Being a Ballet Pianist: Part 2 – Honing the Craft

 


For quite some years I followed many different paths as a musician, and whilst being a dance accompanist continued to figure highly in my life, it mostly felt like a means rather than an end. I felt I was destined to be something else. For many years I pursued a life in the world of musical theatre and involved myself with singers, singing teachers, and generally did what I could to become a top West End musician and Musical Director. I learnt a great deal; particularly about myself – even if I didn’t realise it at the time. For a long time I enjoyed myself thoroughly. I also spent a lot of time in the world of cabaret, from strangely dark & somewhat sinister gigs in the back rooms of pubs to high class, highly polished performances at Pizza on the Park and the Jermyn Street Theatre. I came in to contact with some amazing people and performers, including a whole raft of now fabulous name-dropping opportunities. I worked with amateurs and pros alike and always enjoyed working with a large group of people to get a show on stage in time for opening night. In fact, I enjoyed rehearsals more than the performances. I think I always have. I was never much bothered about the “roar of the greasepaint & the smell of the crowd”, preferring the pleasure to be had from some small detail or a particularly good run-thru in a rehearsal when everything finally came together. I also learnt that touring meant isolation from home and, for me personally, a good deal of misery. There also always seemed to be the spectre of the show closing and the uncertainty of future employment when the current contract ended. If I am honest, the sheer repetition of working on a musical for 8 shows a week just didn’t suit me. There aren’t many shows where a keyboard player or pianist can show range from day to day. Much more a case of “believe the ink” as the Americans like to say. ie: play the part and nothing but the part. It was somewhat sad to fall out of love with something I had spent most of my life working towards, but it all stood me in good stead for where I find myself today, and I do not regret a moment of it. You never know, maybe I will return to Doctor Showbiz one day!

Apart from when touring, however, dance still featured heavily. And being an accompanist for singers and vocal performers was not a million miles removed from my current career path either. During & after university I played regularly for a local dance school and college, where I learnt (unbeknownst to me) so much useful information (both practical & musical) that I still utilise much of it today. After finishing university I immediately began playing for contemporary, ballet & jazz classes for the most recent pile of undergraduates at my alma mater, all thanks to one of my lecturers putting in a good word for me at the right time. I also began working with the education unit at English National Ballet as a freelance musician for workshops thanks to connections made at Middlesex University, and was soon doing the same for Northern Ballet workshops when they ventured far enough south. In truth, I often felt the way many do about playing for classes: hard work, long hours, little reward… and I welcomed the chance to go off and work on musicals or some other venture from time to time. The job is so misunderstood that for years, even whilst doing it, I didn’t really understand it. I enjoyed it most of the time, but I didn’t understand the impact the musician could have: how he or she could impact on the dancer’s learning, understanding, and interpretation. Prospective dance teachers often have lessons about how to work with a musician, but there is almost nothing about educating a musician about how to play for dance. But as I slowly came to realise that there was something about my playing that people enjoyed dancing to I invested more in what I did, and began to work on gaining a better understanding and increasing my knowledge of what I did. This has paid untold dividends.

I suddenly realised the freedom that playing for classes offered, how I could play the piano how I wanted to, not how a score or arranger demanded of me. As long as it did the right job then it was appropriate. I learnt how I could bring in all my experience to enhance both my own, the dancers’ and the teacher’s enjoyment of class. That I could play jazz, rock, romantic classicism and boogie-woogie within the space of ten minutes appealed to my sense of fun and experimentation. That it helped immensely in preparing the dancers for what is often a long and gruelling day ahead was wonderful. And it made me want to become better and better. The more pleasure I brought to the studio the more pleasure I experienced myself. I love the immediate feedback you receive in class. You know when your music is directly influencing the dancers and the teacher and that brings a palpable frisson to the room. It is exhilarating and inspriring for all involved. This is why I love playing for dance, and why I try to encourage others to discover its joys and help educate all involved in what can be such a rewarding vocation.

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