Tag Archives: advent 2012

Playing for ballet class: a page of tips


In December 2012 I posted daily articles about what I’ve learned about playing for ballet class. Maybe I should have called it “becoming a ballet pianist” because the process never stops. I’ve noticed that they get quite a few hits, but it’s difficult to see the whole series at once and choose the links you’re most interested in. So here – thanks to the wonderful List Category Posts plugin from WordPress – are all those posts linked on a single page, with excerpts from each one. Click on the link to read the full articles.

Links to my articles about playing for ballet class

Playing for ballet class tips #25: respect the ritual


Class has a ritual, liturgical quality to it, particularly in a company. It is daily, it happens at a particular time, with such religious regard for punctuality that a teacher will begin class without music, rather than be late. It must be done regardless of whether anyone feels like it, and there are rules and formalities to be observed. In companies or open classes especially, teachers are more like ‘celebrants’ or ‘officiants’ than teachers in the conventional sense of the word.  Experienced teachers have a way of vocally marking exercises for a class in a way that is both reassuring and instructional, like a priest intoning a blessing.  To ‘take’ class, significantly, can mean both to do it or to teach it.

It probably doesn’t have to have music. People do class without it, if they have to. But music seems as integral to a class as it does to a religious ritual, and probably  for the same reasons. It connects people, it gives them something meaningful to do together; it’s the vital medium through which the ritual is enacted, and it’s part of the ritual itself.

And oddly enough, some of the arguments about what is right or wrong for class have parallels in the ecclesiastical world. Some people  think that popular music has no place in the church, the only way to God is through Palestrina, others think that the church will die unless it embraces the popular. And speaking of death, what classes as ‘funeral music’ these days is whatever people have at a funeral, not a category of music with specific features. Some churches insist on live music, or that you use their particular organist, others don’t have an organ at all. For some, only an organ will take you nearer to God, for others, the guitar, the piano, or the bagpipes will do just as well.

You can probably guess that I think a lot of  similar arguments in ballet are pretty nonsensical – live music won’t automatically make someone a better dancer; children won’t automatically become better dancers  by playing classical music at them; ‘ballet music’ is anything that people use for ballet, it’s not a thing that has universal qualities; there is nothing intrinsically ‘correct’ about using a piano for class.

That sounds like I’m saying that nothing matters and anything goes. I’m not – quite the opposite, in fact. My point is that music matters toomuch to people to reduce playing for class entirely to a system, a set of rules, a technique, a book of ‘suitable’ or legitimate repertoire that you can impose from outside.

So the final tip is this: don’t listen too much to people (like me) who offer advice on how to do it.  Respect the ritual, the people who enact it, and your place in it, and you’ll find new ways of interpreting it, giving it meaning, and making it work.

Happy Christmas!

Playing for ballet class tips #24: Speak up – don’t act the pianist


I can’t remember when exactly I discovered this, but it was life-changing. If you’ve got a question in class or rehearsal, speak up, don’t act the pianist. If you’re going to ask a question at all, ask it loud and clear. If you act like a victim in a rehearsal or class, you run the risk of being treated like one. Conversely, if you act like you’re the professional equal of the person you’re working with, you’ll be treated as that. You may not feel like that at all, and in many ways, you plainly aren’t, but you can “fake it til you make it.”

All I’m talking about  is the volume of your voice when you ask a question, not about how to stop being a victim. You may not feel confident doing it, and you may not feel that you have enough experience to be able to do so, but feel the fear and do it anyway – just speak up.

Start as you mean to carry on

It starts from the moment you walk into a room with a new teacher. If you go and sit behind the piano sheepishly and wait for the teacher to find out your name, a) they may never ask and b) they may assume that you prefer to be left alone.  If you walk right up to them and say ‘Hello, my name is….’ and get the introductions over, you’ve established a relationship which is going to make it much easier when you have questions later. I say the same to teachers, so don’t be surprised if you meet in the middle of the studio. Much later, I discovered a great TED talk by Amy Cuddy on body language (link to transcript) that explains the problem and the solution in detail.

