Recently in 100 tips for working with ballet pianists Category

Glance over to your pianist just before you say 'and...' to check that they are ready to play, especially if they are reading from printed music. On the other hand, if experience shows that your pianist is usually ready before you are, don’t keep asking “is that all right?” or “are you ready?” - they'll be eager to start. The ideal is build up a rhythm between yourself and the pianist, so you're both anticipating each other's moves to the extent where you can increase the tempo at which a class moves when you need to.

If you find that your pianist is consistently unprepared when you want to start the exercise, it may be that you could be delivering your messages about what kind of music and tempo you want earlier in your marking, to give them more time to prepare themselves.

If you're marking an exercise for dancers, it can be tempting to 'mark' the tempo to the pianist as well - but this is an impossibility: giving a tempo is meaningless unless it's the one you actually want. It only has to be about four counts to set the tempo, but you have to get out of marking mode and into conductor/musician mode for those four counts in order to convey the information. When pianists say of a teacher 'oh she's very musical' or 'I love playing for him, he's so easy to work with', 90% of this is down to being given an accurate tempo in good time. By contrast, '“that’s fine, but we need it half the speed” is possibly the most disheartening thing a musician can hear - if you need to halve the speed of the music, then it's the wrong music, and you've got to start searching again.

When you're marking an exercise for a pianist, speak in terms of counts rather than bars, particularly with introductions (e.g. say 'x counts in', rather than 'x bars in').

Unless you are trying to work out the mathematical correspondences between a movement notation score and printed music, bars are confusing, and often irrelevant, both to teachers and pianists. Some novice pianists might ask you 'how many bars do you mean' if you talk in counts, but don't get drawn into this beyond a discussion of general principles, otherwise you'll spend half the class going over to the piano trying to sort out the pianist's sheet music!

It's for the pianist to get used to the idea of feeling the counts underlying the notation if they're using printed music. Contrary to what you'll hear dancers say against themselves, this isn't some philosophical divide between musicians and dancers: Musicians who don't conventionally work from notation (like rock bands - think of the drumstick 'count-in', for example) have no problem understanding the concept of counts.

When you first start teaching (whatever your subject), it's tempting to think that nobody's learning unless you're talking. The truth is, an awful lot of the most significant and deep learning happens when you do nothing.

Keep silent during some exercises to allow students to respond to the music. If they are listening to you, or worried about corrections, they won't have a chance to do this.

Put on a tape or CD – of anything - and practise setting exercises aloud with the music. Marking an exercise in tempo is a musical & motor skill which needs practice. The more you use music in this way, the more confident you will be when you are in a studio. It will also prevent you from making up exercises which are fine until you try and do them in tempo!

Sometimes it helps to give directions, count or talk gently in the rhythm and tempo that you want while the music's playing. This gives pianists a rhythmic framework within which they can feel freer to be more expressive, because they're not having to concentrate so hard on keeping the rhythm going. You can then use your voice as a means of controlling the tempo of the exercise in subtle and expressive ways, because the pianist will have locked into the tempo of your voice almost without thinking.

If you're stuck for what kind of music to use for a particular step, think about how those steps appear in the repertoire, and what kind of music accompanies them. You can also go back and watch some dance videos with this in mind rather than actually watching the dance as dance. The results can be quite surprising, and always useful.

Some pianists have a misguided view about what is “suitable” for ballet class (e.g. that you have to improvise in a pastiche classical style with no dynamics and no rubato, or that dancers don't listen so there's no point in playing your best). This often happens as a result of teachers giving (or appearing to give) too much guidance as to what kind of music they want. Give your pianist an opportunity to play what they like playing, the way they like playing it, and you might find that it's nearer to what you actually wanted in the first place.

As an example of this, a teacher once told me of a summer school class she was teaching, where the pianist never seemed to play quite what she would have liked (I think it was pirouettes that were the issue). It didn't matter what she said, the music was never more than OK-but-dull.

