Tag Archives: ballet class accompaniment

Ballet Piano Podcast transcript now available

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Click here to go to the Ballet Piano Podcast (and transcript)

My enthusiasm and admiration for the Ballet Piano Podcast, which I posted about a few weeks ago, continues to grow. Talking to Matt Gregory the other day, I said that I might get round to transcribing one of the podcasts, for some people (I’m one of them) a transcript can be more accessible than listening—particularly, it occurs to me, if English isn’t your first language. Also, if you’ve heard the podcast and want to go back and find a particular passage, it’s much easier to search text than scrub through audio.  I also happen to love transcribing (if you think I’m kidding, see my eulogy to USB foot controls, and blog post on transcribing methods.  That’s one of the reasons I loved Kate Atkinson’s TranscriptionTranscribing is not a simple matter of taking down content by dictation, it raises all kinds of fascinating issues and questions along the way.

So when Matt mentioned that my name cropped up in this week’s podcast, I was too proud not to get straight down to transcribing it. Download the transcript of the latest podcast from the Ballet Piano Podcast here: 

Transcribing this podcast gave me a chance to reflect on just how good Ballet Piano Podcast is. It’s got David Yow as legendary experienced teacher (and also one of the most serene people I’ve ever worked for), three pianists, of whom one (Matt) is also a dancer, so you have a rounded and respectful view of both dance and music. There’s also a wealth of experience from both the vocational school and company side. To be really valuable, you need to know about both fields. 

If I’m really honest, I don’t really share this team’s enthusiasm for adage (see an older post for why) but I learned a lot from listening to (and transcribing) this podcast.  Trying to describe the difference between adage and ports de bras music is quite difficult in musical terms, but hearing David Yow describe it this way, made it so obvious: 

The fuller it [the music] is, the better, because that’s exactly what the movements are like, the biggest, the fullest movement that you can do.

If you’d asked a lot of musicians (or some teachers, who’ve been led to believe that you can categorize exercises by time signature), they’d say “a slow 6/8, like a barcarolle.”  I remember asking a teacher once what she thought adage music should be, and she said “it should express infinite hope.” Try finding that in your musical dictionary, but it’s inspired me for years. 

Ballet piano nerves

There is so much in the discussion that I can relate to. Here’s Akiko & Chris Hobson talking about the sheer physical and mental effort of playing for classes in new situations:

Akiko: I remember when I started, I played for one class, you know, one hour and a half or so. After one class, I was so tired, I was so hungry, and I just wanted to have a nap.

Chris:  I still get nervous now, if I’m going to a new company where I know I don’t know the ballet master and I might not know any of the dancers, I still get nervous, maybe two decades in, I don’t think it’s ever going to leave.

As I heard that, I remembered a time a few years ago when I was playing for a visiting company in London. It was just four days when I had to turn up, play for an hour or an hour and a quarter around lunchtime, and then I was free. In theory, perfect for someone who needs several hours in the day to do a PhD. But no: from when I woke up til when class started, I fretted about what I was going to play, and who for (it was three different teachers over four days, none of whom I’d worked with before). And when I’d finished, I was so exhausted mentally (and already thinking about how to make the next day interesting), that it was difficult to settle to anything else afterwards. It was a long time before I realized that summer schools are so exhausting, even if your workload is light: it’s not the number of hours, it’s the intensity of having to instantly form effective working relationships with several new people. It’s a strain for the teacher as well, who also has to deal with the new group of  dancers in front of them, and sometimes as a pianist, it feels like you’re the lightning conductor for the tension in the room.

A Dance Class Anthology

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A Dance Class Anthology—now back in print, and available from RAD Enterprises Ltd

One last thing: it’s worth mentioning that The Dance Class Anthology, which Chris Hobson mentions towards the end of the podcast, is now back in print again, and available from the RAD Enterprises—though until the Covid-19 lockdown ends, they can’t dispatch any orders. 

 

 

Everyday life as a ballet pianist: a cartoon by Marlene Spiers

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Cartoon by Marlene Spiers of a ballet pianist

Everyday life as a ballet pianist, a cartoon from the “Dance damn you, Dance” collection by Marlene Spiers. © unknown, but was sent to me in 1990

I have cherished this postcard for the last 30 years. I have never found anything that expresses so perfectly the world of the ballet class pianist as this. I am terrified of losing it, so while I can still find it, I’m posting it online. This is an illegal act for which I hope Marlene Spiers or her estate will forgive me, and I will take it down, or pay a reasonable sum to put it online if the copyright holders contact me, but it’s too good not to share.

