Episode 14 – Music for Pirouettes

Listen to this episode where the team talk in depth about pirouettes!  David, the podcast ballet expert breaks down a pirouette exercise into its basic form, and teaches the importance of ‘spotting’ to aid multiple turns, and arm positions to help with the balance.

The pianists talk about what types of music you can use for pirouettes and the listener will learn that there are many styles that can be used for this exercise with varying accent. The most common style of music generally used is the waltz, but you can play mazurkas, landlers, jazz waltzes, Viennese waltzes and many more.

The team talk about the importance of tempo and mitre and how pirouettes are quite rhythmical, and how adhering to a strict rhythm and obedience with the music will help the dancer achieve better pirouettes.

David asks the pianists about the necessary stamina required at this point of the class to play big and support the dancers, having played for an hour up to this point, and the pianists digress onto ballet class etiquette and all the variables that can affect the way you play for class.

The pianists get cheeky talking about ways in which they draw attention to themselves as a live pianist to politely remind dancers to comply with class etiquette.

Music referenced in this episode

Transcription of this episode by Jonathan Still

Taking part:

MG: Matt Gregory  CH: Chris Hobson  AH: Akiko Hobson DY: David Yow 


[MUSIC: Ballet Piano Podcast ident] 

V/O: You’re listening to the Ballet Piano Podcast: Lifting the lid on dance accompaniment.

[Music ends]

CH: Hello podcast fans and welcome back to Episode 14 of The Ballet Piano Podcast. This week we are going to be discussing pirouettes, but before we get into that, we are still social distancing in our separate houses across London, so to my right is Miss Akiko Nozaki, and in front of me on our laptop screen is Matt Gregory

MG: Hello 

CH: And hashtag David Yow of Instagram 

DY: Hello

CH: Hello gentlemen, how are you both? Are you well? 

MG: Yeah, really good, yeah, really good. 

DY: I can’t believe we’re on episode 14. 

CH: Episode 14, I know, well we’re zooming through towards the end of the series, really, aren’t we? 

MG: We’re literally on Zoom. 

CH: Literally, we are zooming on Zooming towards episodes 19 and 20 at the end of the series, which are going to be question and answers, so if you haven’t already, please get in contact with us either on one of our social media profiles, using the handle @theballetpianopodcast, or email us, balletpianopodcast@gmail.com, with any questions that you might have for either the musicians, or David Yow, either about what we’ve discussed, just something you think we might have missed, or just, if you want to ask us what we had for breakfast, it would be great to hear from you, we’ll try to answer as many questions as we can, and of course, we’ll give you a shout out on the podcast, and on the social profiles. 

AH: Japanese is also welcome also 

CH: Yeah, we are multilingual here, and if we don’t speak your language, we have friends that do 

AH: But just two languages, no? 

CH: Well, we’ve got friends that speak other languages 

AH: OK, so any language welcome.

CH: Yes, right! Let’s go forward, so this week we are spinning right round, baby right round, like a record, into pirouettes. We’ve finished the majestic and indulgent adage in the last episode, and we’re off into pirouettes. 

AH: Yay! 

CH: Yes, so Mr Yow, pirouettes come in many different shapes and forms, can’t they, can you give us an overview of the pirouette exercise, please? 

DY: Well, pirouette means to spin, so you’re spinning around, you’re turning around, and when you start turning, you try and start doing what we call “spotting,” which means that you focus on one point in the room, and you revolve your body around, without moving your head off that spot, and then you whip your head right round again to continue your revolution, until you come back to the front. So that’s the idea of spotting, and what we do with that spotting is it stops us from getting dizzy when we do multiple turns. So if you’re standing on leg, like an ice-skater, and spinning round, you will hold your balance and your idea of where the front is, if you spot—if you multiply whip your head around. So for pirouettes, the basic pirouettes, you might just stand in fifth position, that’s one foot in front of the other, turned out, and you might do a demi-plié which is a half a bend with your heels on the floor, bending both knees, and then you might push off and push round to one side, and put your foot in cou-de-pied which is the neck of the foot, so your big toe of your gesture foot will be pointing to your inside ankle bone of your supporting foot on demi-pointe as you spin round. So we could do like a, what we call a slow single pirouette, which would be, let’s say tendu à la seconde, close into fifth, demi-plié, and push off to a single pirouette, and close in fifth derrière. Your arms might go through first position which is opposite your breast bone, out to second as you do tendu to second, close into fifth with your arm, the same arm in front as your foot is in front, and then you join your both hands together as you whip your head round. That’s a single pirouette, that’s the very basic one that we could do. 

