Ready for a better way to use digital music in the studio? Click to check out Ballegro! Discount Code: THEBARREPIANIST2020 for 10% off!

Rough Beginnings and Special Times: The Life of a Ballet Accompanist

This blog is a little different, ok, a LOT different. I wanted to take a little bit of time to share a few stories of my accompanist/musician experiences in the ballet studios of my life.. from my side of the piano; some rough, some special and some funny.

Rough Beginnings

19 years ago I walked into my first ballet class to play for the first time with a small but mighty mix of photocopies (that another accompanist had given me) that would be perfect for ballet class. Warm up was fine, plies, fine.. tendus, things started getting rough, the teacher was frustrated by my inability to adjust tempo on the fly because I wasn't looking up to pick up on her tempo cues and so went the rest of the class. It seemed like my tempos were never right, and with new music that I needed to look at, I wasn't looking up nearly enough for her teaching preferences and so the tempos continued to be off for the whole class. My type A, perfectionist, first-born soul was dying by the end of barre..I just wanted to crawl in a hole and never come out; I still had to play all of centre yet though. Centre was easier in the beginning until we got to jumps. Hi yi yi.. all I could think of was, "kill me now." The teacher wanted music for warm up sautes that emphasized the landing, so, not a piece of music that went & 1 & 2...but rather, 1 & 2 & etc. These days I know exactly what she was looking for, but, at that point in my life as a ballet accompanist, I did not have the foggiest clue what she wanted.  I kept playing different 2/4s.. trying to play them slower (nope, she didn't want that), trying to play them brighter (nope, she didn't want that).. trying a different one but still a & 1 & 2 & 3 etc. Nothing that I played was good.. nothing.. I remember crying behind the piano because I honestly had no idea what she wanted so I couldn't even fix the problem.

Another teacher that I played for in that first year was an older gentleman who hailed from Europe somewhere. He was of another time and place and though he had a rich and wonderful dancer career history, his teacher training and human relations was less than exemplary. If I didn't play the tempo or quality that he wanted, he'd come to the piano and smack the lid of it.. "Why you not play like this??!"

I cried while playing the piano a lot that year. I don't know what kept me playing for ballet except for a very serious stubborn streak that doesn't give up easily and a strong sense that God wanted me there. The amount of emotions and mental gymnastics that I processed through that year was harder than anything I had ever done in my life. In retrospect, I understand that the teachers were under time pressure and had expectations for their students' development that could not be met if they 'wasted' too much time at the piano teaching me about ballet.

The journey of learning to accompany ballet classes plus, much more recently, working with ballet teachers, privately, to explain music accents to them has led me to the place I am today; wanting to explain music, it's accents and teach ballet teachers how to use it capably.

So, those were some of the rough beginnings in my ballet accompanist life, let's spin 180 degrees and take a look at some of the best of times now, shall we?

Special & Memorable Times

Working one on one in my home, giving privates to teachers who are going into ballet teaching exams, helping them hear, understand and physically count and move to specific time signatures and music that are not intuitive to them, that is most definitely awesome for me! During one particular teaching exam that I was playing for, I actually made a little mini poster that said "You've got this! You're a rock star!!" with stickers all over it and slyly hung it on the back of the piano after I came in. If the examiner knew about it, she never mentioned it, but the teacher doing the exam was so happy and smiley and probably one of the most relaxed ballet teachers I've ever seen in her exam! 

Another highlight is that after playing in this ballet world for so long and always remaining in the same country (Canada is big country, geographically, but ballet is a small world here), I've been able to play for several dancers as children and then years later, play for them at a company level as professional ballet dancers.  It is really special to watch them develop and become what their goal was so many years ago.

A third highlight, which I had forgotten about until I was recently reminded by some very special music I inherited was an accompanist composer club that I was a part of years ago at the RWB (Royal Winnipeg Ballet). There were 3 of us that would get together, make a list of different ballet exercises and then divvy it up between us. We would then have to compose original music for our specific exercises before the next time we got together, at which point we'd play our compositions for each other. Pretty fun!

Another experience that I had more recently was when I was touring with a choir. We had band and choir workshops at a university in L.A. and as we walked the halls in the fine arts building, we passed a massive ballet studio with glass all along one wall. It was beautiful and there was a grand piano being played while dancers were doing pirouettes across the floor. I watched from the door for a bit and they invited me in and asked what my interest was. When they found out I was a ballet accompanist from Alberta, Canada, they offered the piano for the second side.  I cannot even explain to you the magic that I felt as I settled into the keys and confidently and comfortably improvised a stellar waltz for them.. They loved it and asked if I'd stay. lol. Nope, I'm going home to my dancers, to my school, to my family, to my people, but for a brief 5 minutes, there was this wonderful experience where it doesn't matter where you're from, how old you are, why you're even there, it just matters that you know what you're doing and you're totally invested in supporting what's happening in the studio in that moment. It was a really neat experience of ballet community and it still brings a smile to my face. 

Finally, to close, a short funny story for you of something that happened to me when I was still working at the RWB.

Anyone who has worked at the RWB knows that there is a physio/massage area that is available for employees, dancers and students of the professional division there, at least it was when I worked there. Anyway, I was in and getting some heat on me before I got massaged and Evelyn Hart (Yes, the Evelyn Hart) was getting worked on, on the next table over; she was still dancing full-time professionally at that time. She LOVES to visit and chat and was having a great conversation with the physio guy. She was regaling him with the fact that if she were to get any work done on her face, she would get her lips done because she wanted to have bigger lips like... she looks around the room, looks at me and says.. " like her! I want lips like her." lol. Funny funny.. I'd never even thought about my lips before, but it turned out that they were wonderful enough to inspire the great Evelyn Hart to want them. I had spent most of my recent insecure thinking wishing I were slimmer and more 'perfect looking', like the dancers that I saw all around me.. turns out, I had one particularly great feature all along! It was a pivotal moment for me to begin to care less about what I looked like and decide to choose a different perspective.. it turns out that few are truly content with how they look, even ballerinas.

I hope you enjoyed this little 'photo album' of sorts of my life as a ballet accompanist.. there is so much more, but I'll save it for another day.

Love yourself, love what you do and never, ever give up!

Working with a pianist soon? Do you wish you felt more prepared?

 Sign up here to nab your free 3 page PDF guide for ballet teachers who want to be more prepared and capable when it comes to working with a pianist!

(I promise to never, EVER, give or sell your email address to anyone because I wouldn't want that done to me!)


50% Complete

Two Step

Hey! Great to see you here! Listen, if you're a ballet teacher who loves to learn about music in relation to ballet classes, you're in the right place!  Sign up to get a free recording and stay in the loop with monthly newsletters and alerts about new blog posts.