Category Archives: Personal

A year of ballet playing cards #01: Adage (As) – Mozart clarinet concerto

Share
Mozart clarinet concerto, arranged for piano solo (image)

Mozart clarinet concerto 2nd Movt, arranged for piano. Click to download the score

Mozart and the malleability of musical meaning

This piece has a strange place in my affections. I disliked it for many years – I’m only a fairweather clarinet enthusiast, I’m not a huge Mozart fan, I don’t like slow music, and this piece is just too sentimental for my liking (those descending motifs in the second phrase tug too hard at the heart strings). But a few years ago,  I suddenly heard this music through someone else’s ears at a moment when it was accompanying them through the worst part of their life,  and they found peace and comfort in it.  After that, I could only think of it that way, and only think of them in that situation, and it changed it for me permanently.

At the moment I’m reading Tia DeNora’s Musical Asylums, and I was really taken with the bit where she says how it’s  precisely because music is so indefinite and malleable in its meanings, that it is so useful as a medium for change and personal use: it defies meaning, but it can also acquire all kinds of meanings according to people and context. That’s what happened here: the same musical material changed its meaning for me. The music offered me an insight into someone else’s feelings through a transformative connection with my own, and that is an extraordinary achievement of music, isn’t it? – though the whole point of what DeNora is saying is that music on its own does not have this “power,” it’s what we do with it, the way we appropriate it, and give it meanings and uses that is extraordinary.

Adage and metrical issues: the case of the Mozart clarinet concerto

At times, I have wondered whether I should never have created the “Spades” category for myself – that is, the kind of adage music where you don’t care whether it’s in three or four or 12 or whatever, it’s just “slow” (see the “about the year of cards” page if you don’t know what I’m talking about).  In the cold light of empirical day, is there actually such a thing? This is the danger of creating categories before you start work on a project.

Yet just when I was going to give it up as a bad idea, I remembered this piece, the slow movement of the Mozart Clarinet concerto. It’s a perfect example of what I mean by the “spades” category, since for almost a week a couple of years ago, I was sure it was in four, not three.  I had chosen it for a plié exercise, and even tested it out by plié-ing in my head while listening to it. If i could notate or explain how I came to hear it in four rather than three, I’d talk myself out of it, but I’ll do my best.

With this music, at least on this occasion, I didn’t feel subdivisions, I just heard the “1s” – the slow pulses marking the beginning of each bar. The beats in between were like rubber ducks floating in a bath, with no metre or pattern, no rhythmical parsing. Just a kind of flow or feeling.  It’s at times like this when I feel the most affinity with my dance colleagues when they don’t have any perception of or interest in time signature: they’re being mindful (in the Buddhist, meditative sense) of the music, but in a different way. I’ve tried to mentally notate what I thought the music was doing, but I can’t, because whatever I was hearing was “pre-notational.”

 

Mozart and phrase structure

There is something so perfect about a Mozart phrase. If you read Joseph Riepel’s 1752 primer on how to write a minuet in Fundamentals of Musical Composition ,  you get an insight into the craft of phrase structure: it’s not genius, it’s about knowing when to go up, when to go down, how to go there, for how long, and in what proportion and so on. As Riepel illustrates, this is something you can teach and learn, and the minuet is a good way to start. I once got a group of first year students to act out Riepel’s master-and-pupil-style dialog, providing the musical examples myself at the piano. I don’t know whether those students really learned much from it, but it was quite a fun way of spending a music lesson.

This piece could be wonderful for class, but the potential for problems are in its tempo. It needs to be slow, and that’s how I managed to mishear it (i.e. because it was so slow, the elapsed time of a single bar was about twice the length of a normal 3/4 plié bar).  Wait til someone wants a really slow three, and save it for that. So even though I’m saying that this piece is perhaps neither “particularly” three or particularly four, you might need to wait for a “particularly three” moment to play it, even if you don’t feel its threeness on the surface.

About this arrangement of the Mozart clarinet concerto

In transcribing this for piano, it’s been hard to leave a single note out (hence the rather awkward arrangement).  It sounds simple until you try to reproduce it on the piano: the transparency of the writing makes it surprisingly difficult.  You can’t just chuck a chord in the left hand and a solo in the right, because the light won’t shine through it.  The writing is thin: no bass in the solo sections, and only two notes to hold the harmony together: not an ounce of surplus anywhere.  And when the tutti come in, you want richness, not sludge, so chord voicing is a problem.  I’ve done my best, though I know I’ll be trying to perfect a sound for this for a long time to come.

