Playing piano for a ballet class means making up little melodies that are clear and symmetrically shaped at least in terms of phrase length.
It’s fascinating to me when I sort “find” melodies (that’s sometimes how improvising feels) that have a charm despite their simplicity.
Or maybe the simplicity is part of what works.
The materials I use for a dance class melody tend to be very limited. Usually I don’t go outside of the eight notes of the scale, which is really only seven notes because the top note is the bottom note repeated up an octave.
When I first began playing for ballet classes, I worried about being able to stay steady enough. This is something I think about as a musician because I have discovered that I, like most musicians, can vary my steadiness unknowingly if I’m not paying attention.
I’ve been known to practice simple little hymns that I play at church with a metronome to solidify my confidence that I play steady enough.
But I soon figured out that dancers don’t need music for the beat, as much as they need a melody to hang their movements on.
Melody is like graceful physical movement. A good melody is itself a physically graceful movement.
So when I stumble on a melodic idea that is particularly graceful and, dare I say, beautiful, it is a moment of effectiveness and beauty in sound and moving human bodies.
This beauty is at the core of what both ballet teachers I am working with are trying to take the dancers to.
Another interesting thing I observe about this kind of improvising is the effective use of silence in the melody.
If I improvise a four measure phrase in which the fourth measure is silent or holds the note, this creates the interesting phenomenon that the melody moves from my hands to the bodies of the moving people (the dancers). It’s like their movement completes the musical thought in the silence, often a sense of “upness” or preparation to continue.
It’s very cool.
Then there’s the fact that ballet teachers prefer “live” accompaniment.
This is very near and dear to my own heart. While I do enjoy recorded music I do not mistake it for the live experience. I think that since so many (if not most) people in America experience music more from recordings than live performances it has diminished the whole idea of music in our lives.
It alters the big idea of what music is for humans. If (as I become increasingly convinced) one of the essentials of being a human is “making meaning” in general, making music is fundamental to human possibilities and contributes not only to the quality of our lives but is at the center of who we are as living, breathing consciousnesses.
Recorded music is to live music as cinema is to theater. All four concepts are interesting expressions of art, just radically different in themselves. Recorded music and cinema unfortunately contribute to the malaise of passivity that is endemic in U.S. society. It is a tendency in humans that needs to be resisted as a general approach to being alive.
When I teach music to people, dance itself is a road to making music. Physical movement helps musicians understand what they are doing as a gesture of sound.
Yesterday, the teacher talked to the dancers about what is happening in their faces as they dance. She insisted that the passivity and coolness that one sees in a concentrating classical ballet dancer detracts from and actually harms the dance itself.
She asked a dancer to do a few of the moves they had been rehearsing. She stopped him and said, :Look at yourself in the mirror, that is not you!” He immediately animated his face in good natured response to her. “That’s you!” she immediately pointed out.
She told the dancers they needed to be looking at someone or something in their imagination. They needed to exhibit the same spark in their eyes that we have when we talk to each other.
Their dancing will benefit from it. Their entire body says more when the face is authentically there.
For me, this animation, is what live music and dance is all about.