The card was sent to me by Susie Cooper—by the strangest coincidence, since I literally just picked this out of a box at random—on 6th April 1990, almost exactly 30 years ago today. It was a lovely encouraging postcard and a letter continued on another sheet, and it gives me such joy to be able to say that the conversation still continues today.

Representations of the everyday life of a ballet pianist

The ballet pianist is such a trope in film (see the clip from Stepping Out on another page on this site), but the reality is never far off (see earlier post about the pianist in The Children of Theatre Street). One of my favourite gentle portrayals in literature is Mr Booth in Zadie Smith’s Swing Time, in the early chapters that describe so perfectly the world of Saturday morning dance classes). But the all-time prize for an honest documentary shot goes to the bit around 1’56” in the British Pathé film of Preobrajenska teaching in Paris in 1959.

The pianist smiles so beautifully at the teacher, so engaged, so totally attentive and involved in what is going on, so respectful to Mme. Preobrajenska. Nonetheless, on the music stand, open for even the documentary maker to see and film with no shame, is an open magazine. I just love the fact that she made no attempt to hide it for the camera.

Screenshot of documentary from 1959 of Preobrajenska teaching in Paris

Screenshot from British Pathé film (about 1:36″) 83 Year Old Ballet Teacher (1959) [Film ID:2726.04] [Documentary]. British Pathé. https://youtu.be/JDgEB5iK-9o For full film, see embedded clip below.

Chatelot, C. (1959). 83 Year Old Ballet Teacher (1959) [Film ID:2726.04]. British Pathé. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/JDgEB5iK-9o

 

A 19th century quadrille generator

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I remember inwardly eye-rolling when I heard a teacher many years ago claim excitedly that her pianist “never played the same thing twice.” Call me cynical, but if you’re a pianist for ballet class, you know that if you play week in week out for the same teacher and you’re playing repertoire, it’s almost impossible not to repeat yourself. You’d have to have the memory of a vaudeville savant to literally not repeat yourself.

On the other hand, if by “never playing the same thing twice,” the teacher meant that the pianist constantly improvised, and never came out with the same thing twice, then—call me cynical a second time—I still have my doubts. Improvising, particularly for ballet class, doesn’t mean producing infinitely random streams of notes, like a lottery ball machine; it involves producing music that sounds as if it’s something that you’ve heard before (see a previous post for more on this and 18th century composition primers).

The Quadrille Melodist

I had been thinking about this in relation to a brief exchange of comments on a previous post about “fear of repetition” when improvising. Then today, by coincidence, I discovered a fascinating article [full text free to download] by Nikita Braguinski on a 19th century quadrille generator, called the Quadrille Melodist, that promised to provide “428 Millions of Quadrilles for 5s. 6d.” Never one to pass up a bargain, I had to read it. It turns out, this is a box of cards, in principle not unlike Mozart’s dice game (Würfelspiel)—you have a selection box of one-bar fragments that you can combine to make an eight-bar phrase.

From the photograph, the “machine” looks a bit like one of those clocking-in card racks for employees. Instead of employees, you have bars of music on cards that you can arrange, sort, move and shuffle, but with constraints on which slot they can be placed in, to ensure the musical logic of each resulting piece.

This seems pretty close to what a lot of ballet class improvisation is (and indeed, the creation of ballet enchaînements too): the amalgamation of a limited range of permissible fragments into a more-or-less logical sounding phrase, with strict rules. Obviously the best improvisers (and ballet teachers) do more than this, but that’s a handful, in my experience; and the chances are they did their best improvisations by shedding, not on the spot.

Incidentally, Braguinski points out that its inventor, John Clinton misrepresented—perhaps on purpose—the possible combinations by several orders of magnitude: the correct figure is in fact 7,400,249,944,258,160,101,211, or just over 7.4 sextillion. If he’d wanted to to achieve the advertised figure of 428 million tunes, he could have done it with far fewer cards.

More of the same?

At the end of the article, Braguinski asks an interesting question.

At the same time, the assumption that original or new music is desirable for a quadrille is debatable. Wouldn’t the constant variation run the risk of confusing the dancers? (p. 98).

