Tag Archives: ballet music

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?

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!