Accompanying a ballet class is like having a conversation where one participant speaks one language, and the other participant speaks a completely different language, but both perfectly understands the other.
Accompanying a ballet class is like a live jam session, except instead of a traditional set of instruments, you have a pianist and about 30-50 dancers.
Metaphors aside, accompanying a ballet class is the most exhilarating and scariest two and half hours of my day, every day, and I would never turn down the chance to do it.
Class (at dance camp) starts at 9:00 in the morning, which means all the dancers (and myself), are ready for class at 8:45. For them, it means they are dressed properly and waiting at the ballet bar for class to start. They may be stretching or talking quietly. For me it means I have all my music out – I may even choose the first song of the class (which is usually for plies), and I am standing near the piano stretching my arms and upper body out (2.5 hours of playing piano is a kind of like sprinting and also running a marathon at the same time).
For barre exercises – and center and across the floor combinations as well – what generally happens is the instructor should demonstrate the moves at tempo at least once. Depending on the teacher’s style, or the specific exercise, they may also demonstrate it slowly, or quickly, or review some specific part of the exercise at any point before they actually want the students to begin. This is the part where the magic happens.
See, because Kristine Izak does not say to me, “Anna, please play ‘March Militaire’ for this next exercise.” Well, she could. And in fact, Orlando Pagan sometimes will request, “Brandenburg, please.” But more often than not, like when Stefan Calka is teaching, he will simply demonstrate an exercise, and then simply look at me and nod his head when he is ready for the students to begin. That is my cue to play. Because in the time that the students were supposed to be learning the steps and absorbing directions, I was supposed to be figuring out if the teacher wanted a song in 3, or in 4, or perhaps a slow 2. Or maybe I am trying to decide which of the four or five waltzes best suits the desired movements.
Sometimes there is a discussion, and sometimes I need to clarify something. But my job as an accompanist is to be able to watch a dance and turn it into a melody. This is really no easy feat, and I feel that I am only as good at it as I am because I have had almost as many years experience dancing as I have playing piano (though obviously not as intense – I may be playing Chopin mazurkas but I’m not pulling double or triple pirouettes).
When I start playing a song and the instructor smiles at me from across the room, I know that I am having an “on” day. But I have definitely had my share of moments where I have not gotten that smile, or – even worse – the instructor stops me and asks me to pick something else.
And that’s the stressful part. When you are one in 20 or 50 students, you could make tons of mistakes that no one might ever notice. But when you’re the piano player, well, everyone notices when you mess up. And there’s really nothing worse than making a mistake and then getting called out on it.
If I had had a little more preparation time going into this endeavor, maybe it would have been easier. If I had more time to pick out pieces of music and review them with the instructors, and then more time to practice, it may have been less stressful. But I didn’t really have the chance for any of that stuff (check out “Seeds” if you haven’t already).
But even if I did have that prep time, I feel it still would have been a stressful/exhilarating experience. As a piano teacher and performer, I spend so much time personally and with my students working on our technical and interpretive skills to make the final performance a little bit of magic, but when you are accompanying a ballet class, the magic is happening inside of every decision, in every moment. It’s essentially a live performance that requires a lot of focus and an intimate understanding of the music you are choosing from, since you have, on average, only about 30-45 seconds to select the perfect piece of music. I know I for one could just feel the adrenaline pumping through me, and when class was over, and I could finally relax, I actually felt brain dead.
Accompanying a ballet class is really unlike any other experience I have ever had. When I perform at my weekly open mic, for example, I am more or less in charge of all my musical decisions. I know exactly which songs I am going to play that evening. I may not play them in the original order I intended, but everything is basically laid out beforehand whether in my head or in the sheet music in front of me. But in my experience as a ballet accompanist, I had roughly 100 pieces of music at my disposal, and at any moment in the 2+ hour class, I could be called upon to play any one of those songs – under tempo, over tempo, with a heavier left hand, or please bring out the melody here more. Being a completely customizable CD player is a lot harder than it seems, and when you are done, and when you’ve done your job, you feel like you’ve really accomplished something, like you built a house, or wrote a great novel, but instead, you created this chunk of time where everything just flowed and real art was created. And just like after any really great accomplishment – after a good class I felt both musically satiated and mentally exhausted (and ready for a nap).
Tell me, are there any other ballet accompanists out there? I would love to hear about your experience. It’s hard going through this journey in a vacuum, and I know my case is an extreme one – where else do you find a ballet class with 40 students that is two hours long? If you are an accompanist, please tell me what your classes are like!