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?
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
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!
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’.