Ballet and Basics

When I was growing up, I wanted to take ballet lessons AND learn piano, but in those days kids generally were only able to pick one thing as an “outside activity.”  In college, I worked as a dance accompanist in several local studios and the university. This was before the days of having “collections” of music for ballet classes, so I had to learn what all of the steps were and figure out the best music to play for each exercise.  I enrolled in adult ballet classes to help me learn the steps so that I could figure out the best music to play when accompanying class.

What does any of this have to do with piano teaching?  Well, a number of things. First, it brought into focus how much of the music that we learn and play on the piano is dance music, beginning with Baroque minuets, gavottes, gigues, allemandes, courantes, bourees, sarabandes and moving on to the lovely waltzes, mazurkas and polonaises of Chopin and the contemporary dances from around the world in the 20th century.  Dance and music provides a wonderful framework for understanding the history, sociology and culture of the times. On a more practical level, in order to help dancers dance, the pianist has to have a clear and strong rhythmic vitality to keep everyone moving and imparting that feeling of lift that makes dancing so much fun. In working with dancers, I came to believe that rhythm is more important than notes (if you have to pick one).  In teaching piano, I’ve found that most students learn notes better if they learn the rhythm of a piece first, and when they can’t play the notes it’s usually because they don’t quite have the rhythm.

As part of a fitness resolution last year I decided to take ballet again.  It’s weight-bearing, strength-building, cardiovascular as well as a mental workout (e.g., try to remember a 20 move combination you’ve never seen before) and is accompanied by beautiful music.  While I can think of any number of excuses to skip going to the gym, I never want to skip dance class. However, an unexpected benefit of going to class has been the insight into teaching that it’s provided.  

Piano teachers don’t always approach learning our instrument first as a physical activity, and then as a musical/artistic endeavor (although Russian teachers seem to be more inclined in this regard).  That’s a problem, because how we move determines how we sound and also how easily we navigate around the keyboard. Of course we must help students learn to read music and count. But from the start we must help them learn to move correctly – just like the dance teachers and sports coaches do with their young charges.  

Every time something new is introduced in ballet (which is almost every class), I get a dose of what it must be like to be a piano student again, wanting to master a passage, but struggling with some part that just isn’t working.  Dance instructors give a consistent stream of feedback to keep everyone at every level focused on moving well, and they go over many of the same corrections every week in different variations and iterations. It seems that the most accomplished people are the ones who keep working on the basics.  I’m inspired to keep going by all of the students who keep working on their own difficulties until they finally get it. I think of this now every time a student gets “stuck”.

There seems to be an unwritten expectation that we “accomplish” something at each lesson – master this passage, perfect the E flat melodic minor scale, finish a piece.  Maybe that’s from the business world, where “deliverables” are big. However, in the arts world, sometimes we just have to exist with our music (or dance, or painting, or acting) until whatever we’re grappling with sinks in, which it will do in its own time and way.  If we let things happen rather than try to make them happen, we get where we’re going in a happier way. Resuming ballet has reminded me that with music and the arts, it’s not the destination but the journey that counts and that (as Dorothy Delay put it in Teaching Genius) our job as teachers is to teach the student, not the subject.   

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