Possibly not. It depends a lot on what you mean by “the same” or “original” or “new” music, and whether you’re using the music to cue particular movements, or as accompaniment for a dance that you already know (see previous posts here and there [see under “pedadogical category” heading] ) for more on those topics).

Looking at the possibilities afforded by Clinton’s quadrille machine, the outcomes would be different, to be sure, but they are literally formulaic, and so pretty much indistinguishable from one another, as well as totally unmemorable—which is perhaps the price of endless “novelty,” if novelty is the right word at all.

See: Braguinski, N. (2019). “428 Millions of Quadrilles for 5s. 6d.”: John Clinton’s Combinatorial Music Machine. 19th-Century Music, 43(2), 86–98. https://doi.org/10.1525/ncm.2019.43.2.86

Can’t tell a waltz from a tango? I have just the song for you

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“I can’t tell a waltz from a tango” would be a great title for a ballet-related music course, though in all honesty, “I can’t tell a kujawiak from a redowa” would be more apposite.

Songs that reference what might be going in the class while you’re playing for it are pretty rare, though the best example is perhaps the ballet teacher who described her life to me in song, with a rendition of “Little Girls” from Annie, accompanied by a massive eye-roll. 

Coincidentally, Gordon Burns’s novel Alma Cogan  was one of those books I was expecting to dislike, but I loved it. Anyway, if you need a handy tango for class that will make you and maybe one other person every 20 years laugh, “I can’t tell a waltz from a tango” is the one.

The Ballet Piano Podcast

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Screenshot of the Ballet Piano Podcast splashpage

Click to visit the ballet piano podcast

I remember saying to someone a few years ago that the distance between you thinking of an idea for a project, and someone else coming up with the same idea independently and actually  doing it is about twelve months, and today’s find just goes to prove my point. The bastards have only gone and done the thing that I wanted to do more than a year ago, which is to start a podcast series consisting of interviews/discussions with the great and the good in this weird corner of the musical universe, the world of playing for ballet classes. 

The bastards in question are all wonderful colleagues, so I wish The Ballet Piano Podcast the best and warmest of luck with this great venture, and please get on and do some more. The first episode is a roundtable chat with Chris Hobson and his wife Akiko, the lovely Matt Gregory, and equally lovely ballet teacher David Yow. To actually get three pianists AND a teacher talking in the same room, on the record, is a miracle, and it says a lot about  the people involved that they’ve managed to do it. 

Rudy Apffel’s Czerny For Ballet Class blog

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Rudy Apffel's Czerny for Ballet Class Blog

Click the image to go to Rudy Apffel’s Czerny for Ballet Class Blog

Absolutely thrilled to discover Rudy Apfells’ Czerny for Ballet Class blog  — lovely recordings of huge numbers of Czerny exercises, together with reimaginings/reworkings of them (see here for a description of the project) lots of interesting commentary, and downloadable scores. 

Not content with just one reworking, some exercises, like Op 335 No. 6 have six.

Czerny Op. 335 No. 6

Czerny Op 335 No. 6: reworked in six different versions by Rudy Apffel

In the wrong hands (what a great metaphor for a pianist-related post!) this kind of music can  sound so drab, just the kind of thing that should be banned from ballet classes forever. But Apffel’s reworkings are witty and clever, and hold a mirror back to the original that make you hear it differently. There’s one in the style of Prokofiev’s “Dance of the Knights,” for example, but my favourite is the jazz waltz rendering. If you didn’t know it was based on Czerny, you could believe it had been a No. 1 chanson in Paris in the 1950s. Sometimes when you come to rearrange things like this you realize that the underlying composition is cleverer than you realized, obscured by a patina of tired familiarity. 

This is such a magnificent labour of love, but I fully understand Apffel’s fascination with Czerny.  I think it’s Taruskin who said that there are two Beethovens (or Bachs? Or Mozarts?—I’ll correct this if I’m wrong another time) —there’s Beethoven, and “Beethoven.”  The one in scare quotes is the composer that comes with all the baggage—the music appreciation classes you hated, the feeling that you had to like the music even if you didn’t, the way that people look in concert halls as they’re listening to his music. Without the scare quotes, you might feel quite differently about the music (for good or ill, as it happens, with some of the great names). 

