Dance Accompanying: Preparation

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As I sort of mentioned when I started this piano playing adventure last summer, it happened by chance, and came together very haphazardly and on the fly. By chance of course I mean when I came to dance camp, I had absolutely no intention of accompanying classes and it was only because I was heading back home for a day that I was able to grab my music.

This year, of course, I had more or less ten months to prepare. Not that I used those ten months haha! But I did set aside one afternoon a few weeks ago to prepare my music binder, because really, if you’re music isn’t organized, you are sunk as an accompanist (or you better have everything memorized).

There are probably many ways to organize your music, but here’s how I’ve got mine set up.

Supplies you would need: a 3 ring binder, dividers, sheet protectors (or a three hole punch) and your music, obviously. You may additionally want a few sheets of loose leaf paper.

First of all, I would suggest not making double sided copies. Yes, it’s going to save you paper and the environment, but you may decide you don’t want a song, or, depending on how you organize the binder, you may need to change the order. And then what?

Before you even start putting your music into sheet protectors, you have to decide how exactly you’re going to organize the book. I’ve organized my book into the following sections: pop, Ukrainian, 2, 3, 4, 6. This is what works for me; it may not work for you.

The reason why I chose to organize this way is because of my accompanying situation. I work primarily at a dance camp where I am accompanying with any one of three different teachers, and they all have their own preferences for music and class order. One prefers more contemporary music, one prefers more classical. One has a lot of experience working with accompanists, one doesn’t. Their experiences are varied and each class is absolutely different.

So when I’m accompanying for a class, I don’t quite know what to expect. I have an understanding of the general order of dance class and what is required from the dancers for each exercise, but there’s really no set order (and even if there was, there would be three set orders, not just one).

The easiest way for me to set up my binder is to group the contemporary music all together (though I may assimilate those into the other sections at some point) my Ukrainian tunes all together (because I rarely use them and when I do it’s not for ballet class), and then to organize my classical music by meter.

I could go on and on, right here and right now, about how a 6 could function as a 2 or a 3, and how a 3 of course could also be a 6. But I won’t. If you’re at the point in your life where you are accompanying dance classes, you probably already know what I’m talking about. Maybe I’ll make it another post.

If you don’t organize your binder by meter, you could also organize simply in alphabetical order (this is how I worked last year and I have to say that was also pretty successful). You could also organize it by the class order, songs specifically for plies, or grande battement, etc, but this will only be helpful for you if you have a specific set of songs for each type of exercise (many of my songs pull double or triple duty).

Now that you’ve figured out how to organize your binder, start putting the music in the sheet protectors. Double up where you can; also, if you have a piece that is two pages long, put them in two different protectors so they can face each other. This sounds like it may be common sense, but if you’re thinking with the organizational part of your brain to put this binder together, you may not be thinking with the piano playing part of your brain that wants to avoid page turns.

You could use a three hole punch for this step as well, but you could end up damaging the paper on the long run. You’ll also end up having to turn a lot more pages, which could get tedious, depending on how much music you have.

Once your music is in the binder, you may want to take this optional step and make a list of all your music to keep out to the side as you accompany, like an index. The first time you make this list, leave some space in case you add pieces later. Having a list like this will be helpful if you don’t have the greatest memory (like me). If it’s up to you to choose the pieces, having the list will help you quickly make a decision, if you are familiar enough with your repertoire (and you should be!) that just looking at the title will remind you of how the pieces go, even when you have five or six waltzes listed in a row.

And that’s it, your music is ready for dance class! More important question – are you? If you are a budding dance accompanist and have a question, please feel free to ask!
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Dance Accompanying: Who am I and what do I know anyway?

Yes, if you’re here, you probably do already have some sort of acquaintance with me. Maybe we’re friends, maybe I teach your kid, maybe you’ve seen me perform. But I wanted to talk a little bit about a certain facet of my life before we keep going here on the blog, as I’ve already written a bit about a certain subject, and anticipate a few more posts before the summer is over.

I’m a piano teacher and an accomplished player, yes. But I’m also, a few months out of the year, a piano accompanist as well, and this isn’t just any kind of accompanying, this isn’t me getting together with some of my other musician friends to work on some solos. No, this is ballet accompanying, which is another beast entirely. This will be my third time accompanying for this group, the first being many years ago, the second being last year. Both the first and second time I felt like the whole experience was very fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants and I didn’t really know what to expect, what to do (well, to a certain extent I did the second time) or how it would all turn out in the end. This year I am going into this experience much more well prepared than I was the first two times (more on that later). We’ll see if that changes anything.

I do also have a strong dance background. As previously stated, I accompany at a dance camp, where classes are every morning for about three hours, camp is two weeks long, and there are three separate sessions (so it’s six weeks of work total). I also attended this camp in my youth, and have 20 some odd years of dance experience – ballet, tap, and Ukrainian folk dancing, plus a little belly dancing tossed in for good measure.

I have never FORMALLY trained as a dance accompanist. So I guess this is a bit of a disclaimer type of post. I did have to take a class on accompanying in college as part of my music major, but that really didn’t prepare me for this specific kind of accompanying. What I do have is a strong music background and a strong dance background, so I suppose that gives me a very unique perspective on this whole dance accompanying thing. I only really talk to one other accompanist on occasion, and he’s got no dancing history whatsoever (but he’s a terrific, terrific player!), and I have a feeling he is more the rule and I am more the exception when it comes to dance accompanists.

