Things which made significant development to my development as a dance musician: Vocal accompaniment

There are a great deal of parallels between being a dance accompanist and a vocal accompanist. Both dance and the voice use the body as expressive instruments. Substitute choreography for words and the differences between singers and dancers start to narrow. Having a basic vocabulary of dance steps would be the equivalent of having a working knowledge of French phonetics or German diction.

Before becoming involved in the ballet world, I worked as a vocal accompanist and spent much time accompanying singers in French Song, Lieder, or Italian arias. As I was born and bred in Malaysia , European languages were not what I left school with. I spoke a basic Cantonese by virtue of being born into a Chinese family, had passable Bahasa Malaysia from being schooled in the national language, and thanks to books and American TV had decent English  as well.

So, when I started accompanying singers as a young student at music college, there was a very steep learning curve for me to add French and German to my repertoire. Mind you, there was no need to rapidly become a  fluent speaker, but it was expected for  serious vocal accompanists to have a working  knowledge of various languages and the ability to coach singers in those languages. For example, a good accompanist would be well equipped with an arsenal in the form of German, French, and Italian phonetics as well as an understanding of vocal technique.

As well as learning the accompaniment to a song or aria, the best  accompanists would  also study the text of the songs , translate if necessary, anticipate where to allow time for tricky words/ breaths, or anticipate any technical needs which might arise from singers needing to use the chest voice , perhaps, or to float a high note – all the kinds of considerations which have nothing to do with playing the piano but had everything to do with being a specialist in vocal accompaniment.

So for me, it was not too great a transition to make from accompanying singers to working with dancers. I fell back into the habit of ‘getting to know the text’. It wasn’t a strange thing to be told by my mentors at Scottish Ballet was that I needed to understand  the dynamics of dance steps.

One of the things  I picked up on during my year at SB  was the importance of having rehearsal marks in the musical score.  Simply being able to follow what the dancers were doing was like being able to follow the of plot of Strauss’s  lieder Für Fnfzehn Pfennige and allow a little time for different emphatic pronouncements of ‘für fünfzehn pfennige’  (not always marked in the score how one should do this, but it comes with an understanding of the text and working in partnership with the singer). So when dancers say the music for their solo variation is too fast, they might mean that they don’t have time to properly articulate their footwork /do five pirouettes/ hold an arabesque at a particular point in their solo. Just because choreography isn’t notated in a way which is readily understood by most musicians, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t offer less  artistic support .

Lucia Popp singing “Für fünfzehn Pfennige” R. Strauss


Things which made significant differences to my development as a dance musician : Rehearsals marks

Humor me on this: I have a mild obsession with rehearsal marks and I suspect it comes with being a closet control freak.

There is a rather strong inertia from the dance musician community when it comes to writing down rehearsal marks. This truly puzzles me because a few scribbles in the musical score could make the world of difference to a rehearsal.  Since a lot of choreography is taught orally and by demonstration, there is rarely a written guide  for musicians to follow.

I often hear dance musicians say ‘ I don’t know what to write down’ or ‘I can’t follow what happens and play at the same time’. Well….it IS possible if one takes advantage of opportunities to do so.

My journey towards using rehearsal marks began when I was a clueless student on the Pianist for Dance course. Watching company class was a truly baffling experience. Apart from the fact that I had no idea about ballet terminology, it really bugged me that I couldn’t understand how counts were used. To make matters worse, the ballet mistress  marked steps quickly and in ‘short-hand’. Even when I could identify specific steps, I didn’t have the crucial ability to quickly memorise the overall structure of exercises.

In desperation, I resorted to writing out a grid of 8s…..many, many 8s… and using them to chart out when particular steps happened. It looked like this:


1              2              3              4              5              6              7              8

1              2              3              4              5              6              7              8

1              2              3              4              5              6              7              8


During class, while listening to more experienced pianists do their stuff I would then watch what happened in each phrase of 8 and quickly mark down steps.

In a tendu exercise (tendu on 1 and close on 2), this was usually something like this:

1              2              3              4              5              6              7              8


Faster tendus with a relevé at the end of the phrase would look like this:

tendu                                                                                                 relevé

+1           +2           +3           +4           +5           +6           +7           8


Frappes combination with singles, doubles and petit battement:

+1           +2           +3           ++4        +5           +6           +7           ++8

++1        ++2        ++3        ++4        5              6              7              8  (p.batt)

Slowly, I learnt that there were typical structures  to each exercise. Using my 8s I could go home  and practice improvising suitable music. Some musicians take videos or sound recordings of class which gave them material to study.   Everything which helps clarify the confusion should be considered.