CH: Because I mean I’ve played for ballet as we’ve discussed for a very long time, and many many different levels as well, and pirouettes, they’re an essence of every class, aren’t they, or they seemed to be an essential part of every class, no matter what age, or what level you’re playing for, you know, whether it’s full-on professional dancers in the company, pre-professionals in training such as vocational schools, or even, you know, in adult ballet classes, you know, people who are just doing it for enjoyment. A pirouette is where the ante has really been upped now, and it really starts to become part of a performance, and it’s you know, let’s face it, a pirouette, if you asked someone who doesn’t really know much about ballet to do their first impression of a ballet dancer, it would probably either be a plié, or they would do a pirouette, and I think naturally, people tend to spin around either to the left or to the right, and then you put your other foot that you’re not spinning on up towards your knee, don’t you, that’s some. . . that’s people’s first image of a ballerina, really, who are not in this. Why is the pirouette such an essential part of the class? 

DY: Spinning, turning, is one of the seven different ways of moving in ballet, so you can I think you can, right from the very beginning we talked about bending—plié-ing, tendu—stretching, we did relevé-ing where your’e rising on your balls of your feet, we were darting around, when we’re doing quick movements in different directions, we are gliding along the floor, we are jumping, and we’re turning, so this is one of those seven different ways of moving. That’s why it’s so exciting because it’s one of the essential ones. 

CH: One of the Seven Deadly Sins? 

DY: Yes. Some people feel like that, yes!

AH: I found like a lot of dancers are quite obsessed with pirouettes, is that right? 

DY: Because it’s like when you’re doing, when you’re playing the piano, and your doing your trick, you know your, whatever you do, your fast finger-moving or something like that, so spinning is one of those tricks that dancers do, it’s just a very virtuoso thing to do, another thing is like, if you’re very flexible, that’s another thing that some people do, some people jump very high, and turning is one of those things, so if you’re good at turning, this is the thing you show off, and it’s a very impressive thing to see. 

MG: And of course, pirouettes, you have to have a solid balance to turn in that balance, and that’s what the pirouette is, and you know, there’s something so special about nailing that position, and doing sort of three or four turns when you’re up there for at least over two seconds, three seconds, you know, it feels great doesn’t it, and I presume that’s why dancers love doing them, because they’ve nailed that position. 

CH: When you were training as a dancer Matt, did you love your pirouettes? 

MG: Absolutely, I loved the, I loved the pirouette exercise from the corner. 

CH: What about you, David, were you the same, did you love it? 

DY: I got to enjoy it more as I got more proficient at it, first of all, it’s kind of scary when you first get to do it, because it all happens so quickly, and you really have to know what you’re doing, and be on balance, and be in control of your body to be able to actually spin like that, but some people are more naturally gifted in that area, and they can spin for days, and there are others who have to really work hard at it. To a degree it can be taught, but if you have it naturally, you have a big advantage. [7:21] And as you said, you can do pirouettes in many different ways, en dehors, which is the French term for “outwards” so that you’re going in one direction, or en dedans you’re going another way; and you can do them as we said in cou-de-pied, with the neck of the foot, with your foot very low, or in retiré as you said, with your gesture foot underneath your knee, those are the basic positions that you would do. And then we would also talk about open positions like attitude, which is like when you’re standing on one leg, and you have the other extended leg round about hip-height, bent at the knee, so it can be bent at the knee in the front, to the side, or the back. Usually we tend to do it at the back, you’ll see dancers turning in attitude derrière, and sometimes you see them with their leg in the front, but not as frequently as the back. And then really in a fully extended position you usually see dancers—male dancers—with their legs at the side of their body, because that’s extremely difficult to do, it takes a great deal of strength. And we see both ladies and gentlemen, when their leg behind them in what we call an arabesque, a lengthened line. 