Postscript: (if you like your adage with a bit of Wittgenstein)

Now by coincidence, I’d just been reading Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, and had just got to No. 78 as I was doing this blog entry:

“78. Compare knowing and saying:

how many metres high Mont Blanc is –
how the word “game” is used –
how a clarinet sounds

Someone who is surprised that one can know something and not be able to say it is perhaps thinking of a case like the first. Certainly not of one like the third.”  

Now, it’s pure coincidence that he happens to be talking about the clarinet here and this is a clarinet concerto, but the issue is the same as “knowing” a piece of music without being able to say what it “is” or what it’s “in” in terms of metre and structure. I know what this music sounds like, and I could probably play some of it by ear, but initially, I couldn’t say what it was in terms of metre (even though I’d known the music for years).  That’s not something you hear much with regard to metre, because metre is so often spoken about in terms of number, as if that’s all it was.

References

 

 

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

How to transcribe from audio to piano score: technologies and process

Share

Transcribing music from audio to score is something I’ve done for as long as I can remember, if you count those music dictation tests we had to do at school. I’m lucky that I’ve got perfect pitch so the actual transcribing is fairly easy: what’s difficult when you’re using a computer is the mechanics of rewinding, stopping and starting while you’re trying to do the transcription.  However, the technology I’ve got at the moment is the best I’ve ever had, so I thought I’d share the process in case you’re struggling needlessly. The same technology would also be pretty good if you’re having to go through video clips (dance notators, maybe?).

transcribe-1

That’s the kit above – no real surprises: a MIDI keyboard, a laptop, headphones. I use an external keyboard with a numeric keypad on it, because it makes step-input in Sibelius so much easier and quicker). Transcribing is also one of the rare activities where I find a mouse is useful rather than a trackpad.

USB footpedals: the secret to transcribing music from audio to score painlessly

The Infinity USB Foot Control

The Infinity USB Foot Control

The killer tool though, is the USB footpedal under the table (which means that I also needed to get a USB hub to accommodate the extra USB input).  I’ve already posted about this in relation to transcribing text interviews, but at the time I wrote that, I hadn’t yet used the set up for transcribing music.

The process is simple: ExpressScribe is a free programme for transcribing audio (there’s a paid version, but even though I’ve got it, I can’t see the point). You load the audio (music) file in just as you would if you were going to type up an interview (except this is music) and you use the footpedal to play, rewind and fastforward the audio, leaving your hands free to use the MIDI and computer keyboards. You can set the footpedal to automatically rewind let’s say half a second or a second when you lift your foot off the “play” bit, so that when you press it again, you’ve already rewound to the bit that you are trying to check or remember.

You can also get ExpressScribe to play slower without altering pitch – brilliant when you’re transcribing a stream of semiquavers, for example. If you’re lucky, and the recording is relatively clear and the music simple, you can get the speed just right, so that you can actually input with your left hand (in my set up at least) at the same speed as the music is playing.

Now meet TRANSCRIBE! (application) 

I have used ExpressScribe for nearly five years, but for some reason, just recently the program has begun to lose focus intermittently while I’m transcribing. You have to go into ExpressScribe and click to make it register the pedal messages. It only takes a split second (alt-TAB into the programme and click the screen, then alt-TAB back to Sibelius), but it’s really annoying, and so the other day, I went on the hunt for another programme, and found this: Transcribe! I’ve used it for a few days, and I’m blown away by it.  It has all the tools that ExpressScribe has, except – sorry old friend – it works better. It doesn’t lose focus, and it displays the audio file, allows you to enter text at key points (with one-letter key commands to enter hitpoints and text). It also has a guess at chords and notes in your file, and presents you with a piano roll, and a keyboard (if you want to see it) with those guesses on. That’s far more than I need, and doesn’t really help the way I work (which is by ear, rather than using the technology to “hear” for me), but it’s bloody clever, all the same, and it’s fairly accurate. I love it. It’s $39 US, but with a fully functioning 30-day free trial. OK, it’s not free like ExpressScribe, but I reckon it’s worth it.