So began my habit of writing down steps.

Knowing where dancers are in the choreography saves time during rehearsals. You could begin from the sissone section, for instance, instead of having to go all the way back to the beginning.  Gradually you will develop a really useful dance vocabulary (including such technical terms as ‘twizzles’, ‘limps’ and ‘the bit which looks like a dog having a wee’). The really  big payoff in musician/dancer relationships then comes when  dancers/teachers  begin to have much greater confidence in  working with musicians who  can navigate through choreography.

There is so much to be gained in asking questions like ‘ Can you tell me what count the pressage happens on?’ It serves as a reminder to the dancers of the need to be more musical and in turn, they are reassured that the musician is aware of potential timing issues at the crucial moment.

Here are some ideal place to start :

Syllabus classes

The same short exercises repeated for months on end provide the golden opportunity for the bored pianist to map out  steps in the score. It could be the number of counts used to complete a developpé or marking out when glissades occur in an allegro exercise. For the completely inexperienced pianist, syllabus classes are probably the first time they hear dance-speak . There is no excuse to switch off from listening to the terminology used and then claim further on down the line ‘I don’t know what to write down’.  Most dance pianists start out by playing for these types of classes anyway, so why not begin as you mean to carry on?

Repertoire rehearsals

Here, teachers usually go slowly naming  steps and counts. The first thing that should be marked is how the solo starts. Does the music begin first or is there a preliminary step/port de bras? Even the bare bones of stage directions could be a useful ie. dancer comes onstage DSL (downstage left ) and  music begins when they get to USR (upstage right), jumps across the stage happen when the dancers are in a diagonal line, etc.

Does this kind of thing this truly matter to musicians? Surely it’s hard enough having to play piano transcriptions. Yes, it does matter.  Remember, being a dance musician means being a collaborative artist working in a team so these marks may need to be passed on to  the stage crew, for example.

There are often long period in rehearsals when the musician is not playing.  When  new choreography is being set, the teacher would  often talk through the first set of steps  using counts without music.  I like to use this time to mark in steps. Every time the dancers stop to clarify steps/ timing/technique would then be the chance for me to refine my doodles until eventually I have a pretty accurate set of rehearsal marks. The most important to thing to do is to keep one’s eyes and ears peeled.

Through  experience, I’ve learned not to switch off during these lulls in rehearsals. There is much laid-back talk of how it is acceptable for musicians to use this time to check emails and texts, read books or newspapers, eat a hurried sandwich etc. By all means, sit back and have a cup of tea if you must as long as you can still keep track of the proceedings and haven’t missed the setting of steps.


No marks – Part 3: Wednesday Pianists and the Limiting Factor

Continuing my series of  No marks articles, I wanted to share a blog which I originally posted in the RAD group forum on Linkedin back in 2013:

I recently had an inspiring chat with the lovely ballet pianist Wen Yang Ho. The subject under discussion was about pianists in vocational schools playing for class. As it is often the practice in these schools the class is set on Monday and repeated each day with some changes changes to challenge the young dancers. Students are expected to have remembered the exercises by Wednesday and by this time, the teacher aims to provide no further marking . For the pianist, if you were the pianist on Monday, then all is well if you continued to play for that same class throughout the week. But if a different pianist came in, say on Wednesday, then the teacher would have to provide some minimal instructions to the pianist without actually marking the exercise. 

The situation then arises when pianists are then simply asked for ‘Some music for frappés, in 2 , please’ or ‘ A nice adage, if you will?’ or ‘Something suitable for pirouettes, a waltz, please.’ Is this sufficient instruction? 

No? Perhaps a bit more marking is needed then. Teacher goes on to mark the first few counts eg. Frappés exercise: ‘ and ONE and TWO and THREE and Four…’ Pianist starts to play something he/she thinks would work. Three eights in… trouble brews in the form of triple frappés and flic flacs. The music which started out fine is now too fast. 

We jokingly dubbed this ‘The Limiting Factor’ – elements which dictated the tempo of an exercise and therefore the choice of music. Speculation then turned to what The Limiting Factor could be for different exercises and abilities and most importantly, how RARELY this element is mentioned by teachers.

How often have you been a Wednesday Pianist or had to work with one? Teachers: if you had to instruct one, what was your most effective way of doing so? How much information do you normally give your pianist? Perhaps you prefer to indicate the tempo of the exercise – but would it help an inexperienced pianist more to understand why a different tempo is needed rather than to be told to play faster or slower?

Button Pusher, Moi?


