Musical Accents and Dance

If I could implore you, please watch this video to see a mind-stretching combination of dance and computer animation:

What a perfect combination of art forms, where one literally envelops the other. The computer animation literally augments and moves with the motions the dancers are making. Amazing!

Now, being a musician, I’m always trying to see what parallels can be drawn to music, and what lessons can be learned. Certainly good dance music should envelop and augment the dance, just as the light particles in Pleiades enveloped and enhanced the motions of the dancers. So what lessons can be learned here?

I’d like to suggest to you, as a ballet pianist, that the musical rhythms and accents that occur between the beats are as important — if not more important — than those that actually occur on the beats. Think of the Pleiades video above: most of the particles had a lifespan that extended at least a few moves beyond when they originated. For me, it helps me to see and understand moves I otherwise would’ve missed. In the case of Pleiades, it is the particles that trail behind the dancers that enhance the performance.

Now let’s make the jump to music. Oftentimes, it is the rhythmic accents that trail behind a dancer’s motions that enhances their performance the most. Sometimes, during a glissé exercise, I imagine that the dancer is standing in a puddle of paint, and than when they flick their foot outward, the paint splats against the wall a split second later. I try to reflect this in the music by placing a rhythmic accent at the point when the paint would’ve ‘hit the wall,’ often an 8th or 16th note after the dancer’s action. So you can see, that many times, the most effective way to highlight a dancer’s action is to accentuate it immediately afterward, like the trailing particles in Pleiades.

This is a neat way of thinking, and can be applied to almost any motion of dance, whether sharp or smooth.

Further reading:

Help! I don't know when the exercise ends!

This was a recurring phrase on my mind, the season I began playing piano for ballet.

As someone who improvises most of the time, I often lose track of what point we’re at in the exercise. Was this the end, or is there more to come? If I wasn’t sure, I would just play ambiguous music that could either stop or continue, and as the downbeat approached, I would watch like a hawk to see if any of the dancers made a move to continue. As you can imagine, this often didn’t work very well.

As usual for the ballet pianist, most problems can be solved the more you immerse yourself in the class. In this case, the solution is to watch the mark as closely as if you actually had to dance the exercise yourself. Then, in watching the mark, you will see certain moves and positions that will indicate to you where in the exercise you are.

In the case of pliés, which often have repeated series of motions, the key is to learn the positions of the feet. This might, in fact, be the only way to tell at what point the exercise is at. A standard pattern for pliés is a series of repeated motions, going through first, second, fourth, and then fifth position, for the feet. Here is a diagram of the positions:

(Source: Pinterest)

(Source: Pinterest)

It is an incredibly securing thing to know for certain when the exercise is over. Watch the feet, and learn the exercise as closely as you can for yourself!

The best way to organize music for free ballet class


The book of inspiration, as I like to think of it, open to the first page.


How can a ballet pianist keep themselves inspired? Surely one of the most important things is to have a good system for organizing found music for use in free classes. How can music be categorized? by what attributes or qualities? And how can it be quickly retrieved? Now to be sure, any system will have its shortcomings, and each individual pianist may prefer one over another. That said, let me put a few thoughts on your mind, then go on to describe the system I have found most useful.

The absolute best system for storing, organizing, and retrieving music for free ballet class has to be memorization. Music has so many undefinable, uncategorizable attributes, that almost any method of attempting to account for them is sure to be incomplete. How many times has that perfect piece of music came to mind, out of the blue, that otherwise makes no categorical sense? Part of the mystery of music is its 'dark matter,' the part of it you can't define or quantify. No other physical or software system can account for this, as far as I can tell. And not to mention, playing by memory is by far the quickest way to recall music.

