Over the years, I dabbled in composing small amounts of new music for Rhythm Circle classes and ballet exercises. Nothing substantial – a few phrases here and there to illustrate specific musical or dance elements. This started to snowball during the UK lockdowns when I needed more original music to share with my students for Zoom classes. In August 2021, I was finally able to develop my composition skills with the help of a Developing Your Creative Practice grant from the Arts Council England. For the last few months, I’ve had to great fortune to have my mentor and teacher Karen Maciver to guide me on this new journey.
My current explorations as a composer is heavily shaped by Contemporary Dance: after training to be a ballet pianist, I wanted to learn how to create music for the various contemporary dance styles. The wonderful staff and students of the Kings International Ballet Academy are hosting a short residency for me. I’ve never lost the habit of watching class since my days at Scottish Ballet. Can’t begin express how much it feeds the soul to be able to be back in the dance studio, not focused on playing but simply watching class and learning new things.
In the next few months, my plan is to learn about the Cunningham, Graham and Limon dance styles and to compose music for each of these styles.
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?
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’.
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.