CH: Going back to what you said earlier, if you’ve got some natural talent for pirouettes, in my career as a pianist, I have tried to do a pirouette exercise once, and this was on a stage at Wimbledon Theatre back in, was it 2018 or 2019, Akiko? 2018, 2019, Akiko took over playing on the keyboard, and I joined in the pirouette from the corner across the stage. Not only was it incredibly difficult, because I’m not blessed with this great coordination, I also struggle my left from my right, what made it worse was that the then artistic director of the company that I worked for happened to be in the auditorium, and he was not impressed. So on that note, I think we’ll just take a quick breather and go for a break! 

[MUSIC: Ballet Piano Podcast ident] 

CH: So, musically, the pirouette, now we are getting into a minefield, aren’t we. We could have, I mean, let’s list off, I’m going to list off five, and then people please, you know, just jump in. I’m going to say: a mazurka, a waltz, a Spanish waltz, a coda, a tango, what else have we had? 

AH: March 

CH: March. Matt? 

MG: Yeah, played pirouettes on marches . . . yeah, lots and lots of big threes. 

CH: Or fours or twos. 

MG: Lots of big 3/4s

AH: Yeah. 

CH: I mean, David 

DY: Because 3/4s are like rounded, aren’t they? So it gives you more time to turn. 

MG: Mmm 

CH: I think there’s. . . I mean there’s something on the pirouette, isn’t there, when you, if you’re saying exercises pir-ou-ette it’s a three, it’s pirouette, it’s got . . . [hesitating]

DY: Three syllables

CH: Three syllables, that’s the word, sorry, it’s been a long isolation day today, so you know, and it seems to me to go with it, [sings] da-da-dun dun dun and a pirouette and dum. You know, so a three works well, you can almost have a slower, almost like a jazz waltz three. Because you want a little bit more time and a bit more breath and that slightly dotted rhythm of the jazz pulse, seems to give it a little bit more time. 

DY: Yes, exactly, it does, yes. 

CH: When I play like that, it seems to stretch the music subliminally, the beat is still the same, but subliminally the dancers seem to think that they’ve got slightly more time, just because of the dotted rhythm in there, 

DY: Exactly

CH: And a mazurka is, I mean, that’s a relatively standard one isn’t it as well, for a pirouette. 

DY: The music . . . the 3/4s with a strong accents are really helpful for the dancers because it actually helps you to understand when, how quickly you have to whip your head round with the beat of the music . So you’re aiming for, if you’re in a 3/4, to whip your head round on one count two count three, one two three. That would be a really good rhythm to do three pirouettes. But as you said, it can be on any kind of music, and any turn, it can be in any time signature, really. 

CH: Matt, what makes you elated and what kills you inside musically for pirouettes? 

MG: [All laughing] What makes me elated? Well actually, I mean I love playing for class, but I really, really enjoy playing for the pirouette exercise from the corner, because obviously as well as the pirouettes, there’s balancés, there’s chassés, there’s all sorts of things that can be in a pirouette exercise as well, posés, all the rest of it, and I don’t know, this exercise. . . it’s sort of like a solo or a variation in situ, because now we’re moving, the dancers are moving. 