The next-best solution I have found is to simply group music alphabetically in a binder. It's simple, quick, and uncomplicated. For me, the one concrete thing about a piece of music that can't be changed is its title. Almost everything else — the metre, the key, the tonality, the feel — can be altered to some degree, which makes classifying a piece by these attributes a little less practical, since they're subject to change. To admit, there have been times when the teacher needed, say, a simple 6/8, and I drew a blank; maybe then I could've turned to my 6/8 section, if I had one. But for the majority of the time, as I'm watching an exercise be marked, the first thing that pops in my mind is the piece's title. So it made sense to me to categorize the music that way, and it keeps me happy and inspired.

Here's a quick table to summarize my thoughts:

Pros: Fastest recall; accounts for the undefinable attributes of music.
Cons: Takes time and work!

Physical (e.g. a binder)
Pros: A sense of connection with the music (it took work to print it and put it in there, therefore I remember it better); easy to markup; the act of flipping past other music may inspire you for what to play next.
Cons: Only possible to (uniformly) sort by one attribute.

Software (e.g. a tablet)
Pros: Quick to add new music, possible to sort by many attributes (or tags).
Cons: Expensive; too many sorting options can lead to complications, and feeling bogged down; extreme ease of adding new music means less emotional connection with it.

What a Beautiful Morning!

Last Saturday was a beautiful day; I think the first morning I was able to come to the studio without a coat. As I was remarking about the day, I wondered how it could be ‘brought in’ to the class that was about to start. We always begin with a leg and foot warmup in 2/4, and I usually would play similar music for it, except this time, when I tried this…

Crafting a cohesive whole

One big lesson I've learned from my studies in music, in observing large-scale orchestral works, and even music in film, is the idea that music always ought to have the sense that it's going somewhere, that it's developing, and unfolding over time. I remember studying a particular film and its soundtrack, where the were say, ten pieces of orchestral music spread over an hour-and-a-half film, with sizeable gaps in between. But the composer maintained a cohesive whole, and a sense of forward momentum, by ensuring that each piece on its own was incomplete, leaving you hanging and anticipating the next one. Each piece was almost hastily concluded, creating the sense of forward momentum, anticipating the deeper conclusion that would happen later in the picture. The sense of a unified and cohesive whole was maintained, even though there were separate pieces of music with gaps between them.

This got me thinking about music for ballet class, which also has "separate pieces of music with gaps between them." How can the pianist play in such a way that creates a sense of development and unfolding as the class progresses?

I can't answer the question fully, but I can show you an example of how I've found a way to do this between the two sides of pliés.

There are some real musical nuggets in the old Intermediate syllabus. One of them is Graham Dickson-Place's music for pliés, which I often return to. The piece is in G minor. Here is the opening:


Now lately, halfway through the first side of the pliés, I've been exploring using this melody in B-flat major:

Which really flows nicely and seems to itself suggest a whole slew of harmonic possibilities. Then the exercise concludes, and I wrap up the music wherever I happen to be, as our dancers do a rise. Then, a few words from the teacher, and then the exercise repeats on the other side. Now here's the key: when we begin the second side of the pliés, to avoid playing exactly the same music over again, I start where we left off, in Bb. This bridges the gap between the two sides, and gives a sense of linearity to the whole pliés exercise. Here is a quick summary chart:

To what degree such changes like this are noticed, I'm not sure. But if the pianist's striving for a large-scale sense of momentum inspires the dancers to want to do the same, then it's worth it.

The Classics: Rethinking Rondo Alla Turca

To a ballet pianist, a piece of music becomes truly useful when it can be used and adapted to fit several different roles. There are a lot of things already on the pianist’s mind, therefore any means of efficiency and economy is always welcome.

You may have realized it already, but often a minor change to a piece of music can transform it into something entirely new. I have realized that it’s possible to morph almost any piece of music to be something that’s much different, and yet still sounds convincing in its new form. You can change the time signature from 4 to 3, or 3 to 4; you can slow it down and switch the accompaniment to triplets; you can change the feel to be a waltz or a tango. Music is flexible! You can achieve significant changes through very simple alterations, and get a lot more mileage from just one piece of music.

