Tag Archives: rehearsal marks

Things which made significant development to my development as a dance musician: Vocal accompaniment

There are a great deal of parallels between being a dance accompanist and a vocal accompanist. Both dance and the voice use the body as expressive instruments. Substitute choreography for words and the differences between singers and dancers start to narrow. Having a basic vocabulary of dance steps would be the equivalent of having a working knowledge of French phonetics or German diction.

Before becoming involved in the ballet world, I worked as a vocal accompanist and spent much time accompanying singers in French Song, Lieder, or Italian arias. As I was born and bred in Malaysia , European languages were not what I left school with. I spoke a basic Cantonese by virtue of being born into a Chinese family, had passable Bahasa Malaysia from being schooled in the national language, and thanks to books and American TV had decent English  as well.

So, when I started accompanying singers as a young student at music college, there was a very steep learning curve for me to add French and German to my repertoire. Mind you, there was no need to rapidly become a  fluent speaker, but it was expected for  serious vocal accompanists to have a working  knowledge of various languages and the ability to coach singers in those languages. For example, a good accompanist would be well equipped with an arsenal in the form of German, French, and Italian phonetics as well as an understanding of vocal technique.

As well as learning the accompaniment to a song or aria, the best  accompanists would  also study the text of the songs , translate if necessary, anticipate where to allow time for tricky words/ breaths, or anticipate any technical needs which might arise from singers needing to use the chest voice , perhaps, or to float a high note – all the kinds of considerations which have nothing to do with playing the piano but had everything to do with being a specialist in vocal accompaniment.

So for me, it was not too great a transition to make from accompanying singers to working with dancers. I fell back into the habit of ‘getting to know the text’. It wasn’t a strange thing to be told by my mentors at Scottish Ballet was that I needed to understand  the dynamics of dance steps.

One of the things  I picked up on during my year at SB  was the importance of having rehearsal marks in the musical score.  Simply being able to follow what the dancers were doing was like being able to follow the of plot of Strauss’s  lieder Für Fnfzehn Pfennige and allow a little time for different emphatic pronouncements of ‘für fünfzehn pfennige’  (not always marked in the score how one should do this, but it comes with an understanding of the text and working in partnership with the singer). So when dancers say the music for their solo variation is too fast, they might mean that they don’t have time to properly articulate their footwork /do five pirouettes/ hold an arabesque at a particular point in their solo. Just because choreography isn’t notated in a way which is readily understood by most musicians, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t offer less  artistic support .

Lucia Popp singing “Für fünfzehn Pfennige” R. Strauss



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.