Only you know what your problem is: get it out there

I used to try and guess what teachers wanted if I didn’t know, or look questioningly at them, hoping they’d second guess what my problem was. It doesn’t work. And I’ve often found that even when some teachers seem overbearing or intimidating, they’ll be fine with being asked questions like the following, as long as you ask them directly, loudly and clearly:

  • “I’m sorry, I didn’t quite get that. What was the tempo again?”
  • “What kind of a 3 do you want – something butch, or more fluid?”
  • “Does it matter to you whether this is on 3 or 4?”
  • ” I’m afraid I don’t know this ballet, you’re going to have to guide me a bit. Where are we going from?”
  • “Would you mind if we just talked through the tempos of this before we rehearse, as I don’t want us to have to stop in the middle”

My theory about why this works is that teachers’ have so much stuff to deal with that they blot out whatever isn’t critical,  like someone landing a plane. If the music’s working, they won’t meddle with it. If you seem to be OK, they’ll leave you alone. The temptation for the pianist is to try not to be too much trouble, to not interrupt; to mumble the question or look needy and hope the teacher will guess what you want. This just registers as an irritation, not a call on their attention.  But if you speak up, they’ll recognize that you have an important question to ask, and they’ll deal with it.

Don’t act the pianist: the canonical example from “Stepping Out”

The clip from Stepping Out with Glenda the pianist is a classic example of how communication goes wrong in a dance studio. It’s hilarious precisely because it satirizes the wrong footing that so many classes and rehearsals begin on. What ought to be a very simple question about tempo becomes an emotional battleground and power struggle. The issue is resolved when Liza Minelli deals with the emotions. But it could have been avoided altogether if Glenda had said right from the start – ‘I’m sorry, I can’t remember what last week’s tempo was. Just mark it for me again, and I’ll try and get it back’.

That wouldn’t have been funny or heartwarming at all, and I’m glad she didn’t. But unless you’re happy for your life to be like an endless loop of this scene, and unless your teacher is Liza Minelli, go for the second option and ask the question before the rehearsal starts.

It doesn’t have to be this way: update on 25/5/2016

After thirty years of playing rehearsals, something happened recently which was almost unique in my experience, and is a model of what I’d say was best practice: maybe it’s the future. A few weeks ago, a dancer began a rehearsal of a very difficult solo by saying to the coach and me “Do you mind if we go through tempos before we do it? I won’t have the stamina to keep repeating this solo, and if try and sort out the tempos first, there’s more chance I can run it from beginning to end without having to stop because the tempo’s wrong.”

For musicians, that’s pretty normal: that’s how you’d approach a rehearsal involving people who hadn’t worked together on the same piece before. But it’s rare in the ballet world. The kindest interpretation is that everyone overestimates the skills and experience of the pianist, and so doesn’t think they need help. How it comes across, though,  is that everyone’s too impatient to “waste time” on a bit of preparation before the rehearsal starts, and thinks that getting the right tempo is a kind of magical sixth sense that you get from just looking at someone. Sometimes—but very rarely—it is. For the other 95% of cases, a conversation about tempo would be so helpful.

It’s interesting that it was a dancer who initiated the sensible approach here, not a coach. It was an extraordinary case of someone changing the world for the better from the inside. It might be that “Don’t act the pianist” will be irrelevant advice in a few year’s time. I rather hope so.


