Playing Piano for Ballet Class
One thing I understood as soon as I started to work at Canada's National Ballet school was that you can be the greatest concert pianist yet be a lousy ballet accompanist! To be a dance musician requires a special quality. One must be able to feel the different energies released (by the dancers), the smallest nuance of the head, fingers, arms, neck, or back. For that, you have to learn all of the ballet terminology, and be able to understand the structure of a ballet exercise. It takes years to interpret an exercise, as as it takes years to learn how to play music. Each exercise has a phrase - beginning, culmination, and ending. The slightest change in exercise creates a different image, a different quality, and requires a different improvisation. That is why the first question, when auditioning a potential accompanist is: Can you improvise? Since it is too difficult and unrealistic to search through every book just to find a small piece of music which will fit this particular exercise, improvisation is a mandatory skill if you want to survive in a school as demanding as the National Ballet School.
I have been working as Principal Ballet Accompanist for over 30 years and I must say that over the years my job has never become boring or routine. This is because everyday, each class is a new creative experience; that ordinary Plié or Tendu changes with every teacher, with every class, and with every student. And this, in turn, inspires different improvisations for the accompanist.
There are sometimes 30 to 40 different improvisations in a class, but it is a great reward to feel the power of your music as all the bodies move to it. The music can make a dancer bend or stretch, do pirouettes, or jump and inspire different choreographies. And we, the musicians, move subconsciously with every dancer because, I'll tell you the secret: inside we are all dancers too. In a sense, every class becomes a small performance (and at the end of it, the students are exhausted and the accompanist is exhausted too). I hope I have now given you a better understanding of what the accompanists at the ballet school do, and why I am so proud to represent my colleagues - all of them unique, with with their own style and experience.