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Confessions of an anxious ballet pianist day #20: Too much attention


Souvenirs, novelties, party tricks. It’s a bit like playing for class.

In Why’s she looking at me like that? I mentioned Erving Goffman’s brilliant term “civil inattention” for the kind of social interaction where part of being civil is making it clear to others that you’ve acknowledged their presence, but you’re not going to demand interaction from them, or pay any more attention to them than they want. Sharing an elevator with a stranger, for example, or trying not to look down when you encounter a nudist. It’s the opposite of the kind of forced banter that you get at an M&S checkout when they ask things like “Hello sir. Have you enjoyed your shop with us today? Did you manage to find everything you were looking for?” when all you want to do is just pay and get the hell out of there.

There’s a parallel in playing for ballet class. Yes, you want to be acknowledged, for people to listen to what you’re playing, and to be appreciated – but you also want to be left alone to do your own thing. This is what 99.99% of ballet teachers do. In fact, I think it’s what attracts us ballet pianists to the job. We don’t want to be on stage at the Wigmore Hall, with an audience focused on every note we play. We want to be part of what’s going on, not the centre of attention.  We don’t mind being told to slow down and speed up, but we do want a bit of licence to play the occasional wrong note, or be forgiven for improvising badly, or picking a tune that no-one knows or likes. We want the freedom to stay in the background, and for dancers to tune in and out a bit, if they need to. The conventions of ballet class interaction are such that you and the teacher are intensely and closely connected at one level, but you stay in your own worlds, like the surgeon and patient in remote surgery.

But just occasionally, you get too much attention, and you squirm.  The worst I’ve encountered was decades ago when a guest teacher who I’ve never seen since came up to me before class and, after introducing himself,  told me that he wanted only improvised music for the entire class, no tunes. He kept turning to me and the dancers, giving a running commentary on each exercise and how it was going like a driving instructor taking someone on a motorway for the first time. In the middle of a frappé exercise, he gave the dancers a direction, then suddenly glared at me excitedly, and said “The harmony’s really important here!” (like I had a chance to do anything about it) and began to make the kind of face that he would make if I played exactly the harmony he wanted. A couple of counts later, it had turned into a disappointed grimace when he didn’t get it. I think it weirded-out the dancers as much as me.

Fortunately, that kind of prurient attention to music is so rare, I can’t think of any other examples in that league. “Civil inattention” to music and musicians is so effortlessly learned by being immersed in the ballet world, that it is second nature to most teachers, and that’s just fine the way it is. If you think that you should make the class pay more attention, or that we’re not appreciated enough, and you should make everyone stop and listen, think twice. The chances are, we’re happy in our corner being left alone. Carry on as you were.

Confessions of an anxious ballet pianist day #15: Tempo


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 #8: The dreaded slow mazurka pirouette

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.


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