Episode 17 – Music for Ballet Virtuosity

Listen to this week’s episode all about virtuosity and the impressive tricks the dancers perform in the studio and on stage.  You’ll hear David talk about the various steps and tricks that are considered virtuosic, and the pianists talk about the music typically used to accompany this section of class.  It’s what is better known as the ‘coda’, the encore if you like and comes right at the end of class.  

This episode contains some funny anecdotes from the team as well as important information for novice pianists about playing for the coda for the first time, and how to gain confidence in the early years of playing for class. 

Music referenced in this episode


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]

MG: Hello podcast fans, welcome to another episode of the The Ballet Piano Podcast. We are still coming to you from our social distancing, we’re not out of the woods yet, so keep hanging in there, stay positive and productive, and if you’re stuck for something to do, why don’t you download all of our previous episodes and listen from the start, or, go to our website and buy yourself some merchandise. Isn’t that a good idea? 

CH: It’s a fabulous idea Matt! 

MG: But anyway, back to business, I’m Matt Gregory, and on Zoom with me is the amazing podcast team—Chris Hobson 

CH: Hi Matt

MG: Akiko Hobson 

AH: Hello 

MG: And hashtag David Yow of Instagram

DY: Hi Matt! 

MG: So we have reached the final part of the ballet class, and today we’re talking about virtuosity which is the really fun part; and if you’re not familiar with virtuosity is, I think I know a man that can explain exactly what it means. Hi David! [laughter] It’s over to you! 

DY: Oh dear! So no pressure then! 

MG: So what’s virtuosity? 

DY: Virtuosity is, it’s the showing-off things, you’re showing off your technique, you know when you’re pianists, how fast you can play something, how bright you can do it, those kind of things, so I guess it’s like the icing or the cherry on the cake, shall we say, really, and there are a number of ways to do that in ballet, we can turn, so we’re not leaving the floor, but we can maybe do a very brilliant turn, like a multiple turn that just keeps going and going, that’s very impressive. Anything that’s impressive really. A series of turns that go from one position into another position, or they turn from one leg on to another leg, and of course, when we’re getting into like a series of things, now that’s another thing. So you can do like a singular step, like a turn, or a jump that’s impressive, or you can do a series of things, or jumps that are impressive, and they can be either sur place—remember what that meant?—“on the spot” or they can be round the room, or tour de la salle, en diagonal, or they could be around the room, they could be a manège

MG: So is this—this is typically at the end of the class, isn’t it, after grand allegro, typically. 

DY: Absolutely 

MG: This is the fun bit, isn’t it?

DY: This is the fun bit, where you just let rip really. It’s just, you’ve just got to show off, and so at the end of the class when you’ve done all your technique things and you’ve got all that out of the way, then everybody has a bit of fun and they, you know, you start showing off your turns or your jumps, or your turning jumps really. So let’s say, how many turns can the boys do or the girls do? It’s amazing, I’ve seen on YouTube these, it doesn’t make any difference whether you’re a lady or a gentleman these days, there are some amazing turners in the world, I have to say, it’s quite impressive. 

MG: Yeah, yeah. 

DY: And then of course there are the famous turns 

MG: I feel like we’re in that age now. 

DY: We are. Everything’s become so athletic now, so it is breathtaking, though, I have to say. 

MG: Yeah 

DY: Famous turns are like, let’s say, the 32 fouettés in Act 3 of Swan Lake that Odile does, that famous piece of music, or turns in second for the gentlemen, that they might do in Le Corsaire or Don Q[uixote] or let’s say jumping things: a singular step might be a big, big jump that we’ve done in class but we just really really show off, we split the legs as far as they can go in the air, or we turn as much as we can, or we jump as high as we can. 

MG: Would you say that this is, well this is the coda, essentially, of a ballet? 

DY: Yes, it would be

MG: Is this where all the tricks happen? This is the bright two isn’t it? 

DY: Yes, it is. 

MG: It’s usually at the end of all the solos and stuff 

DY: Always, yes, yes, always. 

MG: And so the teacher in class, the teacher—well, David, you are the teacher

CH: David, you’ve been teaching us everything for a long time, you’re responsible for all my knowledge. 

MG: I know! For seventeen episodes you’ve been teaching us, David! 

DY: You guys have done the same thing for me as well. 