Playing for ballet class tips #23: Watch the teacher


The advice to ‘watch the teacher’ is so obvious, it should have been one of the very first tips. But if there’s a reason I’ve hesitated so long, I think it’s because like many  apparently simple concepts, ‘watching the teacher’ turns out to be not that simple after all. Here are just a few things that ‘watching the teacher’ involves:

  • Sightlines: Set up the piano so you can see the teacher easily (and let them know that’s why you’re doing it)
  • Interpersonal skills: establish a relationship with the teacher such that they’ll know it’s worth looking over to you and giving you direction while you play (and that takes more than eye-contact – see ‘Talk to dancers‘ and ‘Talk to teachers‘)
  • Congeniality: be amenable to changing tempo (or even metre) during the exercise, rather than demanding to know everything in advance.
  • Simplicity: choose music that you can play or improvise so well that you can release most of your attention to communication with the teacher (see Play from memory)
  • Phrasing: choose music that communicates its structure clearly enough that the teacher can sense where they are in it (if they can’t tell that you’re getting to the end of a phrase, they can’t give you adequate warning you that they’d like you to make a repeat. See “Phrase clearly”  and “Make your intros clear”).
  • Modularity: Choose music that is modular in structure (like many fiddle tunes, popular songs or quadrilles, so that you can do the following  things easily:
    • go straight to the other side of an exercise or repeat it without stopping
    • add four bars between groups in the centre
    • add music for a balance or port de bras at the end of an exercise
    • stretch the tempo between sides at the barre to give time for dancers to turn and start again
    • repeat an exercise immediately, but faster
  • Alertness: Be aware of the directions that the teacher is giving to the class about the quality of movement required during an exercise, so that you can make small changes to articulation and accent as you play

If you’re prepared for all of this and get nothing back, then maybe you’re working for a teacher who doesn’t much mind whether they have a pianist or not.  But more likely, they’ve got so used to working with CD players that they’ve forgotten what it’s like to work collaboratively and spontaneously. You have to work hard to remind them, and the first step towards that is eye-contact.

Playing for ballet class tips #22: With harmony too, less is more

Swanilda's famous waltz. The first harmonic change comes only at the very end of the phrase.

Swanilda’s famous waltz from Coppélia. The first harmonic change comes only at the very end of the phrase.

If you’re improvising or harmonising a melody, there’s a lot to be said for just sticking to simple harmonies, and avoiding chromaticism or excessive modulation for the sake of it. It’s not a competition to see who can fit the most chords in. On the contrary, dance music depends on a certain amount of harmonic simplicity for its dance quality and feeling of lift and lightness.

It was one of my dissertation students who first drew my attention to this: if you look at some of the most famous and well-loved waltzes you can think of, many of them of them follow the pattern of Swanilda’s variation, which is to stay on the tonic for 6 bars, and then move to the dominant only in bars 7 and 8. In the case of Swanilda, what then happens is the reverse, like a harmonic palindrome – 6 bars of dominant 7th, followed by 2 bars of tonic.

Strauss does it, and Tchaikovsky does it. Another variant is to stay four bars in the tonic, and four in the dominant. Whatever happens, you get very simple harmony with a bass line toggling between the 1st and 5th degrees of the scale, little more. I looked at Oskar Nedbal’s Valse Triste for ages, trying to work out how he had achieved such subtle and unusual beauty, only to find that most of it was down to what he doesn’t do – he never moves from a bass line of G and D in the first 8 bars;  and again, the harmony is tonic for 6 bars, dominant(ish) for 2.

Likewise, two of the most famous codas in the ballet repertoire, the one in Don Quixote pas de deux and the one from Black Swan pas de deux, sit on a tonic pedal for ages, and modulate properly only right at the end of the phrase.

Yet the temptation when you’re improvising or composing is to try and throw as many tricks as you can into 16 bars of music, like you’re loading your plate at the salad bar.  I’ve seen 16 bar compositions for tendu exercises that have already modulated to a remote key by bar 4 (with a change of key signature), chromatic inner voices and bass-lines, interrupted cadences, and hardly a simple tonic or dominant chord in sight. I’d like to say that the result is a real dog’s dinner, harmonically, but in fact, dogs’ dinners I’ve seen tend to make more culinary sense.

If there’s a principle to follow, it’s to remember that 16 bars of music in a dance class have to be imagined as being a ‘clip’ of something larger, not a self-contained miniature. In fact, who writes 16 bar miniatures? There isn’t enough time to develop and resolve musical tension, so don’t try.