The screen looks complex, but you don’t even need to see it, if, like me, you just want Transcribe to work as a tape-control in the background, operated by your footpedal.

thinkingoutloud

The Transcribe window- you can have as much or as little of this as you need.

Transcribing from video

If you want to transcribe from a Youtube video, then just download the video first using an extension or add-on for your browser, and import the video clip into Transcribe. You get a little video screen that shows the video in realtime as you play: handy if you want to put cues in a score, and of course, since the screen has a text area, you could write those cues into Transcribe! itself.

minuetvideoAnd although I don’t need to see the screen at all (since I’m using the footpedal to control it, and can hear where I am) there are times when it’s handy to have both on at once.

splitscreen

 

Don’t be put off by the screens and the software: the magic in all this is the footpedal. It’s like having an extra pair of hands, so to speak, and when you go back to trying to operate the transport controls and Sibelius with the same pair of hands, you realise what a waste of time that is.

 

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Daniel Levitin on the perils of multitasking

Share

The Organized Mind by Daniel Levitin: a book that undermines the myth of multitasking

“Instead of reaping the big rewards that come from sustained, focused effort, we instead reap empty rewards from completing a thousand little sugar-coated tasks.”

That’s a quote from a great article in the Guardian about multitasking by Daniel Levitin, Why the modern world is bad for your brain  (thanks to Vicki for sending me the link).

If you’ve been reading this blog a while, you’ll know that multi-tasking is one of my pet hates: it’s a myth. You can’t do it, you can just flit from one thing to another, and do none of them particularly well. See this page for links to all my previous rants about multi-tasking.

The Levitin article is a teaser for his book, The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload, which offers advice, based on an understanding of how your mind works, on how to live better with all this going on, rather than try to pretend that there’s something great about behaving like an overstimulated, distracted 12-year old when you’re an adult. 

I reckon it’s probably one of the uncomfortable truths of the modern world, that no-one who achieves anything wonderful does it without turning their social media, indeed, the whole darn internet off while they do it, but in a world where the high street is dominated by people selling laptops, tablets and smartphones, it would figure that the dominant message out there is that online, networked multitasking is a Good Thing. I’ve been enjoying reading Russell Brand’s Revolution – and in the middle of that, he tells the reader to go and look some fact for themselves: he goes offline to write, so can’t do it himself. That might come as much of a surprise as learning that Jim Carrey doesn’t eat sugar, but it’s true.

Update, May 2019

Four years later, I’ve just read Adam Alter’s Irresistbleabout Internet addiction. There’s some terrifying reading in there, but it’s actually comforting to know that in such a short time, the science has overtaken the popular myth, and you’ll read more about device-related behavioural addictions now than about multitasking. 

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Happy 2015: A new year’s ramble about Black Swan and other ballet anomalies

Share
Bet you haven't seen this before: a piano reduction of Drigo's orchestration of Black Swan female variation

Bet you haven’t seen this before: a piano reduction of Drigo’s orchestration of Black Swan. Click on the score to download your free version.

As it’s the first day of a new year, I’ve decided to do something about one of the greatest annoyances in my list of ballet-pianist anxieties: the Black Swan female variation from Swan Lake (see earlier post for the full version of why it’s annoying). After 28 years of only ever knowing the bits that are missing from the score by guesswork, hearsay, memory and oral tradition, I’ve done a piano reduction of Drigo’s orchestration, and here it is as a free download (pdf file). Eduard Langer – who did the piano reduction of the 1895 Swan Lake – put this and other interpolations at the end of his piano score, but left them as Tchaikovsky wrote them (i.e. as piano pieces), rather than as reductions of Drigo’s orchestrations, so they are missing vital detail.