CH: David, I now know what sur place means. I’ve never known what sur placemeans and now thanks to you, I DO! [AH laughs]

MG: We also know what a lame duck is, now. 

CH: I always think of the virtuosity step—section—at the end of class when we’ve finished, it’s a little bit like the encore, isn’t it, you know, if you’ve been to a gig to see your favourite band or something like that, and then they come back out, and they play those last couple of greatest hits, it’s, this is just, like “Come on!”

DY: This is my trick and I’m going to show off. 

CH: This is my trick and I’m going to do it for as long as I can [5:18]

DY: A virtuoso sequence of steps when you just repeat, repeat, repeat, repeat, it’s all about the position and the speed perhaps of something, and just being able to repeat it again and again, that’s what’s impressive. It’s just like, you know, when you’re using like, your fingers very fast going up and down the scales, that’s really impressive, it’s the same kind of thing, I guess. 

CH: Yeah. 

MG: This coda music that is played at the end of class, this really bright two, this is where all the dancers just sort of find a space in the centre and pile in, and this is where they fit their virtuosic steps into that music, so the ladies you know, do their fouettés, and the men do their turns in second, and then if they find there’s space in a circle, they can fit a manége in, and all sorts of things, and then entrechats six, and they all fit it into that lovely bright two, which we know in ballet as the “coda.”

CH: It’s such fun when it happens. And you can feel the energy in the room just like, you know, lift off and I think on the piano it’s brilliant. 

MG: What’s that like when you’re actually a dancer, and you’re surrounded by all that talent and all the dancers doing their tricks? 

DY: It’s really exciting. It kind of like eggs you on, it’s like a competition, you know, you’re trying to show off, and you know, show what you’ve been doing and what you’re capable of doing. So, at the piano what’s it like? What’s it like when you’re, you know, because it goes on for a long time doesn’t it, because there’s loads of people and you’ve. . . and because they’re virtuoso steps you can’t all do them all at once sometimes, so you have to keep going. What’s that like? 

MG: That’s the best, I love it, I love playing for the coda, and sometimes the teachers at company just squeeze it into the last two minutes, but it needs about five minutes because the men want to keep jumping and turning, and even when class is over they keep practising their virtuosic stuff and I wish the coda bit was a bit longer. 

DY: It just takes so long to get to that stage, because you can’t do the coda until you’ve done everything else that comes before 

CH: Of course, yeah. 

DY: So you’ve got to warm the body up, you know, like the engine of a car, you’ve got to warm it up properly so that by the time it goes into race mode, it’s OK, everything’s firing at the right speed, and you’re not going to hurt yourself. I guess it would be like trying to do like a whole series of scales and things when you’re fingers are absolutely freezing cold. 
CH: Yeah. You’ve not done the warm-up, you’ve not prepared for it properly. 

MG: Yeah, yeah. 

DY: It’s the same sort of thing. So. . . not that you couldn’t do it, but you’d probably hurt yourself. Do yourself a mischief. 
[MUSIC: Ballet Piano Podcast ident] [7:57]

MG: So kids, what about music? We’ve just said it’s a really nice, bright two, it’s your oom-cha oom-cha oom-cha oom-cha, isn’t it, your nice bright twos for music. What do we like playing for it? 
CH: For me, I go two camps—well, possibly more than two camps, but in my head it’s two camps, it’s codas from classical ballets, or everything else, and everything else, that includes 

DY: What do you mean by everything else? 

CH: Everything else, ah, you know, stuff from musical theatre, you know, I don’t know, anything else that 

AH: I thought you were going to say We Will Survive

CH: We Will Survive is in there as anything else. “Everything else” I class it as. And I have two categories in my head for that, and, I think I tend to start off with something quite traditional usually, you know, it’ll be a coda from a classical ballet, if the company’s not performing Swan Lake and it’s—or if we’re in school and, you know, that tends to be, you know, a bog-standard go-to, doesn’t it, the big G major [sings the coda from “Black Swan” Pas de deux, in Swan Lake] but from there you can go absolutely anywhere, can’t you. 

MG: Yeah, yeah. I always start off with, I always play a little Stars and Stripesmedley, you know, the Balanchine ballet, those Sousa marches, they work really well. 