Playing for ballet class tip #21: Make friends with a notator


If there’s one kind of person in the ballet universe who can really understand where you’re coming from as a musician, and where you need to go, it’s a notator, whether the system they write in is Labanotation or Benesh Movement Notation.

As they have to be able to dance, notate movement, and work out how their movement notation aligns to a musical score, they live in a kind of wireframe version of the world where    everything is provisional until they’ve found a way of writing it all down coherently.  They understand the anomalies and contradictions that  time signatures bring with them in relation to movement, and have ways of marking up musical scores that indicate logically how dancers are moving in relation to them.

They can speak your (notational) language, but also understand things from a dancer’s perspective, so they can help you make sense of the dance world with reference to your own musical background. They’ll show you how to mark up a score in rehearsal so that you next time someone says ‘Can we go from the second time she does the arabesque?’ you don’t have to sit in shame playing bars at random until they shout ‘That’s it!’ (Only to shout two seconds later ‘Oh…No it’s not there, it all sounds the same, doesn’t it?). They can also tell you a lot about the ballet repertoire, and help you to judge when you need to improve, and when someone’s just being difficult and naff in a rehearsal.

Hug a notator

If you ever meet one, grab hold of them and make friends. In my experience, they’re often very happy to help when you want to know why something didn’t work for class, or talk through music and dance problems with you (like I did only yesterday with notation expert Vicki Watts) and from the very beginning, I learned a lot of my trade from the lovely Gillian Cornish, who used to chaînée across the room for me while we tried out different bits of music. I’ve enjoyed sitting in on countless conversations about notation with Christopher Hampson and the person who’s notated so many of his ballets, Caroline Palmer.  I could list many more – Mark Kay, Patricia Tierney, Marzena Sobanska, the people at the Benesh Institute that has its home now at the RAD, and of course the most remarkable of them all, Ann Hutchinson Guest.


Playing for ballet class tips #20: Let dancers make the beat

Ho Wen Yang's example of multiplying rather than dividing the beat in a warm-up jump

Ho Wen Yang’s example of multiplying rather than dividing the beat in a warm-up jump

In the last tip, I said that it was a good rule of thumb to divide by half (in your melody line) whatever pulse rate you can detect in a petit allegro jump – if dancers are jumping on quavers, you play semiquavers. Doing this creates a focus on the tempo of the jump by placing aural gridlines over it, so to speak. Now I’m going to contradict that, and say there are times when you’d want to avoid doing that. Sometimes, letting the dancers’ movements divide your  beat is better, as Ho Wen Yang, one of my favourite fellow dance pianists pointed out when I published yesterday’s post (his example is shown above).

I learned today’s tip  from Christopher Hampson in relation to an exercise in one of his continuous barres that consisted of a long sequence of  fast battements jetés. Those classes are  wonderful opportunities for trying out ideas because there’s a lot of simple repetition, which means you get the chance to test the principles of accompanying particular movements. When exercises combine movements, or are floridly choreographic, you can’t do this so easily. And  as we were working together for several days in succession  we could keep refining and talking about the ideas from day to day.

It turns out that doing what I described in yesterday’s tip for an exercise that has a lot of stamina-building repetition is possibly the worst thing you can do, because it does precisely what I said it would do – it draws attention to the pulse of the movement. If you’ve got to do twenty eight battements jetés, you don’t want someone (the music) shouting “17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23” and so on at you every time you move, emphasising the effort and timing of every single movement.  That’s the musical equivalent of paying for your drinks in 1p pieces.

Letting music ride the beat in a jump - Singing in the Rain, for example.

Letting music ride the beat in a jump – Singing in the Rain, for example.

