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Music: Piano Accompanists

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Okay... I know what a musical dancer is... but what is the corresponding term for an accompanist who is particularly sensitive to the dynamic needs of dance?


We have several truly wonderful accompanists at Dance Connecticut (nee Hartford Ballet), I may never be pried out of class... but one in particular has such wonderful insight for the rhythm of steps... I don't just mean for the rhythm of the combinations, but even for individual steps... for instance she has a great feel for ronde de jambes en l’air... encouraging one to whip near the passe and then elongating the stretch out at the extension (do I qualify for a redundancy award yet?)... or for setting up pirouettes...


Her sense was so uncanny, I decided she must have studied dance although I'd had no indication of that from her other than her playing. Instead, it turns out she's a positive product of the old Russian system where one only had the chance to study ballet if one was chosen to do so. We missed out getting a dancer, but instead got a wonderful accompanist.


I'm sure we've all suffered through clueless accompanists who actually made the steps feel more difficult than they are.


What is the equivalent of musical dancer... a dancerly accompanist?

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Amy Reusch, I cannot answer your question but I am able to contribute some background into the training of a Russian accompanist for ballet, if that is what her background is? After they train in their musical high school and university programs they then specialize in ballet accompaniment were they are taught the character of each step and the musical framework necessary to support each movement as it is being learned. They are trained to support the movement physically not just play a beat. You are quite lucky if you do have such a qualified individual working in your school. Cherish every moment.


There are many highly qualified, non-Russian trained, accompanist of course. It has been my experience that ballet accompanists in the US generally are not trained to accompany ballet, they learn as they go along...school of hard knocks! Your question is indeed and interesting one!

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I don't know of any term for these people, however they are truly one of the ballet worlds' treasures! We also have one who is Russian, and totally wonderful. And, we have one who is Armenian and not trained at all in ballet, however he is extremely gifted and has learned, in the few years that he has been with us, to watch and listen to what the teacher is showing and seems to have developed a very keen sense of exactly what is needed. He usually plays with no music, and often plays wonderful slavic music, and also things he has composed. He takes a familiar tune and does amazing things with it. Both of these people can hear something and then play it, but they are also really good about finding new things. I can ask for any kind of rhythm and they can instantly create it. (Putting things in 5/8, for instance, is fun once in a while!)


I find that my classes work so much better when I have one of these pianists than the ones who play only from sheet music and play the same things all the time. They are so limited, and I get very tired of hearing the same music for every type of movement. There is no creativity going on, which makes it harder for me to be creative. This would probably work fine for syllabus based classes, but with advanced level regular classes I find it stifling and boring.

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Sometimes, with a really really good accompanist, I find that I can actually hear the step names in the music. I know that sounds odd, but say the exercise is glissade, assemble, glissade, jete, jete; the music goes de-dah, da-da-dah, de-dah, da-da, da-da. So that the cadence of the words is reflected in the music - v. useful if you have a bad memory for steps!


I also, often find, that the quality of the accompanist is increased, the more they work with a certain teacher - as the classes "gel" (although if both the teacher and the accompanist are of poor quality, then you get some awful habits).


I also love accompanists, who do not have to use sheet music - class moves so much quicker (and has so much more interesting music) if the accompanist is not always trying to find their battered copy of {fill in the blank of overplayed cliched music}


I have always been lucky with my accompanists here in London - though NY and Stockholm have been other stories. "Dancerly accompanists" are few and far between - and sometimes you are lucky if they keep the same rhythm throughout the exercise, are not drinking, eating, reading the newspaper (or all three at one), a complete prima donna who refuses to play anything other than that which they have played for 25 yrs in class, or endlessly rifling through sheet music (see above).

I had one once, who used to go out for cigarette breaks in the middle of adage

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"What is the corresponding term for an accompanist who is particularly sensitive to the dynamic needs of dance?" Conscious? Sorry, I can't help that, as we have two alternating accompanists. One is so hyped up on his morning coffee and chocolate bar that his tempo gets faster and faster, and he rarely bothers to look up and see that we're in a dither. This happens quite often with turns as well as with something we'd like to sustain, like arabesques on releve across the floor. Very friendly guy, but just not attuned to our travails.


We also have a wonderful pianist who has studied dance, both technique and history, and she is soooooo sensitive to us. The other day I peered over to see what she was reading on the music holder, and it wasn't even sheet music. It was the book, "The Lovely Bones." Now, that's talent -- what a multitasker!!!!!


Say, didn't Legat used to play while he gave the combinations to his dancers?

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You are quite lucky if you do have such a qualified individual working in your school. Cherish every moment.


Actually, we have several Russian accompaniests, all gifted... although two are truly astounding. I don't know who to thank for this... whether Kirk Peterson brought them in or Alla Osipenko... somehow I don't think it was Enid Lynn... although it could have been just luck there... subscribing to the Vaganova system might have put them in connection with Russian accompanists, and I suspect one brought the others in.