It is an uncomfortable position to be in when one realises how easily a live musician can be replaced by recorded music. However, I like to think that it doesn’t automatically reduce any musician present  to the role of Button Pusher. Both Christa Hugo and I might have pushed buttons on many an occasion for MTB, but we also kept a time track (starting from the écarté position? That’ll be at 1’07’’), took down choreography marks, helped the teachers navigate through odd counts (yes, the introduction was a long 14 counts or an 4+10, if that helps) and tricky corners (no, your ears aren’t playing tricks on you, the music has changed from 3/4 to 2/4 ) .

If you can’t provide live music, you can still BE a musician and provide expertise which will smooth out potential bumps in the rehearsal process. The reassurance that this gives a teacher is HUGE and helps engender trust in working partnerships between dancer and musician.

Helping dancers navigate through tricky music is one of the main responsibilities of a rehearsal pianist and no CD can ever replace the help a live musician can provide

Things which made significant differences to my development as a dance musician : Contemporary dance

It’s such a treat to watch contemporary dancers do barre work. They have a total love affair and connection with The Ground: floor-eating tendus and positively  lascivious rond de jambe.

A lot of ballet music for class aims to maximise time for the body to be airborne. When it comes to jumping exercises, we are often told that unsuitable music is that which is too heavy or doesn’t allow for higher jumps.  Well…. as far as I can tell, heaviness and groundedness  are welcome in contemporary class where dancers do jump despite ‘heavy’ music.

Especially useful was watching percussionists accompany contemporary classes. My very first experience of this was hearing two highly sophisticated drummers at work , an event which left me with extreme drum envy.

I eventually took up djembe lessons. In the time-honoured way of African drumming, djembe music wasn’t   definitively written down so it challenged everything I thought I knew about music.  I began working regularly with phrases of 6s and richly layered rhythms and textures. It was all so different to typical ballet class fare – plain waltz or polka rhythms began to feel very bare – and didn’t take long for all this to start feeding into my improvisations for ballet. It was liberating to learn that you don’t necessarily need what was conventionally accepted to be a tune in order to create effective and highly dynamic dance music, and how to create phrases of 6s which didn’t come under the straitjacket  of polonaises or minuets. Next stop – Conga Land!

The power of a known tune

There are times when playing familiar music can make or break a class:


Teachers wanting for music for fouettés  or a  manège  often simply ask for a coda but actually want a known tune like the coda from Don Q, or the famous 32 fouettés from Swan Lake. As an inexperienced pianist, I made the mistake of improvising for this exercise.  My improvisation had exactly the same accents  and dynamic as the Swan Lake coda but the teacher  fussed and insisted that it didn’t feel right.  After trying out different improvisations which were rejected, it dawned on me that what she really wanted was familiar coda music.

Within the structure of the traditional pas de deux, the coda is the grand finale of a section of dance where the soloists get the chance to strut their stuff. The audience would have already been treated to a display of technical virtuosity in the preceding solo and partnered dances and the coda really rounds things off by giving them one last look at the dancers’ technical brilliance.  Hearing an actual coda from the ballet repertoire seem to give dancers a psychological boost of confidence and gets them into ‘The Zone’ for  show-stopping pyrotechnics.

Company class treats

They’ve done several shows and have a long tour coming up. Exhaustion is setting in  and daily class is becoming more marked and less danced. This is one of those moments when a couple of well-chosen tunes could make the dancers smile.

I often play for Matthew  Bourne’s  Company on the Birmingham leg of their long touring season. The dancers there tend to be young  and favour more modern tunes so  I usually have in mind a few  popular tunes (make sure it is well–known to them)  from the more modern musicals, TV ads, pop songs , etc.

One  year, I chose to play a lot of music which was tuneful and harmonically interesting, but obviously unknown to them. I got a polite, but distant reception and the energy levels in the studio felt flat. The next year, I made sure I was armed with lots of popular tunes and used them with abandon. Despite being exhausted, the dancers perked up,  started whistling/singing along, and egged each other on to see who could come up with the most melodramatic  interpretation of ‘With One Look’.

Choosing Dance Music for Children

Last Sunday, Peter Parker, one of our choreographers at the Midland Theatre Ballet mentioned how a particular piece music did all the work by giving him choreographic ideas. The piece in question was Danza dei piccoli schiavi mori from Verdi’s Aida.

It got me thinking how the music used for children must work so much harder than the music one might choose for experienced adult dancers. This same issue was one that came up for discussion when I trained on the Pianist for Dance course. One of my mentors, the incomparable Brian Prentice, mentioned that he considered playing for children’s classes harder than playing for adult classes.