It wasn’t as easy as you might think: although the Drigo orchestration is a published score, and Drigo is out of copyright, the orchestral score isn’t yet available at IMSLP. This is when you need a friendly orchestral librarian to help you, so I asked Lars Payne at English National Ballet, if I could scan the relevant pages from their orchestral score to make the reduction. While I’m at it, let’s just pause to give an internet round of applause to Lars.

naughtin

Matthew Naughtin’s book on Ballet Music: essential

The anomalies of Swan Lake that I blogged about very briefly in that earlier post are multiplied over and over again in ballet music. It’s one of the curious things about ballet that the more well known and popular something is, the harder it is to find the score. Most of the things we know so well from galas are pimped up diverts interpolated in earlier, less interesting 19th century ballets, and if you can find a score of those at all, it doesn’t have any of the interesting bits in at all, or they’re in the wrong place. The pimped-up, hand-written version has to be faxed to you from a cupboard in Minsk, or you give up and get someone else to orchestrate it for you.

Or you ask Lars, because if anyone knows where it might be, it’ll be him; except, don’t waste Lars’s time until you’ve checked whether Matthew Naughtin’s Ballet Music: A Handbook hasn’t already answered your question. Naughtin is music librarian at San Francisco Ballet (see interview with him in the Music References Services QuarterlyAll those questions that no-one else bothers to ask about ballet scores are answered in here, and the answer is often “Lars Payne” (see all 24 mentions in the Google books version for an idea of what I mean), because Lars has been gradually cleaning up all these problems and making decent scores for the ballet world for years.  To anyone who has enjoyed the orchestral music on RAD’s Grades 1-3 or Grades 4-5 (if you haven’t seen it, here’s a link to an 8 minute documentary about the making of the music for that project), you should know that had Lars not been in the middle of it all, answering questions, providing scores, knowing everything, it would never have happened. To you it’s just a CD, but actually, in librarianship terms, it was a bloody miracle.

And finally… I wrote that it was Julia Richter who taught me how to play all the bits that are missing from the Black Swan variation, when I played for my first Genée ballet competition back in 1987.  By coincidence, on Monday this week I passed by the RAD on my bike on my way to ENB to play Swan Lake. It was a clear, bright and freezing cold day which brought back memories of that occasion 28 years ago. By even greater coincidence, when I got to ENB, Julia (who was there too) said “Of course, it was about this time all those years ago we were doing the Genée competition,” and we got chatting about the Black Swan – and I discovered then that Don (Anthony) Twiner was the one who taught her how to play it.  So here, 28 years later, is the score, in case you don’t have anyone to tell you how it goes.

Creative Commons License
Black Swan (piano reduction) by Jonathan Still after Tchaikovsky/Drigo is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Confessions of an anxious ballet pianist day #23: Metre-less counts

Share
Picture of a boarded up window: a bit like counts with no metre

Dadu’s in Tooting, now boarded up.

An absence of metre is kind of cool. It’s like decorating a room white, having no books or furniture, and hanging Malevich’s White on White on the wall. You have no history, and you give nothing away when you mark an exercise with counts, but no hint of metrical accent: Your exercise might have développés and tendus and pony galops in it, but for a few chic moments before the music comes in, it’s not ballet, it’s just a sequence of movements in search of a musical identity. It could be anything. 

Except, of course, it can’t. If it’s in eight-count phrases, then the number of things it could be are already limited, not just by the metrical implications of things being in eights, but by the limits of what you can play and what you can think of in two seconds. For in the absence of any metre in the marking, your brain has had no clues, no pointers, no hints to get you thinking, it’s like trying and failing to remember a password over and over again. Then suddenly, it’s time to play.

What happens then is one of two things. Either you start playing anything that comes to mind, because you can think of nothing: Old MacDonald Had A Farm, The Birdie Song, Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, whatever. Needless to say, however cool the exercise looked in the marking, it looks pretty trite now, like you put an ornate gold Poundshop frame round that Malevich. Or you try and improvise music that’s the equivalent of a whitewashed wall – it could be anythingbecause it’s nothingFor eight counts, it’s not so bad. But then you have a second phrase of four, and already, the metre that the teacher has so carefully omitted from the marking has hit you like a bend in the road. You can’t keep this up for 64 counts, because there’s no such thing as music without metre, or colour, or personality.

Just once, I was so flummoxed by metre-less marking, that I couldn’t think of anything to play at all. I just sat there, tasered by counts, while the class waited. It was as if the teacher had erased from my mind all memory of music and how it was made. It was for an exercise that was half ballet, half contemporary, and it went “1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8,” very fast. The extra time didn’t help, but the class couldn’t wait any longer. I can’t remember what I played, except that I just kept hitting keys at a certain tempo, eight times in a row.  It went on forever.