Likewise, with Czerny: there’s Czerny the fun composer, Czerny the man who worked like crazy, with so many simultaneous projects on the go that he reputedly set them all out on different desks in his study, spending an hour at each in succession in order to make progress on them all (even if the story isn’t true, I love it); Czerny whose exercises dance and sing and convey drama. Then there’s “Czerny,” the scourge of young pianists, who are handed the books of exercises as if they were not really music, but “merely” technical machines to improve technique, like those things 19th dancers used to splay their feet in to improve their turnout. “Czerny” the abandoned sheet music in the Oxfam shop, with a stained cover, musty smell, and pencilled ticks and music teachers’ fingerings in.  I feel sick just thinking about it. 

Take away the scare quotes, and there’s a joyful, imaginative composer here with a staggering wealth of material, and that’s what Rudy Apffel is mining with his new arrangements and reimaginings. There’s a danger that you might miss Apffel’s humour and ingenuity if you just turn on a single track and think “I wonder if I could use this for tendus?” Get inside the music, listen to them as a series, compare one with the other, and this is a wonderful musical journey.  One of the things I especially like is the use of technology to do the impossible—freely admitted by Apffel!— as in this Schubert-Impromptu-Meets-Czerny-Op 335 No. 18

Lightly up, up, up: John O’Brien, legendary dance teacher

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John O'Brien in June 2016. Photo: Andrew Florides (www.andrewflorides.co.uk)

John O’Brien in June 2016. Photo: Andrew Florides (www.andrewflorides.co.uk)

When John O’Brien died on 11th May this year, I suggested to the RAD that they should do something to remember him, since he taught for many years there, quite apart from being the proprietor of Dance Books. It’s hard to imagine the world of dance scholarship, or discourse about dance generally, without the history of that shop and publishing company. What follows is the tribute to John I wrote for the RAD’s in-house staff newsletter. It’s one of quite a few such pieces on my site now, so forgive any small repetitions. No sooner had I finished it, than I thought of dozens of other things I could say about John and what made him such a great teacher and person, but I hope this is at least the beginning of a worthy tribute. 

Lightly up, up, up: John O’Brien

Mention the name John O’Brien to people above a certain age in the dance world, and they’ll usually start showing you one of the exercises that started his famous continuous body conditioning barre: lightly up, up, up, gently down, down, down, arm halfway across, and open out, out; or the leg-swings, followed by the leg-swings, bending the knees. He had started these body conditioning class for the orchestra at Ballet Rambert when he was a dancer there, and later taught developments of it at the Actors’ Centre, the old City Lit in Stukeley Street, and Pineapple Dance Studios, where he also taught ballet classes on Saturday afternoons that incorporated a continuous barre.

At RAD headquarters, John taught boys’ ballet classes on a Saturday morning, and body conditioning on the LRAD course, which is where I first met him in 1986, just before I left to go freelance. I then played for him almost exclusively for the next three years, sometimes for nearly every class he taught in the week, excluding the private lessons. On a free morning, I would sometimes drop into the RAD and play for him there for free, just for the joy of working together. One week, I accompanied classes he gave at Crystal Palace to an Olympic diving squad. They started the week looking muscle-bound and defensive. After a few days, they looked like dancers.

John became so well-known for those body conditioning classes, that people often forgot—if they ever knew at all—that he was first and foremost an outstanding ballet teacher and coach. At the same time, “body conditioning” doesn’t begin to describe what those classes were about—it was just a name for something that incorporated all kinds of approaches to working with the body, that inspired and helped generations of dancers, figure skaters, gymnasts,  actors, and anyone else who had an interest in movement. The seemingly endless list of people he’d worked with included Maggie Smith, Jane Fonda, Fenella Fielding and George Chakiris, yet he was humble to the point of complete self-effacement: he was not a “personality,” or the life and soul of the party, or a character, or someone who impressed you with the amount of their knowledge, or the wit of their one-liners. John’s presence in a room was deeply pacifying and refreshing, it had a kind of hum and energy to it that went out to others rather than drawing attention to himself. When he taught, it was never about transmitting knowledge, but about enabling, challenging and nurturing people until they were more fully themselves, and better at what they did.

Music and the continuous barre

Those continuous barres really were continuous. John would say “if you need to take a break, just stop, and drop back in again with the music when you’re ready.” He meant it, of course, and I often did take a rest for a couple of exercises, but he also knew that I couldn’t resist the challenge of trying to keep going. In one of the longest non-stop barres, we finally took a break after 45 minutes.