Music for class

I found that music which may have been acceptable to the company dancers turned out to be less suitable for say, the Junior Associates. Company dancers are capable of adapting the same steps to suit different music.

For example, if two different pieces of music were played for the same tendu exercise – one of a gooey persuasion and the other more sharply rhythmic and staccato- an experienced dancer would maintain ground contact with their feet in tendu while using the dynamic suggested by both pieces of music. A child (who as children do see or in this case , hear things in more black or white terms) hearing the sharper accents in the more rhythmic music may be tempted into making a glissé by imitating the ‘pop’ of the accent.

So, if the teacher of the children’s class is trying to correct the lifting of feet off the ground in tendus, it would be ever so helpful if the musician could play music which didn’t suggest obvious glissés. Of course, children do need to be able to do tendus with a variety of dynamics, but perhaps more varied music could be saved for later once they have learnt the basics of a good tendu? Brownie points for the musician who could anticipate this in the first place.

Music for choreography

One of the most interesting but hardest part of my job as the MD of Midland Theatre Ballet is choosing music for our productions. As I am  in the thick of preparing music for ‘Snow White’, the issue of choosing music for choreography is  currently a major obsession. My long-suffering husband Wayne has been subjected to a mildly demented wife demanding “Does this sound like a sneezy dwarf to you?” for weeks now.

Since will we spend months listening to the chosen music, I try to keep to a pretty strict criteria for short-listed pieces for the sake of our sanity if nothing else. My criteria include pieces which are:

-musically sophisticated (eg. phrases of 6s, 10s, anything to get away from square 8s)

-harmonically interesting (but consistent with the chosen sound world)

-melodically memorable, preferably with colourful orchestration (nothing beats a good tune)

- a good mix of musical types (eg. ranging from polonaises, marches, galops, codas, to minuets)

But above all, the music MUST tell the story. Here is where the real difficulty lies as our cast comprises of children and teenagers.

Consider finding music for a scene d’action with Snow White moving through the woods. Is she having nice stroll, running away from the evil stepmother in fear, elated at having run away, or in despair at having been made to run away? The best music will unambiguously tell the audience (and the dancers) all the emotions being experienced by the character at that moment – a vitally important element for young dancers of underdeveloped acting skills. The worst music will be a neutral-sounding ( hmm…pretty, perhaps?!) tune as it doesn’t provide anything for our young dancers to respond to. Mime is difficult enough to teach at the best of times so every effort must be made to surround them with mime music that evokes a definite response ie. the music MUST do all the work.

Finish with a flourish

When improvising for class, I sometimes fall into an annoying habit of ending my music on a ‘down’ note. To combat this, I have a mantra which I repeat to myself throughout class and I call it ‘Finish with a Flourish’ .

It stops me from allowing my improvisation to peter out on an apologetic note. Dancers are so often told to end their exercises with confidence and to retain the dynamic of each step to the very end. Ta da! Here I am!

I try to help by supporting musically with a flourish that rises pitch-wise rather than falls. It is easier in exercises with strong accents like frappes, pirouettes, or glisses to finish on a nice strong cadence. Not too difficult to then decorate that cadence: a little chromatic twiddle , some grace notes, a run of arpeggios – how many ways could one do this to make each ending different? Musical ‘Ta Das’ to keep class interesting.  Be warned, though, use the same ending too often and it becomes an idiosyncrasy!

P.S Apologies for the lack of acute accents in my spelling. Haven’t figured out how to find them on my iPad.



No marks – Part 2: Adage

In  my previous post, I mentioned that it was usually warm up/plié that were exercises which were frequently unmarked. WRONG! Shortly after writing that article, I played for two classes with hardly any marking from the teacher. A bit of finagling got me through the classes, but I ran into trouble with the adage.

In these situations, I aim to be like a plumber with a toolbox – not knowing what tools you need for the job, one must be prepared with a selection of the most commonly used ones. A single adjustable wrench can be far more useful than a few of fixed sizes.

With no choreography to help me choose music, I whipped out my ‘adjustable wrench’: a bog-standard  nice adage tune  of medium tempo,   suitably useful harmonic progressions to support a variety of muscular tension and releases, …..AND one which I could play in different keys! (Never underestimate the importance of this. An unseen adage could go on for 32 counts on each side. If you pick a tune that is only 16 counts long and have to carry on for a total of 64, the fourth repetition of the same tune in the same key will have dulled dancing ears and minds, and feel heavy. Horror of horrors, what if there is a second group straightaway after the first…)

It didn’t work.