If, on the other hand, the pulse of the music is slower (think Singing in the Rain, let’s say, where you have three ’empty’ beats on the syllable ‘sing-‘) your attention is directed away from the effort, and the many smaller things are chunked into a larger hypermetrical framework. You’ve got 4 pound coins instead of 400 one-pence pieces. Or it’s perhaps similar to the idea that a watched kettle never boils – the more you focus on the passage of time, the slower it seems to pass. For more on that, see Ian Phillips’ article Attention to the passage of time

If I had to choose between tip 19 and tip 20, which give conflicting advice, I’d usually go for tip 20, because I think the principle of ‘less is more’ is true of ballet accompaniment (see earlier post on making ‘space’ for dancing). But I’d go for 19 if the exercise was not just simple repetition, and the class was for beginners or children, or a complicated exercise where it’s difficult for the dancers to get the rhythm right, and you need to hold the tempo back in odd corners without becoming unrhythmical (which you can do if you’ve got lots of notes to play with).  I suspect that it’s got a lot to do with Boltz & Jones’ theory of dynamic attending – the difference between future oriented attending (less notes) and analytic attending (more notes).

Knowing when to do one or the other is part of the skill and judgement that you need as a ballet pianist, and the key is to have both tools ready to deploy instantly so you can switch if one of them isn’t right for the job.

Playing for ballet class tips day 19: read the feet, divide the beat


There’s nae luck aboot the hoose, Good King Wenceslas, and a sample of a step rhythm. It all fits, but the top one is better.

In petit allegro, it’s a useful rule of thumb to listen to the rhythm of the exercise as the teacher sets it, and look very carefully at the feet as it’s being marked. Work out what the rhythm is that they make, and then divide it by half in the melody line.  If it’s a bit slow, swing or dot the melody.

So for example, let’s say that the rhythm the feet make is roughly like the bottom line in the example above (except that perhaps you wouldn’t have a step on every quaver beat), then you’d play something like the top line, There’s nae luck aboot the hooseThere are dozens of slightly different versions of this tune, depending on what it’s for and who’s playing it, but the main thing is, you can see that the tune divides the rhythm of the step, it doesn’t copy it.

Merely copying the rhythm of the step creates a beat that is effectively half the speed of the exercise.  It’s not that this beat isn’t present somewhere in There’s nae luck, but this tune also has subsidiary beat levels, and most importantly, all those semiquavers give you room to slightly stretch the beat, therefore making space (that subject again) for dance. This breathing space and contingency is the reason that fiddle tunes, quadrilles and rags work so well for petit allegro. With Good King Wenceslas, you have none of that. You can also see that the difference betweeen time signature, perceived beat, the rhythm of the step and the rhythm of the music illustrate that you might as well forget about time signature and focus on rhythm instead.

I haven’t got a name for the concept, but the principle is explained partly by the psychology of beat induction. When you hear two evenly spaced sounds in succession, your brain predicts when the third one will come, and if it does indeed fall there, then your brain goes ‘aha’ and begins to build a picture of a beat-framework where the beats you just heard are organized by another layer of  beats at half this speed . Thus, in the carol Good King Wenceslas, the middle line of the example above, the beat that you feel is at the level of the quarter note, because the repeated quavers predict it. Conversely,  whatever constitutes the beat-level of the exercise your teacher has set, you need to help your dancers to perceive that beat by subdividing it in some way. There’s Nae Luck Aboot the Hoose  does this, and the dotted rhythm (which you can take or leave, depending on the speed of the exercise) uses the additional factor of length to create the feeling of a beat at the quaver level (the actual note values are immaterial here, it’s the proportion of the durations that matters).

If you look the musical problem set out in those three lines above, you’ll see that we’re back to Riepel and his zweyers and vierers.  The rhythm of the exercise consists of two zweyers and a vierer, and that’s reflected in the fiddle tune, whereas Good King Wenceslas is two zweyers, but at half the speed of the exercise. If you merely copy the rhythm of the exercise with the melody of your music, then you may well end up playing music that perceptually speaking is half speed. This is often what dancers mean when they say that music is ‘heavy’ for an allegro exercise. it’s not that it’s entirely wrong – it fits, after all – but the perceived pace of the music as at a higher (slower) hypermetrical level, so it doesn’t support the dance well.