DY: Oh, they’re great, aren’t they 

MG: Yeah, and it’s stuff that they, you know, they don’t do in companies here, those Balanchine, those ballets, so I throw some of that in, and then I’ll just play this really, I’ll play the bass line to Thriller by Michael Jackson 

CH: Brilliant!

AH: Wow. 

MG: And then, you know, just keep that bass line going and then into Eurhythmics Sweet Dreams are Made of This or something like that, and then 

CH: Nice 

MG: It’s just a chance, it’s a chance to really just mix it up isn’t it

AH: Gosh, you guys are so creative. I just tend to improvise. 

CH: I quite like, what’s the Coldplay one, is it Viva la Vida [sings a bit of the song]

MG: Oh yes. 

CH: I quite like that, because that’ll go on for a long time, and if I’m switched on in class—which is all the time dancers!—and I’ve noticed, and I know that we’re about halfway through this virtuosic step on this coda, when we get to about the middle of the groups I’ll try and play Halfway There, Bon Jovi, just because it had to go from F minor to G minor and have that nice big key change, stick in a glissando, because let’s face it, anything goes by this point doesn’t it, whatever you’ve got energy to do, you can rattle off the hemi-demi-semiquavers if you want to, or we could go a little bit slower, and just play crotchets, and mix it up between the two, but anything does go. 

AH: Yeah, if it continues, yeah, it’s good. 

MG: Yeah, going back to what you said, Akiko, I improvise as well, as long as I get into my oom-cha oom-cha 

AH: Yeah, I just can’t keep coming up to the tune after tune so, I might start with you know, some sort of tune that everybody knows and then in between I improvise and then will come back to something else, but yeah, I can’t just keep coming tune after tune. 

DY: I was going to ask that question, do you, like, have a ser[ies], like a list of your favourites that you play straight away, and then you kind of start improvising then? 

MG: I have some natural segues of things that I know are in keys that go nicely into other keys and things like that. 

DY: So if you were like a novice pianist, and you were like, asked to play a manège, sort of like a coda, how many tunes would you have to think about having to start with so that you’re comfortable knowing that you can go from one to the other for a certain amount of time? 

CH: I would say if you get four tunes together 

MG: Yeah 

CH: Maybe get four tunes together from four different genres, so you could start with something classical, or even stick two classical ones together, you could start with say your Swan Lake, and your Le Corsaire coda, and then something that’s a little bit more modern, maybe a pop tune, and maybe, you know, one of the marches or something like that as we were saying earlier, and then you’ve got four that you know, and work out you know how to get between the keys and then. . . but then, it’s funny isn’t it, because a coda is basically anything, it doesn’t really matter what the melody is sometimes, it can be pretty much anything that’s got an oom-cha underneath it, so as long as you’ve got that, you know, constant thumping of, you know, oom-cha oom-cha oom-cha, you can do everything to it. 

MG: I would suggest for a novice pianist a good place to start is the classics

DY: Right 

MG: Because the dancers will do the turns in second and the fouettés to that music they know from the ballets, and the novice pianist is learning the feel of a coda, so that they can bring new tunes and new repertoire into that feel. 

DY: That’s true, yeah. 

MG: So, you know, learning the classics is a good place to start for coda, I think 

DY: That’s good

AH: Once you know the accent you can just change to you know, pop tunes or whatever 

CH: Or another good go-to I think for anybody for a coda, is going to be Be our guest from Beauty and the Beast because it goes on forever, and it changes key three or four times and people never seem to get bored of it. [laughter] I’ve been playing that all of my career and people still enjoy it, or they pretend that they enjoy it. 

DY: No, no, we love it. 

MG: Or Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious because the tune’s as long as the title [laughter]

AH: Yeah

MG: There’s lots of little things. I tell you what else works really good on a 2/4 as well, the coda rhythm, is when teachers or ballet masters and what-have-you just through in a zig-zag jeté from the corner. 

CH: Yeah. 

DY: Yup. 

MG: And it’s a chance for the ladies and the men to do lovely big jetés and then they’re crossing, you know, after four counts or whatever, and it just looks lovely in the room, and it’s a nice, it’s a nice big climax and they can just really let loose, so that also works on that coda rhythm. 

