Being a Ballet Pianist: Part 1 – Starting out

It’s hard to remember exactly when I played for my first ballet class, but I was about fifteen or sixteen. Mrs Corrine Barnet was a teacher of the old-school and, looking back, she  provided me with such an amazing opportunity to learn and develop that I owe her a massive debt of gratitude. Little could I know then that more than twenty years later I would still be playing for ballet, and still riding my bike around in order to do so! She mainly avoided the set music and syllabus that she had to teach the children in order for them to pass their exams, and she demanded free, non-syllabus music, and created steps and amalgamations as she felt necessary for the children to learn. She also sat the children down whilst I had a break, a cup of tea & a biscuit (really, nothing has changed!) and got them to listen to classical rep, learning rhythms, ballet names & composers, time signatures and styles. All the time learning to clap along and being quizzed about music. Sometimes she would get me to demonstrate musical ideas and styles on the piano for them to listen & respond to. I just assumed this was the way it was everywhere! Of course, there was a lot I didn’t get. Improvising was still very new to me, and picking the right music for the right steps was often a challenge (she could demonstrate a distinct lack of patience when required), but I was only a teenager and earning good money and a trade, so what had I to complain about! Our trips up to London when exams came along were great fun and the kids (OK, I was barely grown-up myself) loved it – especially the trip to the American Pancake House for knickerbocker glories before the train back home.

She must have instilled some kind of love of dance into me too. Not long after this I started working with a local dance teacher and choreographer and in return for being a rehearsal pianist, & latterly musical director for his shows, I got to take part in his dance classes for free. I was also treading the boards in local amateur societies and mucking around in school productions. I briefly toyed with taking on full-time dance training, but I felt that it would be a shame to turn my back on so much musical training for something I had only relatively recently delved into. But the association of dance and music was indelibly stamped on my being by now, and it was perhaps inevitable that I would end up making the job of dance accompanist such a prominent feature of my working life. A Performing Arts degree rather than a straight-up music programme meant that I never had to focus on just one aspect of the musical world. The sheer variety and mix of styles, genres, and training available on such a course turned out to be massively useful in developing as a dance accompanist. Jazz, classical, African, Indian, ritual, samba, blues, rock, and many many other styles were thrown my way. Whilst at the time, and still unaware of the vanity of youth, I chose to ignore much of what was being offered to me, this melting pot of musical styles drip-dripped into my head. It helped create the database of material that I now draw upon daily to create & provide live music for some of the world’s top dancers. Of course, I add to this all the time by listening to new music, hearing new sounds and constantly craving new ideas & inspiration. But all those hours spent at those battered old pianos in church halls around Thanet, those interminable lectures learning Bulgarian folk melodies, and those nights sat up drinking, smoking and listening to each others’ awful music all now play an important part in how I make my living as a professional ballet pianist.

There is a great deal to be said for learning a trade young and being paid to do so. In the old days they would have called it an apprenticeship. These days it seems frowned upon as specialising too early. But I am nothing but thankful for the opportunities I was given, and I hope I repay all the kindness, knowledge, and investment that I experienced as a young man through my playing and passion for my chosen trade. The job of the humble ballet pianist is an exciting and dynamic one should you choose to make it so. It offers freedom, creativity, high artistic reward and can be a  pleasurable and lucrative career. I recommened it highly.

 

Now, as so often, I am plugging my good friend DJ Kamikaze’s radio shows. Here’s one to listen to if you are sick of the cold, bitter wind and imagine yourself sat in the sun with your toes dangling in the sea. Enjoy!

 

Kawanku by Kamikaze on Mixcloud

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