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Playing for ballet class – My Top Tips

Having sat down to make a start on this blog, I was immediately presented with a problem – what to write about.  The last thing I wanted was to assail potential readers with a mindless stream of whatever I happened to be thinking about that day.  There should be a purpose, a theme, and so to that aim, I’ve decided to begin with a series of posts aimed at prospective or fledgling accompanists consisting of general advice on the subject of playing for ballet class, followed by more specific advice for the types of exercises you will likely encounter.

I chose this subject mostly because I know the most about it, but also because when I first started playing for ballet, there seemed to be very little information around on how to actually do it.  Everything I learned was either my own deductions made ‘on the job’, or the advice of some (very!) patient teachers.  There’s a bit more about these days, including some very interesting blogs on precisely this subject, but still not very much, and I feel that many good pianists are put off from this rewarding area of work due to a lack of clear information on the subject.

So, without further ado, I’ll begin by looking at the most basic question:

What am I here for?

I think this is the question you have to keep coming back to when you’re playing for dance.  Why am I here?  What does the teacher actually want me there for?  What is my purpose?

Dance is the physical interpretation of music through movement and so for the dancers to actually dance, you have to provide them with something to actually interpret.

Of course there are other more practical concerns you need to address, such as providing a consistent rhythm for the dancers to follow, the correct bar and beat structure to match the exercise that has been set, or the appropriate mood for the exercise in question, but your overall goal should be to play music that is interesting and inspiring.  That way you give everyone in the class the opportunity to find some nuance of expression in the music that is their own. If all that was needed was a beat and mood, that could be conveyed quite satisfactorily by the teacher clapping and counting – their tone of voice conveying the ‘mood’ of the step.  But how boring would that be – both to watch and to do?

Over the coming posts, I’ll attempt to address more specific concerns for the budding dance accompanist, such as understanding teacher/accompanist relationship, understanding exercise structure and basic dance terminology.  However, in my view, the first and last thing to remember is that a good ballet accompanist is never content to be just a ‘human CD player’ or ‘expensive metronome’.  You are there to inspire people through your music, and if you can do that most days, you can consider yourself really quite lucky.

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