A lot of the repertoire I have now, I learned in those classes. It was before the days of iPads and electronic scores, so I had to arrange music books all over the piano and on the floor, just managing to switch between them and turn pages in time for the next exercise. Often, I would go straight from class to Zwemmers music shop in Litchfield Street to pick up more repertoire books: buskers’ books, the Irving Berlin songbook, or scores of ballets that John had mentioned, like Les Forains by Sauguet, a work I would never have known without him. He gave me several scores from his own collection, including a book of Gershwin songs that I now know by heart.

I would set myself challenges, such as trying to play everything in 3/4 time until I ran out of ideas, or everything in four, switching sometimes between double or half time. As I grew more confident, I would challenge both of us: to suddenly change from three to four or double to half-time between exercises, or play music that was minimal and quiet on one side, raucous and loud on the other. He loved the challenge, but was never caught out, probably because he had long ago practised with Marie Rambert some of the Dalcroze-inspired rhythmic exercises she had used to help dancers in the original cast of Rite of Spring. In the centre, his exercises would have Dalcroze-based challenges in them—step across left, step across right, in a foursquare rhythm, while doing something else with the arms, then saying the days of the week (which of course, come in sevens, and with different numbers of syllables, so they would never align with the feet or arms). The idea was not to achieve perfection, but to keep trying, to keep nagging the brain and body out of their habits. I am sure there are people who had been going to those classes for years, if not decades, but were still challenged by this part of it.  

Musicality

These are just some of the ways that John’s musicality was unique and extraordinary, which was why most musicians loved playing for him. Apart from anything else, you could play almost any song from any show from 1900 to the present day, and he’d know it, recalling the words instantly. I’d make him smile with ironic segues from one song to another, like Love and Marriage on one side to It ain’t necessarily so on the other. With his voice he kept an impeccable rhythm, secure but never controlling, as fluid and expressive as a conductor’s beat, and with a musician’s sense of phrasing. During the last few counts of the second side of an exercise, he would usually give the instructions for the next one, but sometimes this would be shortened into a single gesture right at the end of the phrase, raising his arm, for example, in preparation for the arm-swings that were about to come. Somehow you knew from the slightest breath or movement what he was going to do next, how much to hold back or push on with tempo. He listened not just to what you were playing, but how you were playing it, and always left space for you to play expressively. It didn’t matter if you made a mistake, or if what you played didn’t quite work: he kept the rhythm going for you and the dancers, so you could quickly find your place again. It was this that enabled me to try out so many things for class in our time together, because you could go wrong, and it didn’t matter. If there was a way to make them work, he’d find it, and if not, well, we’d try again another day.

You can’t teach this kind of musicality, but neither, I think, can you unlearn it once you have experienced it. Many years ago, I took Christopher Hampson (now artistic director and CEO of Scottish Ballet) to one of those classes, eager for him to see what had inspired me so much. He loved it, and began to use continuous barres in his own classes, always acknowledging the debt to John. Alex Simpkins, John’s partner, restarted the body-conditioning classes last year, working together with former members of the class, some of whom had been to them for literally decades. Playing for both Chris and Alex, I feel the same kind of freedom as I had working for John: a musical conversation in the class that often spills out into an excited verbal one afterwards. 

To a large degree, this has nothing to do with music at all, but with sensitivity and communication. John once said that for pianists in a class, it can be a bit like being on the outside of a dinner party, when you don’t know anybody, and nobody makes you feel at home until all of a sudden, somebody says something like “and where do you come from?” and then it’s fine. John was always looking for a way to open, maintain and develop that contact, to make the pianist feel welcome, at home, at one and engaged with the class, because he knew that if it was lost, or never there in the first place, both teaching and playing were a thankless task.

And on the other side

John was one of the most down-to-earth people I have ever met in the ballet world, which is why he was so refreshing to work with, yet at the same time, he had what I feel obliged to call, for clarity’s sake, a “spiritual” side—though I’m not sure I ever heard him use the word: it implies a division between body and spirit that was foreign to him. He was as many people know, a healer, and in his teaching, coaching, and classes, he always remained open to the mysterious, the numinous, and the transpersonal, in the sense of that something that happens between people who do things together that is intensely felt and experienced, but is difficult to identify or describe. There was nothing strange or awkward about any of this. It was a humility, an openness to something beyond himself, as natural as feeling the breeze through an open window. As he put it himself in class one day, rousing everyone to action with his characteristic big smile, “This thing’s bigger than all of us!”