CH: I do like a coda, and musically like, just going back to what you were saying, David, earlier, what’s it like to play for, we’ve done this big heavy grand allegro which can go on forever sometimes as we said last week, which is physically quite demanding especially if you’ve got a full company you’re playing for, and the coda, all right yeah, there’s a lot of notes that you’re going to play in this, and it’s going to go on for a relatively long period of time, but it’s not heavy, it’s not like. . . so you can be zooming, you’re skimming up and down the piano doing these relatively fast scales and arpeggios and things, but you’re not putting weight into the piano, you’re not being as physical as you are with a grand allegro, so you know, so your emotion and your heart is still in this but it’s, for us it’s not as physical, so it’s actually, you know, it’s easier to be more virtuosic at this coda tempo. 

DY: Oh wow, I didn’t know that. 

MG: It’s nice though, it’s nice though when you’re playing a coda and you’re, you know, like you say, it goes on for a while, so the music can just develop and develop and then you can think of where am I going next with this tune, or what’s going to pop in and going to change up the rhythm, because once you set that coda tempo and that metre, it’s pretty solid, and then you can fit quite a lot into that rhythm and metre. 

DY: Are you aware how many bars you’re playing before you start changing your tunes or anything? 

MG: Well, I always look to a person that’s coming into the room, I’m thinking right, she might do 32 fouettés here, or . . . I’m not thinking musically at this point, I’m thinking what is the dancer doing, I’m sort of counting her fouettésor counting the turns in second, and I sort of know, what, in my music when the phrase is coming to an end, and if it’s the last person you do this, you know, this stab chord while they pull in for seven, eight pirouettes, and then finish with them. But I’m more . . . yeah, the coda, I’m always watching what dancer’s coming in and out of the centre, or if anyone’s going to come from the corner and do a manège, so I’m always looking, and because it’s, you know, it’s collision time if they’re not careful, so many people doing different things, so I just have to keep my eyes open and accompany the person . . . and I also adjust the tempo, because sometimes the men come in and they do like three pirouettes à la seconde into turns in second into turns in second really, really quick, and then, you know, they’re putting hops in and all sorts of things, attitudes devantattitudes derrière, they’re putting all sorts of things in so, you know, there might be three or four people doing the exercise at that point, but I try and look at the person who is most rhythmical and on the music, and try and, you know, get the tempo from them generally. What do you think guys?

AH: It’s very hard, like, you know, if the girls are doing fouettés like three or four of them, one of them is just doing singles, the other doing doubles, the other one is putting a triple in between there, and then you know, you just have to, kind of go in-between, don’t you. 

CH: Yeah, I think if that happens to me, I just do generic coda tempo, I’ll go for something that’s not going to be too fast, but that’s not going to be too slow either, because every dancer, I mean, correct me if I’m wrong, David, but I think every dancer does have their own natural rhythm for these things, and their own natural tempo 

DY: Yeah, they do 

CH: So you know, it’s good when you’re in training and things like that, be it class or school and company, to try and push that slower or faster, but they’re always going to have this default go-to setting and tempo. 

DY: So when you say generic kind of like tempo, Chris, is that from experience that you know that, or 

CH: I think so yeah 

AH: I think so 

CH: Or it can be the tempo that the teacher has set at the start of the exercise so they go, oh we’ll have a coda Chris [sings tempo] 

DY: OK, ah right. 

CH: And then I’ll stick around that, I’ll adjust it slightly but I’ll stick within those parameters really, I mean, like I had a tricky situation a couple of years ago playing somewhere and it was for an audition and they had a group, let’s say there was 40 students coming one by one from the corner, just doing piqué turns, but on a coda rhythm, and they were doing, I think it was 16 from the corner, and then doing something at the end, but they were coming in every eight counts, of course, the music was too fast or too slow, so they said well just watch the dancers—speed up and slow down, so I thought, well I don’t know any of these dancers, I can’t see, I can’t read the future, and also, if I’m changing half way through, that’s going to ruin it for the people who are already doing it, I was like, you either let them do the whole exercise 

DY: Exactly 

CH: . . . and stop, and then we’ll have to work out what tempo we want for each dancer, or they’ll just have to just have a generic tempo and see how we get on with it. Thankfully time got the better of us with that one, so I managed to just do a generic tempo the whole way through [laughter] and therefore win the argument 

AH: Or like, you know, by the end of the class, like you know which dancer is very musical, so you just kind of tend to adjust to this one, the musical dancers, because they give us a better understanding you know, speed. 