One thing I am sure of, it's not possible they are paid what they are worth.


I often have wished over the years that like piano players in bars, that pianists at barres would have tip jars and take requests!

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I have been blessed to have many over the years who were talented. Some have passed through the dance world and onto their own musical careers (two with recording contracts and one with a Grammy!). So if Clive Davis wants to stop by, I have one now who, while not another Alicia Keyes, could be convinced to sign She watches the combination and composes on the spot, either something of her own or plays a ballet 'standard' from ear. I will give her the time signature upfront and maybe a request ("a tango would be good"). She plays Chopin beautifully and knows 'no Nutcracker'


The adults seem much more appreciative of her musical humor; sneeking in a few bars of something well known (Beatles, show tunes, etc.) seamlessly. The teens either never get the joke or they are too 'intense' to acknowledge.

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Cabriole, I have EXACTLY the same thing with our Russian and Armenian pianists! They love to create on the spot, as well as play golden oldies that the students don't even realize are show tunes or famous songs from way back when. And they play the classics by ear. It is truly amazing and a wonderful gift that they have....and that I have by working with them!

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Guest ivy'smama

As a pianist (although not nearly as talented as those you are describing) I am always in awe of the accompanist when I get to observe my daughter's classes. They do not have an easy job and I am sure they are not paid what they are worth. Be sure to thank them!

Edited by ivy'smama
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It's a wonderful question -- and in our studio, all the pianists are good -- each in his/her own way.....


Irina, who's from St Petersburg, is exactly as you describe-- there is a bounce in her left hand that supports the action in the most satisfying way-- the ronde de jambe en l’air, in particular, happens at exactly the right second, and the leg stretches out again slowing down as the knee straightens.... She can change rhythm at the drop of a hat, and she watches us all the time. In fact, since the piano is "downstage left" in the studio, the second side grand allegro comes her way, and she wants us to clear out as soon as we finish and not block her view of the dancers who're just starting....


Jamie (Naruschen) has a wonderful way of playing QUIETLY but with exactly the right energy for the combination (Irina is a powerhouse -- she really gets a lot of sound out of that poor piano). He plays Teddy Bear's Picnic for small jumps (which he's heard Mr. Balanchine always liked -- and it IS perfect).


Chris, who's also a composer, makes special use of the broken string way up in the high notes..... In fact, he's the most creative pianist -- once he laid duct tape over the harp (i.e., inside the piano, over the strings) to get a special effect he wanted for the quick degages. He always has a boogie-woogie for the fast tendus, that makes you really lead out with your heel AND COME BACK WITH THE TOES -- He's really a wonderful musician.


Mitch Marcus is a serious jazz musician, his combo is constantly turning up on KPFA's jazz show, he's ALMOST famous -- in some ways he's the least experienced "ballet accompanist," but there are always sections of class where i become completely absorbed in his music, especially for adagio....


And then there's Rudy Apffel, who really puts the kick in the chicken....

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And I'm feeling guilty as I only remember our pianists' first names... Dina (St. Petersburg), Nina (of the ronde de jambes), Luba... all spectacular..


But, regarding thanking the pianists... there was something my early teachers always used to have us do that I haven't found in other schools, that I wish was done everywhere.... we used to do our reverence... first to the teacher and then we would turn and do it for the pianist.


Come to think of it... reverence seems to be heading towards obscurity too...

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Take heart. We still do it daily, both for teacher and pianist. Perhaps it isn't done as often when tapes are used instead of piano.


However, I took class for many years from a fine elderly teacher who gave a different form of reverence. He would say, "and now, arms." Then he would give an ending combination with incredibly complex arm combinations, all en face, that he had learned in an academy in Belgrade growing up. (He even taught this in my living room one night at a party -- some 12 movements). We would clap at the end, but there was not actually a bow involved. (We had no pianist in this class, either).

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In Sally's class, instead of reverence, we do a porte d e bras, followed by grands battements in second, and then go up and bow to the teacher and the pianist --


Actually afterh the battements, Sally says "Thank you very much" or "Class is over" or "Ite, missa est" (sorry, that last one is just joking) and then goes over to hte piano and kisses Irina on hte cheek, Russian style, 3 times -- on the left, the right, then the left again, and then stands by the piano as we come over to thank them. The teen-0agers curtsey or bow, it's part of hte school's requirements -- but hte grown up's do a version of it too, especially the other teachers in hte class. Sally has a marvellous expression during this whole process -- with hte grown-ups, she would never insist, band she looks like she's indulging us in this practice -- but it is clearly good for you, and that shows in her expression.


She is not Russian herself, but her husband is San Francisco-Russian, and she was taught herself by Russians in San Francisco...... so those traditions go way back.


I remember seeing the Kirov do Firebird last month, the hero kisses his bride like that. It was very poignant for me to recognize the gesture.

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