London 1st June 2019

Other posts on this site about John O’Brien

On-screen commentary from pianist Joshua Piper during YouTube ballet class

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When I first learned to drive, I read a book about the police driving test, in which you had to do a “commentary drive,” which involves describing to the examiner (while you’re driving) what you are observing on the road ahead, explaining the decisions you’re making, the precautions you’re taking, and so on. I often think of this during ballet class, because as any ballet pianist will tell you, although we seem to “just” play when the exercise starts, there’s a whole series of observations, analyses and decision-making processes going on before we lay a finger on the keyboard, and then a dozen more as we’re actually playing, some of which are so quick as to seem unconscious and instantaneous. For the novice pianist trying to learn something about how to play for class, watching another pianist has limited use, because you don’t know why they’re doing what they do. Sometimes, they don’t know either, or have forgotten by the time class is over. That’s why the video below by ballet pianist Joshua Piper (aka heavypiano) is really useful: he’s filmed a real class, with him playing, put it on YouTube, and put a short text commentary over it, usually at the beginning and ends of exercises, so you can see why he’s doing what he’s doing. [If you can’t see the embedded video, click here to see it on YouTube]

He explains, for example, that at a certain point in the barre, the teacher likes a “less is more” approach to the music, so he holds back, avoiding too much subdivision, playing chords in light touches, which gives the dancers space to move, so to speak; elsewhere he talks about trying to maintain tempo, and create a feeling of ebb and flow, of introducing a bit of stride, but not too heavy. It’s a great lesson on making your repertoire stretch, too—adapting tunes according to the tempo and feel of the exercise, so that you only just realise by the end that you know the tune, but in a different form (I’m thinking here of his styling of Korobeiniki, a.k.a. the Tetris theme.

He emphasises that what’s happening in this class at times is fairly unusual: the teacher wants him to play quiet, thin, and spacious music for exercises that would often be accompanied by more robust, circussy stuff. But that’s why the video is so useful—it demonstrates how a particular pianist adapts his style to a particular teacher and the dancers, rather than making any claims that you can apply the same musical template to every ballet class in the world. It’s the necessity to adapt that is what makes the job difficult, but also rewarding. One of my favourite comments is where he says he’s trying to “imply round movement with my LH pattern” in ronds de jambe, an exercise that’s normally taken in 3/4, but which he’s playing in 4. Finding ways to trick people’s ears into thinking they’re hearing three when they aren’t is one of my tactics, too, as I’ve described in another post.

This is a great video, and Joshua Piper plays beautifully—but I also have to say he’s lucky to have this teacher, and that class (I’m guessing it’s Ballet Austin, but I’m not sure). There are other videos to be made, where the pianist—like a police driver explaining how he is going to manoeuvre a skidding car out of a muddy ditch while pursuing criminals— shows how they try to make the eternal fondu-tango-that-is-too-slow or the ronds-de-jambe-stirring-porridge-waltz still feel like music against the most challenging odds.

The more I watch and listen to this video, the more I love the way Joshua Piper plays, his repertoire, stylings, and commentary—and the video itself, too: it makes such a nice change to have a static, wide camera angle, and a focus on a good quality recording of the sound, rather than a body mic given to the teacher, and fetishistic close-ups of dancers’ feet and sweaty faces. Ballet on TV is so darn predictable. This video gives you a feel for the calm, peaceful concentration that you get in a ballet classes, and an idea of just how exposed and focal the music can be when you’ve got a teacher who isn’t screaming over the top of it.

Music in “Where Snowflakes Dance and Swear” by Stephen Manes

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Where Snowflakes Dance, book by Stephen ManesI bought Where Snowflakes Dance and Swear when it first came out in 2011: I didn’t particularly want to read it (because I spend enough time in this world at work) but I couldn’t ignore it as a kind of ethnography of the ballet world that I was writing about. It was a good decision: unlike so many other authors of backstage views of the ballet world, Stephen Manes actually talks about music—the problems, what people play, the problems of hiring and marking up orchestral parts, how much it costs, and so on. 