On the last day of this summer school, all the teachers went to the local hostelry for a bit of a knees-up, and there, as chance would have it, was the pianist from the class in his other job, entertaining the drinking public from the piano. And there, at last, was the music this teacher had been trying to get out of him all week.

The moral of the story is, if you're teaching on a summer school, go to the pub on the first night.

It's easy to 'read' a rhythm, metre or tempo when it's shown in body movements (e.g. swinging, knee-bends, side-to-side movements of the torso or head and so on). To indicate the type of music you want by using rhythmic movement, rather than (or together with) words or counts is a very effective way of communicating tempo and pulse and metre.

I've often wondered why it seems such an arduous task to mark an exercise in tempo, but then I wonder whether it's because the kind of movements that really help to convey a sense of rhythm are precisely the ones that you're not supposed to do at the barre - a bit like trying to eat a doughnut without licking your lips.

Although it's great to have music for class, be sure in your own mind what role it plays, so that you know when not to use it. Some examples:

  • With no music, students can practise jumping as high as they can, not just as high as the music allows.
  • A wonderful teacher that I've worked with called Charles Mudry, uses no music for his stretching and limbering exercises before pliés. It makes sense - if the purpose is to stretch, then individual dancers are going to want a bit more or less 'stretch' in the music, and there's no tempo that will accommodate everyone.
  • Movements which are rhythmically or technically complex are probably better practised in silence or at least with a purely rhythmic accompaniment such as finger clicks or vocalisations before trying to set them to music
  • The absence of music can make the heart fonder and more responsive towards music when it's there. By contrast, too much music may lead to a case of familiarity breeding indifference.

Occasionally – once a term, perhaps – set aside time with your pianist when you will simply experiment with different ideas for using music in class. An hour spent talking, reflecting and experimenting will bring generous rewards in the classroom.

Don’t ask pianists for a given number of bars unless you are both working from a score in a repertoire rehearsal, or unless an examination procedure specifically requires you to. Use counts in the tempo that you want – bars are confusing, and often irrelevant, both to teachers and pianists.

Teach by example and show your response to the music that is played. Think of class as a kind of 'guided discovery' of music for your students. Staying unmoved and unmoving while the pianist plays sends a signal to the students – and the pianist – that there is nothing in the music worth responding to. And even if it's old hat to you - remember that it isn't to them.

I was awestruck by the late great Raissa Struchkova teaching one of the girls' Pas de Trois solos from Act I of Swan Lake. It's not the greatest music Tchaikovsky wrote, but Struchkova taught the dancer how to be moved (literally!) by every semiquaver of the music. She treated the melody of the music exactly as a violinist would - paying enormous effort and attention to every nuance of articulation, and dancing as if her feet were playing the floor like a violin string.

One of the hardest things for new ballet pianists to know is what sort of music you want. Talk about your favourite songs, ballets, composers, film music and singers with the pianist to give them an idea about what will keep you happy.

Pianists are music specialists, that's why you hired them, so use this to your advantage (why buy a dog and bark yourself?). e.g.

  • “I want something like this…how do I ask for that another time?”
  • I've lost track of my counts, can you play the music for me while I go through the exercise in my head?
  • I think I may have asked for the wrong kind of music, can you play me something else and let me see if it works better?
  • I wanted a polonaise for this, but I can't remember how they go, could you play me one?
  • What do you think would be better, two in or four in?


The more you ask for help and involve the pianist this way, the more likely it is that they'll feel open to ask you questions about what you want, and that's how great collaborations and friendships begin.

If you want the pianist to stay on for a bit at the end of class as a favour, the diplomatic way is to say to the students “We’ll do that again in a moment, but I have to let Miss X go, so thank you very much Miss X”. If the pianist is able and willing to stay, they will. Once a pianist knows that you respect their time, they will be more inclined to help next time. This method sets a good example of professional behaviour to the dancers/students as well.

