (that’s my analogy, not London’s). In this case, as my colleagues noted, it’s “natural” to want to add a bit of space to the anacrusis, because that’s what this particular model of 6/8 always seems to do.

I hope that is the explanation, and it’s not just that I’m incapable of playing in time any more. This solo is difficult because it’s often so slow that you begin to lose your sense of when the last quaver happened.  Added to that, the older you get, the more ingrained your habits become unless someone points them out, not to mention the fact that types of expressive timing go in and out of fashion too.  

Another day, another dolour 

That’s not the end of the story, however. The next day, armed with my squeaky clean and fresh timing, I played for a different ballerina, who – yep, you guessed it – wanted the expressive timing put back in. “Can you just watch me there…” she said. I’ve since watched several videos on YouTube, and noticed that some ballerinas want that anacrusis slowed up forever, but then the tempo switches back to something that’s faster than the opening, because that was slow because they can hold the extension in the ronds de jambe. 

As a musician, you look at this music on the page, and it looks light, capricious, free; dainty and thin. Whether it was ever that in the ballet, I don’t know, but now, in some performances every movement in the solo seems to drag the music along behind it like a huge family checking in excess baggage, and then there is a moment of release where the orchestra catches up the tempo they would have preferred to play all along. 

I could write another four posts as long as this on another four awkward bits in this solo, and there are probably more, but that’s enough White Swan for one advent calendar. The trouble with this solo is not just that it’s difficult for the ballerina, and difficult to accompany, but also that it’s so replete with meaning: it’s Swan Lake, the ballet that almost defines the art form, and defines the ballerina. I’m not sure that there’s a single work in the musical repertoire that you can compare that to.

If you’re thinking “You think White Swan’s difficult? Black Swan’s even worse!” hold that thought – that’ll be tomorrow’s post.

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Confessions of an anxious ballet pianist day #4: Classical music

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Dadus in Tooting. It's been here for 30 years, and is one of the most wonderful shops I've ever had the joy of visiting. But the building is to be demolished, and now even the sign above the door has gone. It's a sad day for Tooting. They're not setting up anywhere else, that's just the end of an era, staring at you now.

Dadus in Tooting. It’s been here for 30 years, and is one of the most wonderful shops I’ve ever had the joy of visiting. But the building is to be demolished, and now even the sign above the door has gone. It’s a sad day for Tooting. They’re not setting up anywhere else, that’s just the end of an era, staring at you now.

The other side of my anxiety about not playing pop tunes for class (see yesterday’s post) is anxiety about playing stuff that’s too classical. When I say “classical,” I mean it in the narrowish sense of Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn, Schubert, particularly Schubert, since some of his pieces have been associated with ballet class music for going on a century.

It’s not paranoia. Over the years, I’ve heard teachers say  don’t play Gershwin, don’t play Schubert, don’t play Swan Lake, don’t play Les Sylphides, don’t play the Skye Boat Song, don’t play Ivor Novello, don’t play Scott Joplin, do play Scott Joplin, don’t play 40s music, it makes them swing their hips, don’t play that Beethoven piece, it sounds so low and heavy, when I hear that kind of music (Mozart) for class, I feel sick, hate Shostakovich, I hate Don Q, I love Don Q, et cetera et cetera. (It could be worse: A colleague told me of one company class where the teacher’s first words on meeting him were “No jazz, and no minor keys.”)

In other words, you can be pretty sure that someone somewhere is going to hate what you’re playing, but someone else will probably like it. Managing my anxiety as a ballet pianist for me has meant charging on ahead, knowing that I can’t please all the people all the time.

Nonetheless, I’m still never quite sure with Schubert. The C major tune (Andante and Variations) from the Octet D. 803, which I first became familiar with when Christopher Hampson used it in his Christmas Carol, played nicely on a nice piano (I actually don’t like it in the original octet – too stringy) in a nice studio seems to bring elegance,  calm and decorum to a slow tendu exercise that feels like the two things (the music and the exercise) were invented in the same year. I’m never sure, however, whether what seems like rarified, attentive silence from the dancers is in fact utter boredom or disinterest. The better the dancers you’re playing for, the harder it is to tell, because part of being good at ballet is looking like you’re enjoying the music.

I like to think that it’s not what you play, but the way that you play it. According to Suki Schorer in her book on Balanchine technique, Balanchine wasn’t keen on pianists playing classical music for class, not because he didn’t like it, but because he thought they could usually not do it justice. I can’t be sure, but I think that’s the issue with Schubert and classical music for class – playing anything badly is going to sound bad, and vice versa. The proof of this for me came when I worked with Fares Marek Basmadji, a wonderful concert pianist and friend who plays for ballet classes. In between takes at a recording session, he played that Schubert F minor moment musical piece that people sometimes play massacre for battements glissés in a way that was so beautiful, I learned to rehear it in an instant. We’ve got it on tape somewhere, but meanwhile, here’s Fares playing the Chopin Mazurka Op. 17 No. 4, at the end of the same session. Sitting in that massive, empty auditorium while he played this was the musical and emotional highlight of 2013 for me.

Fares Marek Basmadji playing Chopin’s Mazurka Op. 17 No. 4. from Royal Academy of Dance on Vimeo.

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