DY: When you first start to turn of course, you’re not going to move off the spot, because you’re trying to find balance, but as you said, as you get more proficient at it, you’re going to combine it with different steps that move across the room, to help you get from one side to the other, let’s say, and include turning at the same time, and of course you can turn from one foot to the other foot, and do half-turns very fast, and they’re called petits tours, little turns, or chaînés when they’re linked together, and so that’s a different kind of a pirouette, but it’s still a kind of a turn. And so you’re absolutely right. We’re now in the kind of at the end of the centre practice which is right in the middle of class, just before the jumps usually, and so you’re linking together and moving a lot more things in an exercise, to make it more exciting as you said, Matt, because it’s kind of like, it’s show-off time, isn’t it, really? 

MG: It is, it is, I feel, this is the company level when dancers are moving, I feel like this is where the energy just lifts like more than, you know, previously 

DY: Definitely

MG: You know, because all the dancers are looking at each other and seeing how many turns they do, and encouraging each other, and there’s like healthy competition again in the pirouette exercise, and it’s really lovely to play for, you know, you just get all your 3/4s out, change up your accent, change up your types of 3/4s, it’s brilliant. 

AH: I find it a little bit difficult exercise, pirouette, because it’s not the choice of music, but it’s just how much I should be kind to the dancers

CH: How much you should follow them? 

AH: Yes

CH: Or stretch it. 

AH: Yes. That I kind of sometimes question to myself, should I slow down this much? Or maybe I shouldn’t. 

MG: Well for me, I really sort of settle in to the tempo that the teacher wants, whilst accompanying the dancers that’s in front of me at that time, but if they, you know, if they need more space for multiple pirouettes, I will obviously stretch the music, but then go back into my first tempo that is the tempo of the exercise, let’s say, and of course, so many dancers want slightly different tempos, so I’m always just aware to watch who I’m playing for, at whoever’s coming across the room. 

AH: And then you sometimes do that, and then you get told by the ballet teachers, or the ballet master said, no I want you to keep in a secure speed, and then it’s a bit difficult. 

DY: So this is the thing really, as time has gone on, this has become a habit of the pianist slowing down, technically that’s not good for the dancers, because then they become lazy, and they start thinking that they can actually dictate, where actually what they need to do, is if they want to spin faster and do more turns, they have to pinch some dancing time from a different part of the phrase, so that they’ve got more time within the tempo of the music, to turn more times. 

MG: Yep, and they should take off a little sooner. 

DY: Exactly. 

CH: If your pirouettes are on bars three and four, for example, you’re going to have to pinch a little bit of time from the end of bar two and possibly even a little bit of time from bar five to get that amount of time in. 

AH: So in terms of that, so like, something like mazurka, because it’s got quite a solid accent in each count, so dancers tend to be on the music more than just a normal waltz, that’s what I found. 

MG: There’s a teacher at the company, and sometimes he does not want any rubato, he wants you to play in absolute strict time for . . . let’s say it’s a technical exercise, and then, so for that one pirouette—and his second pirouette might be that chance to play about with the music so they can do lots more—but sometimes he just wants an absolute strict 3/4, and they have to just fit one or two clean, technically beautiful pirouettes, and then, you know, further down the class the music can be a bit bigger and stretched out slightly more, so yeah, you know, there’s pros and cons for everything isn’t there? I was going to say, if dancers want to do multiple turns they should take off sooner, rather than stretch, pull out the music too much. 

CH: Things can become expected, can’t they, if we look at Tchaikovsky’s original score of something like Swan Lake or Nutcracker or go even further back to Minkus’s, you know, your Don Q’s and your Bayadères which were all pretty much set at certain tempos, there isn’t a lot of rallentando written down in the original scores, and then it just gets, you know, you add in a little rall[entando] or a little rit[ardando] there, or a little tempo change here, just to allow this extra bit of pirouette, and then it becomes more and more and more, so over time, these things just become, well this tradition, this is what it’s like, and it wasn’t ever what the composer intended the music to be like, it’s just become like that because people want, because ballet has become more virtuosic, hasn’t it, people want to show off more, people want to be, you know, gaining applause more, and things like that, as the art form has evolved. 

MG: Hundred percent. 