Some dancers ask why pianists aren't so willing as dancers to go the second mile and play some rehearsals for free, or give an extra half hour at the end of class. The reason is that for the dancer, the time they give up is an investment in their own technique and career, because it leads to a performance in which they feature. For the pianist, there's no such trade-off. I've done lots of things for free or little money because of some other trade-off, even if it's just social ( I like the people I'm working with)the work's interesting, or I've got some time to kill. But in the end, like it or not, there's sometimes nothing like money to get the best out of people!

Find out what your pianist does best, and work with it, because there may be things they simply can’t do well – like improvisation, jazz, reading complex music at sight, or playing virtuoso solos. Don’t show them up in front of students by asking for things that they may not be able to do, or look crestfallen when you find out that they're not Ashkenazy, Art Tatum, Jamie Cullum and Prokofiev rolled into one person.

Trying to control a class and music that is suddenly too fast or too slow can make you anxious. An anxious facial expression can often be misread, and understood as aggression or intimidation. Practise smiling in a relaxed way when you need to communicate urgent commands.

I learnt this one off the very lovely David Shrubsole, an experienced conductor from West End musicals. During a band rehearsal that I was in charge of for a show, he saw me wince at another player when they came in in the wrong place. It was a knee-jerk reaction from me, and not meant unkindly. In the kindest way possible, David advised me that it's a good to try to avoid such instinctive grimaces, because the person who's just done something wrong in a performance knows perfectly well they've done it, and they feel bad enough already - so there's no point in making them feel worse.

What you want is for them to feel better, and to come in in the right place next time. What's happened has happened, so good humour and positive support is the order of the day. The minute he'd said it, I knew he was absolutely right and I vowed never to do it again, but wincing at wrong notes is such an instinctive reaction, I'd never given it a second thought.

Of course, if they're really bad players, that's a rather more difficult matter...

If you won’t need your pianist for more than five minutes, let them know. Sitting in one position for a long time is uncomfortable, and they may be glad of the opportunity to move around or leave the studio temporarily. At the very least, it means they can relax and know that they don't have to be looking out for a signal from you for a few minutes.

It's not a huge issue - it's no big deal to sit in the corner of the studio when you're being paid to sit there. But if you can remember to release the pianist when they're not actually needed, the payoff for the teacher is huge - you'll get their complete attention when you really need them, and they'll instantly think of you as someone to collaborate with, rather than to work for.

By contrast, “Oh, I’m so sorry, are you still there? I don’t actually need you” or "Oh what a shame, you could have gone home early if I'd realised" suggests, even if it's not true, that the pianist and their role is so minimal that you could easily forget they're there at all, like those people who stand by the doorways in art galleries.

Thank goodness I'm not a dance teacher - I'm sure I'd be terrible at this kind of thing...

It is good manners and good professional practice to give a musician the option of having time to prepare a piece of music if they need or want it. If you want to do something without preparation, try saying something like “I want to do a piece of repertoire from the ballet X – do you know it, or shall we do it next week?”. Don’t assume that because the pianist ‘always seems to cope’ that they are capable of doing everything with no preparation at all, or enjoy living on the edge all the time!

The most useful learning experiences come from analysing mistakes and things which could be improved. Talk these over with your pianist outside class-time, and treat finding a solution as something that you will do together, rather than leaving it as a problem for the pianist. Anything I know about playing for class came from discussions like those - it certainly isn't a natural talent!

Musicians are used to working in isolation (all that practising alone), so some pianists feel very shy about talking in front of the class. Be careful about assuming that pianists will be delighted to comment from the piano. “Now, we’re all going to gather round the piano while Miss X plays that music again, and this time we’re going to listen carefully. What's the name of that lovely piece, Miss X?” can be very intimidating unless the pianist feels confident with the students.

If you want to do something like this, give the pianist adequate warning - a lot of the discomfort is due to feeling unprepared when the teacher says something like "And now we're going to listen while Miss X plays us two lovely, contrasting pieces of music".

There is no need to explain things to a pianist that they already know or understand. For example, if you have just shown an exercise in three, while singing snippets of the Waltz of the Flowers at the tempo you want, there is no need to say "So I'd like a waltz, please, in 3/4, at about this tempo...".

