Tag Archives: Pianist for Dance

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.


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.