DY: As the class has gone on, and people have got more virtuosic, there are like in the class different types of pirouette that we do, so we start like off, earlier on, maybe when we’re doing tendu or something, just putting in single or double turns, just to find the balance. Later on from the corner when we’re travelling, then we’re starting to do multiple turns and then we end up, usually when the big show-off bit, where at the end of that you’ll get like a coda, let’s say we’ve asked for a coda, and the ladies will start doing those 32 fouettés that you see in Swan Lake that you were talking about, when they’re continuously going round and round 32 times, and the gentlemen are just standing in second, and relevé-ing up and down on the demi-pointe and going to a fondu bent on one leg, for a long time. Just spinning and spinning and spinning. And that’s exciting as well. Now that’s a different kind of a turn, it’s kind of like a building up a crescendo, like your coda, I guess, yes, musically? 

AH: There was an interesting experience . . . not experience, but I, over the years, I’ve been playing for the ballet classes I just noticed that—not because I’m Japanese—but I noticed that quite a lot of Japanese dancers are on the music when they do, especially pirouettes and things like that, so once I spoke to one of the Japanese dancers, why do Japanese dancers tend to be on the music whatever the speed the pianist plays, and one of the dancers I spoke to told me that basically when this dancer was young, she was in a local ballet school, and they couldn’t afford to have a ballet pianist, so the teacher had, maybe, you know, five or ten CDs, and she was using the same music all the time, so she had an exercise with exactly the same music, almost every single lesson, and then she changed the pirouette or whatever the exercise it was, but because it was specific music with a specific accent, the teacher was very strict about when to land, when to start, and everybody had to start the same timing, had to finish the same timing, so they were almost like army training with the same music again and again, so she said she got very used to, you know, the timing of the music because of this what she did as a child, so when the live musician came to the class, it was more natural that you had to be with the beat which was provided, and I just thought that was quite interesting. 

MG: Was it Modern Ballet Studio Melodies by any chance? 

AH: [laughing] I didn’t ask! 
H: This might have been before Modern Ballet Studio Melodies—by Christopher N. Hobson available to download from iTunes and all other major download stores—was created, possibly. [all laugh]

AH: I don’t know how much you’re popular in Japan, so. 

CH: I don’t know either. I’m popular in London with one Japanese person. Well, sometimes. Not at the moment, on lock-down, if you’re spending 24 hours with me, I know it’s quite difficult. [laughter]

DY: In terms of like playing for this part of class, how, what’s it like in terms of stamina, because you must have to have a lot of strength in your hands to keep going and going, to keep, you know, repeating, what’s it like? 

CH: I mean, it depends on a lot of things. It depends on how many groups you’ve got, it depends on how long the exercise is, and quite often, everybody will start with the greatest of intentions, and they’ll all be lined up in their groups of four, or five if you’re in a really big studio, ready to go, and then these groups get smaller and smaller as, you know, dancers want a little bit more space, don’t they, so you can end up playing the same exercise 20 times maybe? Sometimes plus. It’s a big one for stamina, isn’t it, Matt? 

MG: Also . . . yeah, hundred percent. It also depends on what the piano is like 

AH: Oh yeah! 

MG: If you’ve got a really decent stool and you’re sat at your preferred height, it all affects how you play. If you’ve got a lovely sort of grand piano that you can make sing in the studio, then you’ll find that you’ll just develop your repertoire and the way that you accompany will just get bigger and more luxurious in the pirouette exercise, but if you’re hammering away at a really soft piano that has not been played in, then that is harder, you know, that’s what . . . you feel like you’re bashing it. But it depends on the piano, and if you’re not sitting at your preferred height, I definitely have a preferred height, and I’ve learned what that is over the years. If you’re sat too high or too low from what you prefer it just, you don’t feel comfortable. 
CH: Or the other one for me is the sight line, as well, if you’re constantly looking around. 
MG: Sightline [agreeing], yeah. If you’ve got a grand piano and the lid is flipped in your sightline and you can’t see, or you’re facing and you’ve got things in the way, or dancers stand in front of you when they’ve done their exercise, and you can’t see past them, it just. . . Yeah, that’s, that make me irk! 