If you do overexplain, the pianist will come to expect it, and won't bother to watch your marking, because they know you're going to come over and say it all again.

To avoid this, when you first work with a pianist, say "I'll try to show what I want musically when I mark the exercise, but if anything's not clear, please feel free to ask".

Given that much of what happens between you and the pianist in the class is unprepared, mistakes are bound to happen. There is no point in making an issue out of a minor mistake such as playing four counts as an introduction instead of two, or stopping during an exercise which was supposed to go straight to the other side. Smile and get on with it. Of course, if it keeps on happening, check with the pianist afterwards to see how you can improve things.

If you have just spent ten minutes trying to control children, it can be easy to leave your voice in the same register when you go back to talking to an adult (such as the pianist). Even if you're teaching adults, it's important to change your tone slightly depending on who you're talking to, so that the pianist knows when you're addressing them, and when you're talking to the class.

There’s no point in asking a pianist for a krakowiak if they don’t know what it is. Aim to build a shared vocabulary which means something to both of you. If you both know what you mean by a "diddly diddly" or a "cheesy waltz", they're the best words to use.

All the same...
adca.jpgShared knowledge is quite rare in this field, because both musicians and dancers specialise so narrowly in their own fields, but it's a great thing to develop. It's not just about dance styles - it's about having a shared reference pool of tunes & repertoire. That's why I was passionate about helping to develop A Dance Class Anthology, which is a compendium of 50+ styles of music and famous bits of dance repertoire that are good for class which can become shared culture for pianists and teachers.

bigwaltz.jpgClass is a busy, sometimes noisy place where you and your pianist need to send unequivocal messages and react quickly. Once you've established a good working relationship and understand each other, shortcuts such as hand signals, non-verbal noises & facial expressions are often more useful than words for getting a message across. Some examples:

  • a smile tells your pianist the tempo's good
  • "Mmm tut tut Mmm tut tut" counts a rhythm in three without needing counts
  • gently lowering a downward-facing palm indicates 'take the speed down a bit'
  • a flamenco gesture says 'something with a bit of Spanish character'
  • two clicks is all you need to set a tempo
  • Depending on context, the 'it was this big!' gesture might mean 'a nice big waltz' or 'stretch it out'
  • Likewise, if you then reduce the width of the gesture, as in the photo above, this might mean 'not so big' or 'medium speed'

tendus_in_silence.jpgSometimes, an exercise can go horribly wrong because the pianist simply can’t find music which is suitable for it. If this happens, move quickly on to the next exercise and take time after class to see if you can identify the problem. It doesn't matter what went wrong, just move away discreetly from the scene of the crime.

tchaikovsky.jpgSome teachers reach a point of exasperation with an unruly class where they say something like “You’re wasting my time, and Miss X’s. Your behaviour is an insult to her beautiful music”. They probably mean well, and perhaps intend it as a compliment to the pianist - but it's actually excruciating to be put in this position if you're the one at the piano, so try to avoid this tactic at all costs.

For one thing, it focuses the entire class’s attention on the pianist, which is uncomfortable and embarrassing. It also forces the pianist to agree with you publicly in a situation where it would be unprofessional for them to say what they really think (and personally, I've never, ever agreed with a teacher who's said that a class is wasting my time - for one thing, I'm getting paid, so it makes no difference to me if the dancers do class, or make paper aeroplanes and sing Oasis hits for an hour and a half - I was booked to be there anyway).

But more crucially, it undermines the role of the pianist, which is not to support you in a community policing project, but - at least in the best of times - to support and play with the dancers as equal collaborators and partners in this wonderful art form. If that's the kind of pianist you want (and it's probably the kind you would have wanted as a dancer) you have to be very careful not to turn the dancers and pianist against each other for the sake of a bit of peace and quiet.

