Playing for ballet class: an introduction for beginners
Ballet classes are remarkably similar anywhere in the world, although they may vary in content according to the age and level of participants. The structure and musical conventions go back over 200 years, and in many respects, have not changed a great deal in that time.
Classes take place in a ballet studio that is equipped with barres – wooden or metal waist-height horizontal rails. The class will be taken into two parts: barre, where dancers exercise each side of the body separately, while resting one hand on the barre, and centre where more exercises are performed, but without the barres. A teacher (in a ballet company, called a 'ballet master' or 'ballet mistress') sets a series of exercises, typically lasting about 32 or 64 bars, which vary in effort, speed and complexity, culminating in energetic jumps at the end of class. Many teachers use recorded music for classes, though in vocational schools and ballet companies, live music is still the norm.
For an example of a ballet class in action, showing the way that teachers and pianists work together, watch this video:
There are two main types of class, syllabus classes and 'free classes'. People only use the term 'free class' when they need to distinguish it from a syllabus class in a setting such as a school where both occur – usually, 'class' means 'free class' by default. Here is what the two terms mean:
Syllabus classes: Classes leading to an exam, such as one of the RAD's range of ballet examinations. Students rehearse exercises and dances to set music. Teachers usually provide these books for the pianist, but you can also buy your own copies from the printed music section of our online shop.
Non-syllabus or 'free' classes: These are where the teacher has prepared the exercises herself: they may well be different in every class. First, she 'marks' the exercise for the dancers, using a mixture of physical demonstration and verbal description. Many of the steps have standard French names such as arabesque, plié or battement tendu, which are recognised all over the world, even the names or meanings vary slightly in different training systems. The teacher may ask the pianist for a specific type of music such as a mazurka, a waltz, or a march, or she may leave it to the pianist to decide on what is most appropriate, based on the rhythm and dynamics she has indicated in her marking.
Even in a syllabus class, teachers will often set 'free exercises' or ask to do a set exercise to 'free music'. In RAD teachers' courses, the term frequently used for such exercises is 'development exercises', or 'class work' that is, exercises which help to develop the skills needed for a set exercise or dance. In the latest vocational graded syllabus, a selection of music suitable for class work is provided at the end of each music book.
For free classes and exercises, ballet pianists collect music for class in a variety of styles: excerpts from the piano repertoire, folk tunes, pop songs, operas, ballets or musicals – almost anything with a stable rhythm and strong melodic content that fits the necessary 8-bar formula. Teachers vary in what they like or prefer for class, so the wider your repertoire, the better.
You don't have to be expert at improvisation but good keyboard musicianship is vital: you might need to add a few bars as an introduction to a piece, or another 8 bars in a similar style on to the end of a piece at very short notice during a class. Some pianists improvise throughout the class, but not all. If you improvise, you need to have a very strong sense of musical structure and melody. Exercises are constructed on the model of eight bar phrases, so if you miss out beats or bars, or sound like you don't know what you're going to do next, dancers will get lost and distracted too.
Most classes conform to the order below, with some minor variations or additions. Some exercises might be combined, others – like battements tendus – may be done in several different ways over a series of exercises.
Warm-up, pliés, battements tendus, battements glissés, ronds de jambe à terre, battements fondus, battements frappés, ronds de jambe en l’air, petits battements, adage, grands battements.
Ports de bras, centre practice (any of the barre exercises except warm-up and adage may also be performed in the centre as ‘centre practice’) pirouettes, adage.
- Small (petit) allegro
- Medium allegro
- Grand allegro
- When it is time for you to play, the teacher may count you in by saying '5,6,7, 8', or will say something like 'prepare...', 'thank you...' or maybe just 'and...'
- Each exercise will normally require a short introduction of perhaps 2 or 4 bars, depending on the context. It should normally reflect the mood and tempo of the music to follow, but above all give the dancers a good indication of the tempo and rhythm of what you're going to play next. Examples of these can be seen in syllabus music books.
- Sometimes teachers will ask to go 'straight in' – this means 'no introduction'. Sometimes they will just say 'AND', or count 5,6,7,8 in the tempo that is to follow.
- Some exercises – ronds de jambe à terre, en l’air, battements frappés in particular – may also need another 16 or 32 counts for a ‘balance’ at the end. You may be warned about this, or the teacher may simply make a signal to you at the end of exercise to carry on playing for two or more phrases. Maintain eye contact as much as you can, so that you can take appropriate action (i.e. stop or carry on).
- After the exercises at the barre have finished, some teachers ask for music to stretch to before the centre work begins. Unless there is an exercise with definite phrase lengths, this can be something fairly unstructured and relaxing to create a mood rather than something to 'dance to'
- After the last exercise of each class the students may thank first the pianist, then the teacher in the form of a révérence (a very formal, choreographed curtsey or bow). In a non-syllabus class at grade level this will normally require 4 bars of music at a moderate tempo with no introduction
Schools and companies have their own conventions, but here are a few rules that may help to get you started:
- Remember it's the teacher's class: Although music is a vital component in class, your role is to support the teacher. They are the conductor, you're the orchestra. If a dancer or student asks you to play slower or faster, smile, but don't do it: tempo is up to the teacher.
- Settle misunderstandings or queries after the class: don't argue or disagree with the teacher in front of students, however right you think you are.
- Change tempo willingly when asked. Don't be offended if the teacher corrects your tempo: it's not a critique of your playing. Tempo is one of the most crucial things to get right for an exercise, and the exercise not worth doing if the tempo is wrong.
- Watch and listen carefully when the exercise is being set: the marking is for your benefit as well as the students'. However, don't be afraid to ask for guidance if you haven't understood.
- Don’t split hairs: If the teacher asks for a waltz, but makes it clear from her voice and demonstration that she means ‘mazurka’, play a mazurka: don’t play a waltz and say “that’s what you asked for”.