For petit allegro, the tip I’ve shown usually works like a dream, but there are cases at the barre where you might want to avoid it and do the opposite – but more on that tomorrow.

Playing for ballet class tips #18: take a lesson in 18th century composition


One of Riepel’s examples – reprinted by Eckhart (click to view the article)

A lot of pianists are frightened of ‘improvisation’  because the term is widely (mis)understood to mean that you play a chord with your left hand and wait for God to tell you what to do with your right.  It’s seen as a gift, or – even more damning – as a sign of liberation from the constraints that hold lesser mortals (like you or me) back. But this is just wrong. Improvisation is all about working within conventions and constraints. That’s why I haven’t even mentioned it until now – how can you improvise if you’ve got no models to work with? The appearance of spontaneity is the result of years of enculturation and practice, some of which looks much more like ‘composition’  than improvisation.  For more on that, read Peter Martin’s excellent chapters on improvisation in Music and the sociological gaze

The line between composition and improvisation is fuzzy: composers try stuff out in an improvisational way before working that material into something more studied; improvisers privately use compositional models and techniques to develop material that they’ll use ‘spontaneously’ in a performance.  And contrary to our modern concept of composition as drawing inspiration down from heaven to create something completely original on a blank sheet, 18th century composers learned their craft in a way that looks more like what we’d call improvisation, working with models to create music within the conventions of a recognisable style.

18th century composition manuals offer wonderful lessons in how to ‘improvise’ for class, because they draw attention to the mechanics and processes involved in conventions that are so conventional it’s hard to see how they’re constructed.  My favourite is Riepel’s Anfangsgründe zur musicalischen Setzkunst (Fundamentals of Musical Composition), which is a written-out conversation with a student on how to write a minuet. Even better than the original is Stefan Eckert’s article on it, So, you want to write a Minuet?” – Historical Perspectives in Teaching Theory, free to read over at Music  Theory Online. 

One of the first thing that Riepel teaches you is about the phrase construction of a minuet – ideally, two zweyers and a vierer (two two-bar phrases and a four-bar phrase). Don’t screw this up, he says (well, in so many words), because this is what makes a minuet a minuet. Then Riepel has all kinds of advice about how to construct melodies in this framework, using an imaginary student composition as an example, pulling it apart, improving it according to rules and procedures, until it begins to look like a minuet you’d buy in the shops.

Look at your average plié exercise, and you’ll see that this, too, is built on the same pattern (two demi-pliés and a full, 2+2+4). Most of what goes wrong with music for pliés is when the phrasing can’t breathe with the exercise, and all you need to get it right is to think like Riepel about whether you need zweyers or vierers.  And if you think you can’t improvise, then this surely makes it easier – it’s two things, another two things, and then four things. If you think you can improvise, don’t think it’s all about ‘breaking convention’. Some of those conventions help the dancer to phrase their movement.

Another fascinating insight into the improvisational and artisanal character of composition is in the use of Gebrauchs-formulas, described by Robert Gjerdingen in his article of the same name.  That article is behind a Jstor paywall, but you can view his translations of composition manuals at the wonderful site, Monuments of Partimenti

And on that subject, a big round of applause, please, for Simon Frosi, whose bacherlor’s dissertation (The Improvisation of Structured Keyboard Accompaniments for the Ballet Class) is probably the first and only place that you’ll see a discussion of the relationship between partimenti and ballet class improvisation. It’s free to read – press the ‘download’ button.

Update on 16th Feb 2013: If improvsation and the baroque interests you, you might also like this  article just released from Music Performance Research online: Incorporating long-range planning into the pedagogy of Baroque-style keyboard improvisation (Vol. 5, 59-78)

Playing for ballet class tips #17: Composing and improvising


Today I’m delighted to have a guest blog by Andy Higgs, friend, composer and musician who’s currently company pianist at Ballett am Rhein in Düsseldorf. This all came about because he asked if I was going to do something about composing for class. I said that I was going to, but more as a footnote – because I think that class is all about working within rules, conventions and constraints, and as such has much more to do with improvisation than ‘composition’ in the usual sense of the word. But who better to talk about composing than a composer who plays for class? So I asked Andy if he’d be willing to be a guest expert blogger.  As it happens, what he’s written touches on a whole bunch of  issues that lie at the heart of playing for class, and I believe (as I think he does) that it’s holding those different things in constant tension that make a good accompanist, and that’s about as good a tip as you can get about this job.  The improvisation/composition point he raises at the end is a whole other topic, so I’m going to deal with that tomorrow!