As I played, I could see that the choreography called for an interesting variety of sharp and strong dynamics set as highlights amongst the usual soft movements.  My adage music (a barcarolle-like tune) was like a gentle creature of no great convictions. What was needed was more along the lines of a charismatic revolutionary with rousing oratorical skills. I changed the music to Monti’s Czardas and things finally fell into place.

Teachers frequently set steps purely from a technical point of view without reference to any particular music. They then ask for a piece of adage music in the hope that what they’ve set fits the dynamics suggested by the music . As Tamara Rojo said in the recent BBC documentary ‘Good Swan, Bad Swan: Dancing Swan Lake’- both Odile and Odette do arabesque and pirouettes. It is HOW the steps are done that differentiates one character from the other. (Perhaps another reason to practice stronger port de bras if nurturing potential Odiles…..). In this case, the same adage exercise done every day to different pieces of music should be an invaluable way to develop the dancers’ artistic responses. Vocational schools do this all the time by setting the exercise on Monday and then adding to it as the week goes on.

Other times, teachers want inspiration from music and wait to hear a musician’s offerings before setting a combination. If we know this to be the case, we musicians should rise to the challenge.  Try choosing music from different styles and eras. If you’ve already tried the usual Romantic era suspects like Quando m’en vo and O mio babbino caro, how about exploiting the stillness of the slow movement theme from Beethoven’s Pathetique Sonata, the nobly elegant qualities of Grieg’s Sarabande from Holberg Suite, or the improvisatory and exotic sound world of Bartok’s Buciumeana from  Roumanian Folk Dances?

Not all adage music are equal and there are finite amounts by which you can speed up/slow down a piece of music.  There will come a point when too much slowing down makes the music laboured and the thread of melody gets lost. Too much speeding up and dynamics/harmonic tension become ironed out of the texture. The essence of a particular piece of adage music often lies in its harmonic content. The ear needs time to perceive tensions/resolutions created by dissonances resolving to consonances. Most teachers do not know this and assume that they can simply ask for any piece of music, adjust tempi accordingly while the hapless pianist is in full-flow and then complain that the music doesn’t feel right.

Harriet Cavalli in her book Dance and Music mentions that if she is asked to play an adage before the teacher sets one, she usually asks “What size – gentle, medium, or huge?”  I love this idea so much and have adopted it.  If the teacher is distractedly trying to remember the combination, answering that simple question almost always tells me what dynamic is needed. Ms Cavalli also discusses adage and its related issues very effectively in the same book and I thoroughly recommend it as a very illuminating guide.


No marks – Part 1: Pliés, please. AND…..

How often have dance pianists been in the situation when the only instruction given by a  teacher is “Warm up/Plié, please.”?

This normally happens in company/professional class and not usually in training classes for younger students. I have only ever encountered it during warm ups and/or plies.  It is usually  a chance for the dancers to do their own combination of warm up or plié according to their individual needs, an opportunity  to try out muscles and focus before the class gets under way full steam.

Try to capitalize on each occasion when the teacher provided only the bare bones of an exercise.  It is a HUGE compliment to us musicians when this is all the instruction we get. This means total trust and responsibility has been handed over to us even if it is just for one exercise. Hurrah! This means that we can choose the tune, the key, the style, and……. gasp! Surely not the tempo as well!? Ok, maybe we have to keep a weather eye out for frantic signals from teacher.

Show off all the hard-earned knowledge you have about class: Can’t go far wrong with a nice stretchy tune for warm-up. As for plies, a bog-standard structure seems to start with  two demi-pliés followed by a grand. Dynamic is squeezy and smooth. In these circumstances, the odd boo boo will probably be forgiven  as long as you try to provide a generally acceptable tempo and dynamic.

Whatever you do, DO NOT spoil it by resentful whinging (“Should’ve marked the tempo if you wanted it that slow”) when they ask for subtle changes. DO NOT plow on at your own tempo and expect the dancers to keep up. All this illustrates is ego and disrespect for the purpose of class. Return the compliment instead by seeing how fast you can respond to their request for tempi changes.  Speed of response and generosity of spirit are both high on the brownie point list for many teachers.

Be a lean mean tempo machine, be James Bond’s Aston Martin prepared for all eventualities, or the Batmobile (here to save the day at a local dance school near you)……not a wheezy 1.0 litre Micra who can barely make it up the hill. I say this with great fondness for Micras having been the proud owner of one but …they just have NO go in them.

All this only works if you DO know what typical dynamics and combination of steps are to be found in warm up/plié. Teachers should be made aware if they have an inexperienced pianist playing for a class in which case they do need to provide marking.

Coming next :  No marks – Part 2: Adage