For anyone who has ever had a problem with music publishers, copyright and licensing in the ballet world, pages 252-258 will probably be one of the first times you’ve seen your experience represented in a published book, with the exception of Matthew Naughtin’s Ballet Music: A Handbookwhich tells the story (and gives information) from the music librarian’s perspective. Even he, though, doesn’t get into the kind of gory embarrassing detail that Manes does, where a company has to do things that are on the grey, fuzzy margins of legal, in order to get by. Everything in these pages I had experienced myself, and was delighted and surprised to see that my troubles had been shared by others. You think you’re mad, criminal and incompetent until you realize it’s the craziness of music publishing that is the problem. 

I can’t think of another book or article that contains so much about everyday musical practice in the ballet world: what pianists play for class; the decision to use CD or piano for rehearsal; the embarrassing moment when you do a new work, and find that there’s no rehearsal score, so the company pianist has to do one. It’s just a shame that you have to trawl through the book looking for the references—the indexing could be improved so that it’s easier to find topics, rather than very granular references to particular people or ballets, but at least the references are in there somewhere: ethnographies of ballet often say little more than ‘classical music plays in the background’ and leave it at that, so this is a welcome change. 

Ballet pianists and company class

The author (see comment below) has reminded me of one of the biggest sections on the work of ballet pianists, on page 697-703, with detailed explanations from two company pianists, and their route into the profession. One ended up playing for the company “because they hated the class pianist” (p. 698), another started out when he was left to sink or swim in a class in Moscow—  “. . .there’s something about someone foreign yelling at you, screaming at you. . .” (p.700). Quite. We’ve all been there. But the balance in Manes’ writing is everything: despite the awfulness, there are compensations, and reasons why ballet pianists end up loving their job and staying in it. A lot of so-called “behind the scenes” writing on ballet musicians is nothing of the sort, because it’s commissioned and written under the auspices of the ballet companies themselves. 

Repertoire

Dotted around the book (and this is what prompted this post) are little references to music that to my mind, make a huge difference, not just to the evocation of the scenes that the author is describing, but to our knowledge of what music in the ballet world is like generally. The book may be specific to a time and place, but musically, it sounds very familiar: “A medley of ‘Stairway to Paradise,’ ‘Bidin’ my Time,’ and ‘Nice Work if You Can Get it’ played with strong emphasis on the beat accompanies a combination that involves what Otto calls ‘many’ turns.” (p. 44). Stretches are done to a Dvořák Slavonic Dance, and sit-ups to Carmen (p. 119); “Flashy jumps and big turns to Beethoven, Bach, “Be a Clown,” and “Meet Me in St. Louis” begin to lighten the mood of the room. (p. 505).  In a description of a rehearsal, Manes mentions that “The Merry Widow Waltz” wafts in from an adjacent classroom (p.173), prompting a momentary digression in the rehearsal to remember fondly the time the company did Ronnie Hynd’s ballet The Merry Widow.” It’s a lovely detail—it’s exactly the kind of thing that happens in rehearsal. In writing about ballet, there is usually so much emphasis on the hyperfocus and determination of dancers as elite athletes, that these little overhearings and spillages of music and memory usually go unmentioned.  

Judith Espinosa, the fishermen’s wives and the waltz

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As allegro was about to begin during a ballet class yesterday, I started to smirk thinking about something I’d read in Derek Parker’s fascinating book, The First 75 Years of the Academya brief history of the Royal Academy of Dance published on its 75th anniversary in 1995. It was a reminiscence about the teaching methods of Judith Espinosa, who “spoke Cockney in the old Dickensian manner” (pronouncing the letter v as w, apparently), and was rarely seen without a cigarette. For those used to universal smoking bans, it’s hard to believe that this was probably in a ballet studio, but even I remember having an ashtray on the piano during company class. In addition to chain-smoking and speaking Dickensian cockney, she also shouted so loud that people feared for her vocal health. 

Put all these together, and now imagine the way that she set her choreographic “scenas” in class:

“You’re fishermen’s wives—you’re waiting on the beach for the boats, but there’s news that all the men have been drowned in a storm; you’re wild with grief. [To the pianist] We’ll have a waltz.” The First 75 Years of the Academy, p. 12

The style is hilarious, but what I was smirking at just as much was the familiarity—to anyone who’s played for class—of the abrupt return to musical mundanity with “we’ll have a waltz.”