Guest blog by Andy Higgs:


I am writing this as I have just played for class and so the thoughts and feelings are fresh in my mind. I was observing myself reacting to the ballet mistress’s requirements and trying to consider exactly how composing original music can be a help as well as a hinderance for class.

If you are a composer, I think it is an excellent idea to have a few of your own creations to add to your repertoire. Good ballet accompaniment requires some variety, and there is room for completely new music within that. The unspoken rule of good party music is something for everyone – not listening to a Madonna CD in its entirety – and I think it is healthy to approach ballet class in the same way. Playing a class entirely of my own music would be a mistake, and teachers who use CDs tend to like to mix and match and not rely on only one for the whole class. I noticed today that the best decision I made after playing something quite experimental for pliés – a piece I had sketched a few days earlier – was to launch immediately into a jazzy Irving Berlin tune for tendus, because it completely altered the atmosphere in the room.

This evening I was playing a short 45 mins warm-up before the performance, and the  dancers usually appreciate a bunch of fun tunes to help them relax or lift their spirits before the show. For daily training in the studio, however, there is room for experimentation, and if you are lucky enough to work with an appreciative director and dancers who like to be challenged, then it is a great opportunity to try out some of your own creations. Playing for ballet often involves throwing yourself into it with the focus being on momentum, energy and expression and it can be a good way to come up with ideas that you can work into proper pieces later. The way ballet is constructed made me think a lot about how music is put together in the simple ways I’d forgotten about at music college, where I’d learnt to obsess over pitch and trying to sound original.

In my experience this experimentation in the studio is more helpful than sitting at a desk and trying to come up with something suitable using my composing brain. There is always that feeling of, ‘it doesn’t quite fit’, when I do this. It is different if you have written and recorded a CD of your music, as the teacher is likely to prepare exercises to the music at home, but expecting your composition to just work to something in morning class isn’t always realistic, especially with very imaginative teachers. A good ballet pianist won’t just play Gershwin’s Stairway to Paradise  for grands battements, they will play their own version of it, responding to the important rhythmic elements of the exercise. Similarly, I find I have to adapt my compositions slightly to make them suitable. From this perspective it is the ability to improvise, adapt and be spontaneous that remain the most valuable skills in the ballet studio.

Also, ballet has an insatiable appetite for music and devours everything that comes into its path, and anyone who has tried writing for class will know that music – which can take hours to write – disappears in a matter of seconds. It’s gone. You have to compose some more. It could take a fairly industrious composer maybe a month to write an hour and a half of music for one class, and even then, how often are you going to use it (the exception being, of course, if it was written for official syllabus work)? You’d need vast amounts of music as you’d soon tire of playing these pieces. Certainly 64 bars of composed music for a Grand Valse is not going to get you very far playing for company class. Even if you have something composed as a foundation, you will soon find yourself having to launch into something else, or extemporise around the piece to keep it sounding fresh. Sounding stale and uninspiring is possibly a ballet accompanist’s biggest fear and I have noticed that this is more likely to happen if I rely too much on one system of playing (for example if I only improvise, or if I only play show tunes). The more tricks I have up my sleeve to get out of this sticky situation the better.

I think there is a certain confidence and completeness about a nicely worked composition that is difficult to achieve with improvisation, which has a risk factor which can work for or against you. But what is required in the ballet studio is very different. It is changeable from moment to moment, and it would make the job less enjoyable by attempting to solve this problem with only one approach to the music making.