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Confessions of an anxious ballet pianist day #17: Why’s she looking at me like that?

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The museum of medieval torture in Prague. The very first time I ever played for a ballet exercise was in my audition at RAD headquarters in 1985 (they’d advertised for a pianist, with an offer of training for a suitable candidate if, like me, they didn’t have experience). They got a couple of students into a studio, and asked the teacher Debra (Debbie) Wayne to set a few exercises as if it was a real class. It can’t have gone too badly because I got the job.  But I’ve never forgotten the moment when, during a pirouette exercise, the teacher suddenly stopped right in front of me, fixed a terrifying wide-eyed stare straight at me and shouted “STOP!”

I snatched my hands from the piano keyboard, looked at her and cowered. “Sorry….” I began. Everyone looked at me – her, the audition panel, and the students. Why had I stopped? You said “stop,” I explained. The wide-eyed stare melted into a smile. “I said SPOT,” she explained, “I was talking to the students.” I remember thinking “So why were you looking at me, then?”

Only several weeks later did I realise that this is normal for ballet. Teachers sometimes half-do an exercise in front of the dancers, as if they were part of the group, acting normally for the most part, but then suddenly isolating particular directions, positions or movements, admonishing or encouraging as they go. When they appear to be looking at you, they’re not. They’re facing whatever direction the exercise has taken them, which might mean that they’re standing feet away from you, staring right at you and through you at the same time – which can look menacing if you don’t realise what’s going on.

Sometimes, dancers use you to spot when they’re doing some fiendishly difficult diagonal, so you see this person coming straight at you with tense features, gritted teeth and wide eyes that seem to say “I’m going to kill you.” They’re not, of course: this is just their “fouetté” face or whatever horrible step it is that they’re trying to achieve while they come at you from their corner to yours. But it’s difficult to turn off the fight-or-flight instinct that such a gaze naturally evokes in you, especially as, you never know, maybe today they really do want to kill you because you’ve got the tempo wrong.

I don’t think I’ve ever quite got used to the weirdness of ballet directions, that is, the way that dancers just face the way that they’ve got to face when they’re doing an exercise. Just when you look across to someone you know in class during pliés, they turn away from you, with a pained expression. The pained expression is probably nothing to do with you, it’s just their “it’s too early, but I’ve got to do this plié anyway” face, and they only turned away because that’s the exercise. But even after all these years, you can’t help occasionally feeling a visceral tug at your emotions when it happens, that makes you wonder why she’s (not) looking at you like that.

Slightly weirder is the opposite – when you’re facing a dancer because she’s hanging on to the edge of your piano, or you’re looking that way, and the directions of the exercise mean that you’re staring straight at her for several counts at a time. That’s when you have to use what Erving Goffman brilliantly termed “civil inattention,” the way of acknowledging that someone is there, but in such a neutral way that you make it clear that it’s OK, you’re not going to demand interaction. With its carefully choreographed deference, changes of direction and eyeline, ballet teaches you exactly how to do that for hours at a time. When you step out of that into the real world of messy interaction, you begin to miss it.

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

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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.”

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Confessions of an anxious ballet pianist day #15: Tempo

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One way or  another, tempo is at the heart of most of the anxieties in this advent calendar. Playing for ballet is like driving on a busy motorway in torrential rain: there is no such thing as the right speed in isolation, only in relation to other drivers and events, and getting it wrong is fatal.

Tempo in the ballet world

Outside of dance, musicians mostly just don’t get this, and I was the same when I started. I couldn’t understand why dancers and teachers didn’t care how expressively or technically brilliant I’d just played, all they cared about was tempo. They’d tell you when it was wrong, and say nothing when it was right, something which I and other novices used to gripe about, fantasizing about a world where we could be free to express ourselves and be appreciated for it.

Cat jumping out of the music section of my bookshelves, to illustrate tempo article

One of the cats jumping out of the philosophy of music section on my bookshelves. Luckily for her, it’s not my favourite subject, so there’s a space.