Make sure that you regularly stand in a position that enables you to keep your lines of communication with the pianist open, even if it's only for a moment.

nina_arrows.jpgThe main reason for this is that you need to let the pianist know that it's worth them looking up and checking for feedback from you during the class. It only takes the occasional nod, smile, thumbs-up to engage their peripheral vision. But if every time they look your way, you're facing the other direction, they'll get the idea that you don't intend to communicate with them, they'll stop looking - and then you've lost contact, probably for good.

In the picture on the left, the teacher glances over to the pianist (downstage left) to make eye contact and give a musical direction while marking the exercise, but it's fleeting, so she continues to engage the dancers around her, some of whom are looking at her directly, others at her reflection in the mirror. This is the kind of multi-directional attention-grabbing that ensures you remain in happy control of what goes on in your class.

Once again, it's also down to basic interpersonal skills & courtesy - standing with your back to anyone for a long time is rude and potentially intimidating. In a class, it leaves you open to another danger - the possibility that the class is making jokes about you to the pianist (and it's not just children who try that one!).
What's this? Read more about 100 tips for working with ballet pianists

60bpm.gifAs the teacher in your class, you are in charge both of the music and the dancers/students. Make sure everyone knows that if dancers don’t like the speed the pianist is playing, they should talk to you first, and you'll decide who needs to adapt to whom.

There are two issues here. Firstly, it's about courtesy, good relations and class management - don't let the pianist be put in a position where they have to override your judgement, or where you effectively side with the class against the pianist ("yes, slow down Mary, that's far too fast!"). Secondly, it's about acknowledging that tempo is a vital element of technique and interpretation that has to be embedded in your teaching: it's not a lifestyle decision for the dancer or the pianist.

my_name.jpgGo straight up to your pianist the first time you work with them, introduce yourself saying "Hi, my name is ......", find out what name your pianist prefers to be called and use it often during class. (Getting the name right is important: not everyone likes 'maestro' or 'our lovely pianist', 'the music' or 'Mr/s X' - and they won't know what to call you unless you tell them.)

Basic social stuff, but it's a vital part of establishing communication that teachers often neglect through nerves - worried about the class, or afraid of making a mess of their counts and music. A shame really, because once the moment for introductions has passed, it's difficult to retrieve without some embarrassment and back-pedalling. More to the point, get the pianist on side from the start, and you've got a friend and collaborator behind you rather than someone to make you nervous.

Incidentally, I give exactly the same advice to pianists. It doesn't really matter who makes the first move, as long as you make a social connection before you get down to the business of doing class together.

What's this? Read more about 100 tips for working with ballet pianists

feedback.jpgIt doesn't matter how experienced the pianist is, or how inexperienced you are - give feedback. When a pianist plays something you like, something that works well for an exercise, or at just the right tempo, smile encouragingly and say so. Positive reinforcement works for pianists as well as dancers, and is just as important. It also makes it much easier to say when you don't like something.

What's this? Read more about 100 tips for working with ballet pianists

rose.jpgIt's June, and for me that means quite a few sessions for students on working with music and musicians.

You can turn 'working with pianists' into a subject, and I often get asked to do training sessions or lectures on it, but I've always been convinced that a list of handy tips, dipped into when you feel ready to take information in, is a vital addition to an intensive blast before you actually get into the studio.

So, in June 2001 I started compiling a book of 100 tips for dance teachers who work with pianists. They're not exactly 'my' tips' - they're just observations of good practice. I added a few between then and now, but I could never really decide what to do with it - too small to turn into a book, too small a market to publish, and in any case, it would be better fronted by a teacher than a musician, and better if I could get other views in there too. Then recently, I realised that I subscribed to a few RSS feeds from sites like Lifehacker & Zen Habits, and that maybe this is a good way to get those tips out there and elicit some comments from other professionals too.

For that reason, every day in June this year, I'm going to be publishing a handy tip for working with music & musicians for ballet teachers. With any luck, I might be publishing some podcast interviews with a few people I know and love on the subject. With even more luck, I hope that a few teachers or pianists or dancers out there will post some useful comments or questions that will make this into more than a one-person project. Eventually, you'll be able to click on the '100 tips' tag on the right, and get the whole book at once.

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