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

Is port de bras music always pretty?

So… I’ve got a burning question.  Why do teachers always ask for ‘pretty’ port de bras music? Why not …..mysterious? Or slinky?  Or regal? Or something with a bit of attitude? Is it the great British tradition of ‘soft arms’ at work here hence the call for ‘pretty’ music?  Fair enough, teachers may want to keep it simple when teaching the basics to young students, but for older students or experienced dancers would it not be more useful to have music which inspires an urge to interpret?

For me, ‘pretty’ says ‘nice but non-descript’.  Think nice tune and bland harmonies. Non-descript music is often the worst thing a musician can produce for class (mind you, bland flavours are often very useful as a contrast to over-rich Wagnerian harmonies, for example. Like a cool breeze after one emerges from a muggy hot house). We are called on to make music that urges dancers to stretch their feet more, plié more deeply, jump higher,  rap out sharper frappes.  Why not enrich our music to help them be more generous with a circular port de bras,  give them a poignant and sorrowful tune to help make ‘sighing’ arms, or something elegantly masculine for boys’ to help them practice princely arm gestures?

Last summer, I played for Ruth Brill’s women’s class at a summer school. She marked a port de bras exercise and was expecting a stereotypical nice adage tune.  However, I had been desperate to use an Indian Classical scale as a basis for improvisation since hearing one several years ago. So, I decided to go ahead with Plan A, committed myself to some Carnatic flavouring and hoped for the best. She was startled but used the music (phew, thanks Ruth!).  At the end Ruth said it made her think of the Arabian Dance from Nutcracker. She then asked the students to try it again, but this time to take on a personality that the music suggested to them. They did, and…wow!. By responding to the mood, she saw personalities emerge from the dancers that hadn’t been there before. They just came alive!

I wonder –  how often do inexperienced pianists watching class come to the conclusion that  port de bras music  should  just be pretty? For a long time, I did.  So long as the music helps dancers to create fluid carriage of the arms, let’s not stop at…pretty.

How I became a dance pianist – an introduction

Not that many years ago, I remember floundering in the pea soup of ballet steps that made up an enchaînement.  I had only started playing for dance because of a chance remark to a young pianist to whom I said “You’re so lucky to have the opportunity to play for ballet. I’ve always wanted to give it a go but never had the chance”. Next thing I knew, the ballet teacher for whom she worked needed another pianist and my number was passed on to her.

I spent a year playing for syllabus classes without having a clue about what made certain music suitable for particular steps.  The springy steps were the easiest to identify with – springy music, please!  Improvisation was also easy – something tinkly for fairies, heavy for elephants, and hoppy for frogs.  Beyond that….zilch.  Not  a clue  about what made rond de jambe music different from plié music, or what differentiated tendus from glisses.  Dynamics – what’s that?

Seven years later (after a gruelling year of training with Scottish Ballet, complete immersion in  vocational dance training courtesy of Elmhurst, and playing for anything and everything  dance-wise  that came my way), I am writing my very first blog about playing for dance.

These scribblings are not about THE way to play for dance. They are personal ideas and observations that I’ve made in the many hours spent in dance studios watching dancers at work. Some are not even my own ideas, but those of teachers and wiser dance musicians who generously shared their knowledge (due credit given). But I think it is important to write them down as there is so little information in the public domain about dance music and its practitioners. Very few dance musicians choose to explain their choices of music, or even to help out fellow pianists trying to improve their understanding of dance music.