Because here’s the thing. I really only know that one accompanist. I know plenty of piano players. I know plenty of performing musicians in general. But I personally know very few (aka, one) other dance accompanists. Even finding resources online for accompanists is hard for me. There are actually some pretty great resources at the Royal Academy of Dance’s website, but as far as people talking about it? Not many, and not recently.

So while I don’t claim to be an expert on the topic, I do know that I am pretty knowledgeable, and pretty experienced (yes, I only do it for six weeks out of the year, but it’s the most intense six weeks of my life. Also, anything I read in the RAD’s book on accompanying I had already figured out on my own in just six weeks of accompanying, so there), and I just want there to be more of a discussion, just more words committed to it out there in the blogosphere (if that’s even a word people still use).

If there are other accompanists out there, I encourage you to share your experiences. Let’s band together and start a discussion! Exchange some ideas! Boost each other up! I don’t mind sharing tips with tricks with accompanists from other continents – it’s not like you’re going to go to my dance studios and get a job there before I could!

Dance Accompanying: The Scariest Two and a Half Hours of my Day

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).

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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!

Dance Accompanying: How Dance Camp Turned me into a Ballet Accompanist

As a Ukrainian American on the east coast, I have had the distinct pleasure of really getting to experience, learn about and grow into the culture of my grandparents. Ukrainian Americans in the NJ/NY area have at least a dozen established churches they can attend, there are a multitude of festivals and dances throughout the year to attend across the tri-state area, and a little Ukie child has their choice of which group to learn traditional folk dance with.

I first started Ukrainian dance lessons when I was very young, maybe when I was 8 or 9, and I studied with the legendary Pani Roma Pryma Bohachevsky. She came to my elementary school (my Ukrainian church’s kindergarten – eighth grade school), and we had class once a week, and a performance at the end of the year. By the seventh grade, I was SO. WAY. INTO. UKRAINIAN DANCE. and I asked my mom if I could go away to this dance camp that Pani Roma ran every summer at the Ukrainian resort in upstate New York (near New Paltz, in Ulster county) called Soyuzivka. I would go to camp for the next four years, and every year, it was the hardest, and most awesome two weeks of my life. And for the ensuing six years, when I was no longer a dance camper, I felt a twinge of regret every time August would roll around, and I was not making my pilgrimage to study folk dancing.

But I stopped attending dance camp because the real passion of my life was taking over. The summer of 1998 was when I started preparing for my college auditions. I practiced piano a few hours every single morning, and taking two weeks off to dance just didn’t seem like an option.

A few years later (after successfully getting into college as a music major, and then going and changing my major to English with a journalism minor, haha) I was back at Soyuzivka, during dance camp time of course, and was doing a little practicing in the dining hall. The dance camp accompanist, Ada Helbig, was there, and came over to chat with me. Would I be interested in accompanying ballet classes next year? Why yes, yes I would!

The following summer, in 2001, I came to the New York mountains once again for dance camp. I would be staying for two sessions’ worth of camp, an entire month. It was a life altering experience, with a little bit of trial by fire thrown in. I did not have much preparation or coaching before I took this job. Pani Roma, while she was an excellent teacher, was not so clear in what was expected of me as the accompanist, and since these were pre-Facebook days I don’t even recall if trying to get in touch with Ada for advice even felt like an option. I was handed some music that I was expected to learn – I still have the book, but the task of learning a daunting 15-20 songs in just under two months was something that I at that point in my life just couldn’t do. The first few days of classes were rough, but we hit a groove and I made it through the remaining time, with only one trip to the ER because of such severe pain in my wrist we thought I had possibly broken something. I didn’t end up breaking anything, but I did get a very painful case of a carpel tunnel flare up.

After such an experience, what do you think I did? Switched my major back to music, of course. I dove back into piano playing, and finished school as a music theory major (which I liken to learning how to be a mechanic to help me be a better driving instructor). Though it was a painful and hard experience – and even though I wasn’t really ready as a music professional for it – I grew and learned a lot my summer as a ballet accompanist. It was probably one of the most influential summers of my life.

Dance Accompanying: Seeds

This summer I got back into accompanying ballet classes on piano again (it’s a thing, which is awesome, and preferred, if you didn’t know, which I will have to explain at some point in its own post because I foresee it popping up a few times in the next few articles I have simmering on the back burner). And I came to this amazing realization.

I would not be accompanying ballet classes if it wasn’t for a friend of mine, Stefan Calka (an accomplished dancer and choreographer in his own right), requesting that I accompany his classes a few weeks ago during a dance workshop I was working at (mostly I was there to help wrangle kids, I was not actually there for music).

I would not have even been able to accompany his classes had I not been heading home (and therefor able to pick up my music).

(I would not even have had ballet accompaniment music had I not already done this once before, about a decade ago.)

I would not have been playing piano for him to overhear me if I wasn’t working on a secret and awesome project with another dancer/teacher/choreographer, Orlando Pagan.

I would not have started working on this project if I hadn’t worked at Ukrainian dance camp last summer.

I would never have worked at dance camp, if I had never attended dance camp in my youth.

I never would have attended dance camp if I hadn’t been taking Ukrainian dance lessons at home.

And, of course, none of this could have even been set into motion if I was not a lifelong piano player.

I sit here in my proverbial flower garden, and I am amazed at all the little seeds that had been sown here through the years. I am right now enjoying an amazing blend of two of my passions in life – music and dance – not because of a chance encounter in the summer of 2012, but because of a series of actions put into motion in 1986, 1987, 1994, 2001, and 2011. The winding path that has brought me to the moment I am in right now is absolutely astounding.