CH: Sure. Not that we have favourite dancers in a school or a company or anything, but if you’ve been having a great you know, “eye” relationship with somebody, you’ve had decent communication through the eyes and things like that, and you’ve seen somebody who’s dancing on your music, if they come in, your eyes are instantly going to be drawn to them, and you’re going to make micro adjustments in your tempo for these people. 

MG: That is so true 

CH: . . . because they’ve been the ones who’ve been working with you for that whole class 

AH: It is such a benefit being a musical dancer, isn’t it, yeah. 

CH: And that’s the best bit about our job

DY: I was going to ask you, Matt, I was going to ask you because as a former dancer, well, you dance as well as you play, so do you approach it in a different way then? 

MG: Well, firstly I never danced to the level of a principal dancer, but when I’m accompanying, I’m just very sensitive, and I’ll try and find the tune where it’s up on the one, you know, on the relevé on one, and then plié’s on the “and,” let’s say, for turns in second. I’m just very sensitive. But I was going to ask you, because the virtuosic steps are, they’re very individual because it’s done by the principal dancers and so even in the ballets they sometimes tailor their solos and tailor their codas to put their own tricks in and so that’s going to affect the tempo when they practise it in class. Is that something that you can relate to. 

DY: Er, it’s a double-edged sword! Being perfectly correct, yes, I do understand that it’s a personal thing because it’s virtuosic, and you want to show off what you’re good at. But there is . . . at some level there needs to be a sense of discipline, that you are in tune and in tempo with the person who’s playing for you, or the conductor because that’s also really important, that you’re able to actually gauge how long it’s going to take you to do something, and if you know that this is your favourite thing to do, but it takes you a long time then you know you’re going to have to pinch some time from somewhere in order to do you thing and show off, and often, that’s, you know, these days, it’s something that needs to be always adhered to really so that you can do that, you know, it’s lovely when you get the orchestra to hold back for you, but you know, trying to hold back 40-odd musicians is not easy, you know. 

MG: I’ve got a little story on the flip-side of that, I was sat in the audience of Swan Lake once, and we get to third act, you know, the “black act” [i.e. Black Swan] as it were, and the codas happen, and the fouettés I was so scared because they were so fast and I could see the M[usical] D[irector] waving his arms like a maniac; and we all know that famous coda, from, you know, the fouettés, it was so fast, I was panicked in my seat, I remember thinking, this is so quick, and obviously that’s the preference of the ballerina who was on stage, she must have had that word with the conductor to say this is how quick I want it, but yeah, I felt really tense and panicked in my seat—until the guy’s coda came in, and it sort of went back to normal tempo. 

DY: Right. Back to normal. 

CH: It’s like everybody had a train to catch. 

DY: We always used to — well I was going to say, we used to know when it was a Saturday night, when a certain conductor would just like put his head down and you knew, you had to get your skates on, because it was Saturday night and we had to catch the last train. 

CH: Well I remember I was, again, when I was younger, when I was up at the company up north, which shall remain nameless, it’s this generic northern company where I once worked, and at some rehearsal for the ballet that we were playing, that we were, you know, taking back out on the road, and one of the guys came up to me, one of the first cast, and he was like “Jesus, Chris, what’s going on with you, you’re really quick today,” and I was like, “Well it’s the tempo we did it last Saturday,” without thinking, and he said “Yes, that was last Saturday. This is Tuesday: get a grip!” [laughter]

MG: Well, listeners, that’s it for another episode, and the ballet class might be over, but this series isn’t. The next episode is our Q&A, this is a chance for you to ask us anything about this ballet class series, or anything you would like to ask about ballet and/or music generally. We have over six decades of experience working in the ballet world, so hopefully we can answer your question. Also if you want to email us any comments we’ll read them out on the podcast. We’d love to hear from you, our listeners, our email address is balletpianopodcast@gmail.com so please get in touch that way or by direct messaging us on Facebook and Instagram @balletpianopodcast. So we’ll see you on that episode, but in the meantime, it’s goodbye from me 

CH: Goodbye from me

AH: Bye bye

DY: Bye 

[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 9/05/2020 09:10:00

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