CH: Does anybody else shout at dancers if they stand in front of you during a pirouette exercise? 

MG: It depends what mood I’m in. Sometimes what I’ll do is, if someone’s in front of me, I will do this huge tacit and clear my throat so they can hear me cough, and then they all look at me and clear out of the way, that’s a trick that I do, or I play really quietly, or I take my left hand off and just give them melody. All sorts of things to make them listen and realise, hello, I’m not recorded, I’m a real person. 

CH: When I was getting a little bit of a . . . I don’t know, I must have been having a bad day once, and I shouted at somebody for being in my way, because I mean it wasn’t the first time they’d done it, it was the third or the fourth or the fifth time they done it, but I stopped deliberately, you know, half way through the second bar, and just randomly abruptly shouted, but then started playing again exactly where the phrase would have continued, [laughter] which I thought was quite good fun. I mean it wasn’t, if you were one of the dancers who was attempting to do a pirouette while I did that, I’m sorry, because I know I didn’t help or support you in that particular time, but it was needed. And I can’t remember. The other one is, if I don’t know the people’s names who I want to say, “Oi, move!” You know, if I could, I could quite easily, “Oi, John,” or “Oi, Naomi, move!” But if I don’t know the names, that’s when I struggle so I’ll be going “Oi! Oi! Move!” 

MG: But that’s ballet etiquette. You should never turn your back on the pianist, and never stand in front of the pianist. That’s what you learn in your, in Grade 1 or something, you know, and that should you know, last you a whole career hopefully. 

AH: I envy that you guys can shout at the dancers, so I’ve got a problem that my . . . English is my second language, so when I’m playing the piano, I can talk in Japanese, but I really struggle to talk in English, so there’s no way that, while I’m playing the piano, I shout at the dancers in English, so I just tend to be very quiet. 

CH: It might have an even better effect if you just scream in Japanese at them, because they wouldn’t expect it. 

AH: Shall I try next time? 

CH: Let’s try, when this distancing thing finishes, give it a go, because it’s not going to work if you shout at somebody on Zoom, is it. 

AH: That’s true! 

CH: I’ve just been reminded, when I used to have Twitter, I think I got really peed off with this once in a class, and I wrote a tweet saying how angry I was, and I used the hashtag #dancersbum as part of my tweet, I didn’t tag it with the location, or the place where I was working at, and it was probably over a decade ago now. So the management of that place has. . . 

MG: Dancer’s bum? 

CH: Yeah, #dancersbum, or #dancersbums or something like that, hash tagged. I’m glad I’ve grown up a little bit now. 

MG: Just a little bit. 

CH: Just a little bit. Well on that note, I’m going to go away and attempt to grow up a little bit more. We really do hope that you’ve enjoyed this second distancing episode that we’ve recorded. As always you can contact us via our social media to get any questions to us that you would like to do, and please also do not forget to subscribe or like us via your podcast platform that you’re listening on, to ensure that you’ll never miss an episode. So join us next time where we will be discussing petit allegro and medium allegro. Is that right Matt? 

MG: Warm-up jumps going into medium allegro, absolutely. 

CH: So it’s going to bigger and bigger. The ante’s going up a little bit, isn’t it. Well, basically between now and the end of the series that we’re recording, the ante’s going up every episode, isn’t it. 

MG: Yeah, we’re climaxing to grand allegro. 

CH: We’re climaxing in episode 18 I think, we’ll schedule that in the diary. Big climax. So on that note, it’s goodbye from me. 

MG: Goodbye from me

AH: Bye bye

DY: Goodbye. 

[MUSIC: Ballet Piano Podcast ident] 

. . . ENDS. . .

© 2020 Ballet Piano Podcast (Christopher Hobson, Matt Gregory, Akiko Hobson, David Yow)
 Producer: Christopher Hobson

Transcription by Jonathan Still 13/05/2020 09:19:00

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