Tag Archives: counts

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

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

Dadu’s in Tooting, now boarded up.

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

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

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

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



Confessions of an anxious ballet pianist day #11: Getting the phrasing wrong


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.