 

 

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Confessions of an anxious ballet pianist day #22: Inappropriate music choices

Share

HorsesWhen I say inappropriate, I don’t mean in 4/4 rather than 3/4, or a barcarole instead of a mazurka. I mean inappropriate in the sense of “Oh no. Let the earth swallow me up. Get me out of this tune now.” By the time you’ve realised your mistake, it’s too late.

Accidentally playing Edelweiss for company class in Germany comes somewhere near the top of my red-faced moments,  though years later I discovered that nobody in Germany knows The Sound of Music (I guess that figures, really), and that playing Zarah Leander songs – which I did –  is probably in more questionable taste. You have a whole 64 counts to endure before you can get out of the tune and into something else, and if you try to snake out of it by turning it into an improvisation that just happens to have the first three notes of Edelweiss, it sounds like you don’t know the tune, or are trying (which is the case) to cover your tracks.

Worse than playing showbiz reminders of a country’s political past, is playing anything from The Nutcracker, Swan Lake or Sleeping Beauty in company class. Ballet repertoire’s a strange one, though. A lot of people say they don’t like it for class, but in practice, it often goes down quite well, as long as it isn’t one of those three. I have a league table in my head of things you can just about get away with if you pick your moment. Etudes is somewhere near the top of it, together with stuff from the Imperial repertoire that you might only see on Russian Youtube. It’s a gamble that works both ways, though. Sometimes you play stuff that you think people will have a fond nostalgia for, and it’s like they never heard it before. Another time, you gingerly play something you think is too well known, and they just look at you and go “What is that?” Other times, you play something you think is just a tune, and it happens to be part of someone’s ballet, so they start doing the steps at the back.

Maybe failed humour is the worst thing. To pick something you think is going to be amusing, only to find that no-one’s in a the mood for humour, or they don’t get it, or the music doesn’t work for the exercise anyway is a form of embarrassment you can’t hide from.   You realise it in the first 8 bars, and you’ve got at least another 24 to go. It’s like having to lick the egg off your own face.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Confessions of an anxious ballet pianist day #16: Rehearsal marks

Share
rehearsal marks for a ballet that includes the cue "soutenu-sex"

Rehearsal marks and timing cues for a ballet solo

Above is a little fragment of daily life as a ballet accompanist – keeping your ears open while a rehearsal is going on so that when the choreographer or coach asks to go from “sex” or “the Swan Lake pirouette,” you’re already on it, because you or someone else already wrote it down in the appropriate place in the score as they were talking (or on a sheet of paper with a minutes-and-seconds count next to it if you’re working with a recording).  There’s one thing you really don’t want to hear, and that’s a sigh of barely-concealed exasperation followed by “Oh just play from the beginning and we’ll pick it up.”

The trouble comes when you’ve got several scores, several people teaching the same piece, and several people making rehearsal marks. On a really well-marked score, the same place might be marked with all the things that different people have called that place over time, so that you’ll find it whether the coach asks to go from the pirouette, the arabesque, the second step, the repeat, “Svetlana”, “egg on face” or “a little bit back from where the mother comes on”. You can read them all out to the room until you hit the one that the dancer or coach recognises, but it’s more likely that whatever technical problem has occasioned going back to that place is what they’ll call it, rather than what it was called when the piece was choreographed, when narrative and production was the order of the day.

There aren’t many really well marked scores in the world. With the best intentions to keep to a system, you can’t help idiosyncracies and gaps creeping in. Sometimes, a place in the score is so significant and “obvious” that nobody has bothered to mark it at all, because “everyone would know” that this is the pas de deux, or the boy’s solo, or the death scene.

For a freelancer who doesn’t know everything that’s going on in a company, the possibility for error is compounded by the lack of costumes. Unless someone announces what the rehearsal is for, you might not know whether the person you’re playing for is the prince, the Nutcracker, the mouse king or a soldier, so if the coach says “from where he comes on, please,” you don’t have a clue who “he” is.  If you guess wrong, you might have just insulted the new principal, so it’s best to aim high and work your way down if you’re not sure. As a guest Russian ballerina once put it during a rehearsal of Onegin (I think)  that had completely thrown her, “the trouble is, without costumes, it’s like watching television with the sound turned down. I don’t know who anyone is.”