Nowadays, I feel totally different. Nothing brings me greater professional satisfaction than getting through an entire pirouette exercise without any tempo adjustments from the teacher. If a ballerina says “that tempo for the manège was perfect” you go home with a big glow in your heart.  When – at the beginning of an exercise – you have to adjust the tempo, and then you get that smile and a nod from the teacher when it’s right – that’s job satisfaction.

That’s why playing for Le Corsaire last year was terrifying and gratifying at the same time. It’s one darned difficult solo after another, the tempos change every 16 bars, and you’ve got about five casts, each of them slightly different in their approach and speed. It was almost never entirely right, and you have to face that look when they stop that says “it’s not entirely your fault I didn’t manage that diagonal, but I could kill you for the 20% that was.” But getting it right at all is exhilarating.

Bach, the dancing master

I said that musicians mostly don’t get this. Some do. Bach’s obituary, for example, said that he “was a really accurate band leader. When it came to tempo, which he usually laid down at a very brisk pace, he was 100% reliable” (cited on page 7 in an article by Philip Tagg, that’s well worth reading).  I once saw Eartha Kitt singing live at The Fridge in Brixton. She was like a snapping attack dog to the band at the beginning of Old Fashioned Millionaire, insisting on exactly the tempo and feel she wanted (at that thousandth of a metronome mark that combines genteel, filthy and seductive) before they’d got to the end of the first bar of the intro. In that moment, I realised tempo is everything in her songs: beyond the voice, the music, the arrangement, it’s her subtle and precise sense of tempo that creates the magic. It’s probably no coincidence that Eartha Kitt was a dancer too (here’s a picture of her and James Dean in Katherine Dunham’s dance class).

Some ballet teachers have this hyperacute sense of tempo and how to get it from others. From the outside or to a beginner, it can come across as severe or controlling, but in fact, it’s great to work with someone like that. You know that you’ll always get the right tempo, because someone will be on your case until you do: the anxiety comes when no-one in the room really knows what it is that they want, or what to try next.

“Living richly” in slow tempo: an update

Strictly speaking, this is about tempo in ballet so I shouldn’t put this here, but it saves me writing a whole new post. One of the delights of 2018-2019 was depping as an accompanist for historical dance classes at RADA. I loved how different this world of dance was to ballet. For one thing, actors work as a team. I’ve never been in a group of students where working together was so highly valued and respected. Of course, it makes sense: what is theatre, but ensemble work? But even though the same is technically true of a ballet company, you don’t see it reflected in the classes, where each space at the barre is like an invisible monastic cell. 

Anyway, in the spring term, we did a couple of sessions on Russian style, and the teacher talked about how tempo was such an important part of the expressive features of the dance: speeding up, either gradually, or in sudden shifts, for example, or starting a step much slower than its eventual tempo would be. She asked me to bring the tempo right down for the beginning of one of these dances, and gave one of the best directions I’ve ever heard, in relation to tempo. Slower, she explained, was about so much more than tempo, it required a different approach to the movement: “Live richly in the new tempo” she said, and I instantly put it in italics  my brain. 

It’s very difficult to explain this to people who have got used to just pressing a button a few times on their playback machine to “change the tempo.” Particularly when things are slower, you have to change your whole approach. Slower can imply ease (the real meaning of adagio), or luxuriance, despair, lethargy, sadness, opulence, and that makes a difference to how you shape a phrase, how you place a note. You have to inhabit a tempo, feel your way around it, know what it can do for you, and adopt it as your own, make it familiar and safe both to you and to someone watching/listening. You have to recalibrate your internal sense of pulse so that you can predict the next beat, and that might need a physically different movement: the change from a nod of the head, to a side-to-side sway with some weight in it, even if only imagined.  That’s why live richly in the new tempo is such a brilliant way of expressing the difference. 

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.

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.

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.

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.

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. 

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.

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

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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