To me, the most useful thing is not actually the music itself, but the idea-spark it contains. For example, eight bars of something that sparks my imagination is more useful than a full page of music that I have no emotional connection with. Remember, if the main goal of the ballet pianist is to inspire the dancers to want to dance, then we, the pianists, ought to make sure that we are inspired by what we play. (In a nutshell, that is the purpose of this site: to equip and inspire ballet pianists.)

So, here are two ways to reimagine Mozart’s Rondo Alla Turca besides the original. I have intentionally left the snippets incomplete: I just want to give you the spark…and I’m sure you know the rest of the tune. But the question is, where will you go with it?

The Ballet Pianist's Prime Directive

What is the driving force behind why ballet pianists do what they do? What are they there for? Are they a glorified metronome, just there to keep everybody in sync? Is our function merely utility, playing a secondary role while the main business of the class goes on? Does the music simply animate the dancers to make them perform their routines?

The RAD's A Dance Class Anthology hits the nail on the head, with this insightful statement right at the beginning:

"The first and most important role of music in class is self-evidently to make people want to dance. And note that there is a huge difference in making someone dance, and making someone want to dance."

Bingo. While the ballet pianist's role is certainly utilitarian on some levels, their main purpose is the high goal of feeding the inspiration of the dancers — making them "want to dance." That is the biggest goal, the prime directive. And if you manage to hit that goal, you've fulfilled the biggest purpose you're there for. And the smaller, utilitarian goals are sure to follow.

As I've been thinking about this, I've realized that there are a few practical implications in striving toward this goal, decisions that the pianist may be forced to make:

  • Simplify the music to fit your capabilities as a player, and the capabilities of the instrument. It's no use trying to deliver a passage of musical pyrotechnics if you're barely able to pull it off (and it shows!), or if its effect is mostly lost on a dull-sounding instrument. To the end of inspiring dancers to want to dance, I'd argue that simpler music delivered with zest is more effective.
  • Vary, embellish, and improvise with music that is often repeated, such as set music. Is this the 100th time the Intermediate dancers are dancing their plié exercise? Look for ways to add inspiration to your music, so it will add fresh inspiration to their dancing. Switch to a higher octave with the page repeats! Explore into some different harmonic territory in the second half! Take charge! So long as there's a level of trust between the dancers and the teacher and pianist, variety and embellishment may be a highly-effective, perhaps even crucial way to keep up the class's inspiration.
  • Don't drop the ball: be ready to play when the cue is given. Don't waste time searching through music, letting precious seconds tick by while everyone is ready. Do whatever you can to ensure the flow of the class isn't interrupted. To that end, here are a few disciplines to consider:
    • Know the art form. The more you know about ballet, the more informed your choices for music will be. (Why not watch a fantastic class at the Royal Ballet?)
    • Stay engaged with the class. It probably goes without saying, but the ballet pianist is paid to play piano, not to sit there distracted with something else. Even if there should happen to be a long break between when you're required to play, do whatever you can to stay engaged and a part of the class.
    • Memorize your music. This is helpful to the previous point. The instant recall of a piece of music ought to be a highly desired skill among ballet pianists.

Well, there you have it: an inspired pianist leads to inspired music; inspired music leads to inspired dancers; and inspired dancers leads to inspired dancing.

When the going gets tough, modulate

I played for a very strenuous exercise the other day, where the dancers had to do 32 pliés on one leg, while the other was resting on the bar. After a short rest, then they did the other leg. As we neared the end of the second side, the teacher decided in the spur of the moment to do the whole thing over again. I was playing the main theme from the movie Up, because I could tell from the outset that this was not going to be an easy exercise, and that something of a lighter fare and popular would perhaps take their mind off it.

After 64 counts of it though, my Up music in F was thoroughly used up. And what, now we need another 64 counts? Ironically, there was nowhere to go but up. If I remember right, I modulated without any preparation to G, found my footing while I noodled around in the same general character, then reintroduced the theme in the new key. I'm sure there are other solutions, but given the time constraints, this one seemed to work well.