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If you are a regular visitor to these pages, you may have noticed that updates have been few & far between of recent times. Not, I hasten to add, for wont of something to say, but due to the law of “best laid plans…”

I have been working for some time on a number of projects to help further my aim of promoting & educating about the role of the dance accompanist, & they are all starting to show real signs of life. So much so that something had to give. What’s more, the fabulous Tottenham Community Choir continues to grow in stature & reputation & is deverting away an enjoyable portion of my time. This weekend we sang at Alexandra Palace as part of the 150th Anniversary Celebrations, and a brilliant day all round it was too. Great weather, wonderful singers & performers, and loads of local people having a good time.

Ally Pally

So the blog & website have suffered at the hands of that cruel mistress: music. Which is a brilliant thing. The demand for good class musicians continues, and its so exciting that so many people realise the benefits of live music, and seek it out. It can bring so much more than seems immediately apparent.

I am to be working some more at the Opera House, involved in teaching & mentoring on the Jette Parker Young Artists Programme, as well as playing for company classes. Elsewhere in development are plans for a radio show examing the life, role, history, relevance & music of the ballet pianist. Rambert’s move to their new home brings with it great new studios, new pianos & a lovely Yamaha Grand in the main studio. Lots of opportunity for some inspired jumping around & music making. Lovely! I conitnue to play at English National Ballet & I’m very excited to see what musical ideas might stem from their production of Le Corsaire later this year in October.

Corsaire

If things go to plan, the Dance Pianists Accompanists Course I am presently writing, will be up and running too. Meanwhile,Tottenham Community Choir continues to get in shape for our  many community performances this year, and we are also busy learning dots & phrasings for our Winter Concert on later this year.

Lots to attend to: Brilliant.

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.

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