Live Music in the Studio

As many of you know, I was an adult beginner. I took my first ballet class at the age of 26, after completing one year of Jazz training with the legendary Luigi. My very first ballet class was a beginner class at the Joffrey Ballet School, my second class was a beginner class at Ballet Academy East. Having had no knowledge of, or experience with ballet training, I didn’t really know what to expect. I assumed there would be a barre, I assumed there would be a teacher, I assumed there would be a lot of confusing French terminology. But it never occurred to me that there would be live music. As I excitedly took my place at the barre, a musician took his place at the piano. The class started, the teacher explained the first exercise and the pianist played the first introduction. I was simply not prepared for the sensation of dancing to live music. Luigi’s Jazz classes used recorded music; legendary jazz recordings as well as music composed to specifically accompany his famous technique exercises. He had an excellent sound system, the quality was first rate and the music provided the necessary support and inspiration. But the experience of live music in these ballet classes was something altogether different.

I grew up in a musical home. My father had been a professional reed player, my mother a well trained amateur pianist and I was given many years of training, studying both clarinet and piano. It isn’t as though live music was a new experience for me. But dancing to live acoustic music was a completely new sensation. There is something about the way the sound of a piano fills the room that is strikingly different than music coming from a speaker. I’m sure a physicist could explain it but in this instance the science doesn’t interest me. It was as if the music penetrated my body. It was as if the music went right to the core of my being. It was as if the music was helping me dance from the inside.

The story of my unusual path to a performing career and now teaching career is known to most of my readers; but for those who are not familiar with my work, I now make my home at the Joffrey Ballet School where I am passing on the great dance traditions that I was taught. And as a teacher I have really come to appreciate the value of our excellent musicians.

Live music gives me freedom. Our musicians easily adapt and adjust to any changes in tempo and meter that I need, allowing me to tailor my lesson to the specific needs of the students in front of me without having to stop and search through playlists. Live music allows me to more effectively teach my students without the stagnant dead space that occurs while I search for a track when I need to deviate from my prepared lesson.

Live music provides me with teaching moments. I have never been a teacher who teaches from a purely technical standpoint. The art of dance is so much more than technique. Each of our musicians brings a different and endlessly varied repertoire of music; often providing a jumping off point for a short commentary about the score of a great ballet, or a jazz standard, or a tune from the musical theater cannon, enriching the students’ education and experience in the room.

Live music allows me to inspire my students in a way that recorded music never will. Every time the sound of a piano fills the studio I relive the sensations that I experienced in my first classes. I implore my students to experience that sound; to allow the music to enter their bodies, their minds and their hearts and to feel the music coax the dance from the inside out. I ask them not to dance TO the music but to dance INSIDE the music. And as my teachers nurtured me, I am much better able to nurture the artist that lies deep inside each dancer.

4 thoughts on “Live Music in the Studio

  1. That was a fascinating and reassuring read Mr Waldinger.
    As a career-long Ballet and sometime Contemporary pianist I’ve begun to think that the day of live ‘accompaniment’ in the dance studio is about to be consigned to the past.

    My scary first experience was straight out of Trinity College of Music, London (now Trinity Laban), taken on as a trainee pianist at the Senior Royal Ballet School playing a very limited repertoire but patiently nurtured by the likes of Julia Farron, Pamela May and Maryon Lane.

    It was of course a steep learning curve but learn I did and was privileged to play for many former Dancers. I even played for Dame Margot Fonteyn on one occasion when she had returned from New York and was too late for her Company Class!

    Learning there for 7 years opened the door later to work in a number of ‘hobby’ Dance Schools in Oxford at a time when they could afford pianists.
    Their RAD grade exams then required a pianist so I was requested by many other Dance Schools at exam time.
    Hobby school pianists varied in ability to the point that they weren’t always as helpful to the candidate as they might be. This fact I’m sure contributed to the RAD’s decision to allow use of their official recordings to be used for Grade exams.
    Ok, that then opened up the possibility of introducing actual recorded orchestral excerpts from the Ballet rep to all their graded syllabi which I’m sure excited the students.
    Hence pianists we’re no longer needed at these schools.

    Fortunately by that time I was appointed by Legat (vocational) School of Dance in East Sussex, England.
    Though a relatively small school specialising in Ballet but including Contemporary and Tap classes, there were at one time 3 pianists regularly employed.

    That was when I joined back in 2001. I was again playing for two or three ‘free’ classes plus rep, syllabus and Tap every day.
    Amazingly three former RBS students whose classes I used to play for and who went on to dance at the ROH have since become teachers and over the years have been on the Legat Faculty with me playing for their classes!

    At age 72 I am now the only pianist left at Legat. I have voluntarily reduced my hours to 16 p/w. I still love the heady experience of working hand in glove with ballet teachers and drawing from a vastly increased repertoire to inspire and educate the dance students.

    Yes I still play for RAD major syllabus classes and for their exams too.
    However even Major Dance exams can now be to official recordings.

    I do hope the day of live musician input into dance classes isn’t over.

    Maybe you Bill are the one to champion the cause.

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    • Thank you so much for sharing your story. In NYC the “serious” (pre-professional and professional) schools still employ many pianists. I teach primarily at Joffrey and most of our classes have live music. Since Covid, our “open” (drop in classes) are using recorded music; I teach three of these classes each week. The program director is work with our administration to get those pianists back. “Fingers crossed “

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  2. I linked your post to the Quora question (https://www.quora.com/unanswered/How-does-music-illiteracy-play-a-role-in-dance-studios-choices-of-taped-vs-live-piano-music-in-ballet-classes). While I agree with you wholeheartedly that live music does BIG POSITIVE NUMBERS on dancers’ musicality (or, for mostly and especially youth dancers, a lack therefore of), insufficient funds for pianos, tuning fees, and salaries and lack of spaces at studios worldwide are just parts of the problem. The reason why most of them use taped vs live music in their ballet classes that is WELL under the radar is because music illiteracy is HIGH. Traditional piano pedagogy has long made many students QUIT (and I was one of them as a teen) and repelled future ones. As a HubPages (https://hubpages.com/@talfonso) author myself, I’m in the process of writing a piece on that.

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