See also:

 

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Confessions of an anxious ballet pianist day #14: Adage

Share
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.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Confessions of an anxious ballet pianist day #8: The dreaded slow mazurka pirouette

Share
Redowa by Meyerbeer: not a slow mazurka, but good pirouette music

The Pas de la Rédowa from Act 3 of Meyerbeer’s opera “Le Prophète.” Never leave home without this pirouette music.

The moment I see a teacher marking a pirouette that has a massive, sweeping balancé in it, I know there’s trouble ahead. Like the dreaded 2/4 sissonne of yesterday’s post, the slow mazurka pirouette is one of those ballet exercises that makes choreographic sense, but leaves us musicians with a problem, because – unless I just haven’t discovered it yet – there’s not a lot of music in the world that goes like this.

What in the world is a “slow mazurka”?

In terms of tempo, this kind of pirouette music is heading towards a polonaise, but a polonaise doesn’t have the right feel. Rhythmically, it’s in the region of a ballroom mazurka or polka mazurka, but those two dance forms are really too light and dainty for the expansive power that the exercise needs. The nearest thing might be the waltz from Act I of Giselle, but playing that probably won’t make you many friends in a company class. The A minor mazurka from Etudes (see earlier post for sources) is nearly right – but is still too fast for the kind of exercise I mean. The Rédowa from Meyerbeer’s Le Prophète – used in Les Patineurs (on page 147 of this score from IMSLP) –  is almost perfect: you can play this really slowly, and it still works. It fills out the space between the beats, and it’s very triple, and you can play it anywhere between butch and dainty without ruining it.  But that’s just one piece, and it’s probably not a good idea to play it if Patineurs is in the company’s repertoire.

The problems of pirouette music on a slow three

So you have to improvise, and improvising in a slow three is hard. One of the biggest problems with it is that we’re so used to the metrical model of the waltz,  that when you’re faced with something that needs to have three proper, solid beats in a bar, and a main accent at the beginning of each one rather than every two bars (i.e. it’s truly triple, not a kind of duple hypermeter like most waltzes), it’s difficult to stop your mental metrical framework slipping back into waltz mode. If you do, you’ll be constantly too fast and out of time with the dancers, and you’ll spend half your mental energy trying to keep at the right tempo, and you won’t succeed because the metrical pattern is basically wrong.

It’s also easy to get lost, because you start to think in little phrases of six, losing your sense of where you are in the eight-bar phrase. Well I do, at least. It’s also hard to be interesting. If you look at the model of the Prophète redowa, that’s an awful lot of notes and unexpected melodic, harmonic, metrical, and rhythmic activity  – like ending with a cadence on the last beat of the bar, for example. Unless you’re a genius, you can’t just keep making this stuff up in interesting ways while 40 groups of dancers do 16 bars each.

An associated problem is that mazurkas are  habit-forming, because the rhythm and tempo gets under your skin so that it’s very difficult to think how ordinary music goes again afterwards. The slow mazurka is so useful for pirouettes, and also for a lot of pointework exercises, that  teachers can sometimes drift into using them for almost everything in a class (or fall into an M-hole, as some colleagues and I call it), which of course is their right, except that it can be difficult if you’ve run out of mazurkas by the fifth exercise. 

As with the 2/4 sissonne, this is one of those ballet problems that you just have to deal with, and if this sounds familiar, it’s because I’m repeating myself: I’ve already written about this in another Advent Calendar (though I wrongly said the piece was from L’Étoile du Nord). The Redowa is one of the things that I refer to as a musical “honey spoon” because it’s a rather weird implement that does one, necessary task. It’s not got any easier since writing those posts. If anything, it’s more difficult, because the more aware you are of what the “musical body” of an exercise should look like, the harder it is to be satisfied with playing things that don’t quite work. Reading that earlier post from 2007, there’s a hint of snideness about it which I no longer feel. In the intervening years, I’ve come to realise that you don’t solve these problems by getting annoyed at them, but by respecting them.

Solutions

A year after I wrote this post, I decided to try and solve some of the problems in my “year of ballet playing cards” series. There are a few slow mazurkas that would work as pirouette music in that series, including

 

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

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

Share
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.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email