Ballet Piano – On Point
Last January, when pianist Geoffrey Lee (MM ‘20) heard about a SFCM winter term course in Ballet accompaniment, he had no idea he’d be asked to step out on the dance floor in a room full of mirrors to practice pliés and arabesques—words he barely knew let alone movements he could execute.
“I’m so bad at dancing,” he says “and it looked pretty ugly, but the experience was really fun and it helped me understand what dancers are looking for and how you are supposed to play and feel.”
With his dream of a solo career as a pianist nurtured since he was five, Lee had never accompanied dance and knew nothing about classical ballet. What drew him to the winter course was its component of piano improvisation, an essential skill needed for accompanying ballet.
This winter-term course, offered through the Conservatory’s Collaborative Piano program, is the fruit of a unique collaboration between two world-class institutions only blocks away from each other: the SF Ballet School and SFCM. And it’s one of the only such graduate level courses available across all U.S. conservatories and music schools. Now in its third iteration, the program has been enormously successful as four SFCM students and alums currently have part-time contracts as pianists at SF Ballet School, and Lee landed his within weeks of finishing the class.
So how did this joint institutional adventure begin? Four years ago, SF Ballet music director Martin West and pianist Jamie Narushchen approached Timothy Bach, SFCM’s Collaborative Piano chair, about a growing need at the SF Ballet School. “They needed pianists to play for the classes and also for the company,” says Bach.
It wasn’t easy to find accompanists for those classes. Adds Narushchen, “it’s a real niche position, and, at the time, there was a real shortage. We saw that SFCM had these winter term mini-courses and thought that could be a great venue and time to offer this through the Conservatory.”
“I met Jamie and we tried to find a way to intersect,” Bach continues. “When our winter term came into focus, we found the perfect match.”
After West and Narushchen brainstormed with Bach and others at SFCM about logistics, Narushchen started organizing materials and a Ballet Piano curriculum geared to its specialized skill set and challenges—among them, the distinct ways dancers and musicians understand rhythm and tempos; the need for improvisatory approaches to accompanying dancers as they move through their exercise routines, positions, and combinations; learning to watch dancers’ feet while discerning a ballet master’s tempos; and also assimilating the vocabulary and language of classical ballet. Enter the pliés and arabesques.
“The course has turned into a study of rhythmic gesture,” says Narushchen, “I want them to activate the meter and not be afraid of doing a real downbeat. Sometimes pianists are afraid to do that because they don’t want to sound like they’re pounding on a piece of music, and here’s the one. So that’s the first thing you have to learn. When I was at Peabody, I remember Leon Fleischer would often ask students to count out loud. And a lot of students would resist, thinking, ‘come on, I’m a Conservatory student and you’re going to ask me to count aloud?’ But that’s a very easy way to train the mind and eventually not count, so you feel the music and rhythm as breathing. And breathing the music, how you phrase things, is very important in Ballet Piano.”
Back to student Geoffrey Lee. He puts the challenge this way: “Ballet dancers think about phrasing using their bodies. The teacher will show a dance combination, and it’s phrased in four-bar phrases. So as a musician, your job is basically to produce improvised phrases that have a clear four bar structure because if you can’t hear the phrasing, the dancers get lost.”
“Jamie [Narushchen] talks about the physics of your playing,” Lee adds. “You have to respect that dancers are bound by the laws of gravity. And this has really changed my relationship to meter. If I play a piece for dancers, the rubato [slightly changing the tempo to make a musical phrase or expression] I take is something that has to be danceable.”
Another one of Narushchen’s students, Xiao Xiao Ji (’18) took the course after she’d finished her Master’s and re-enrolled at SFCM in the Collaborative Piano program. She found the improvisatory elements of ballet accompaniment quite challenging as well as the different ideas of rhythm and tempo she encountered among dance teachers and dancers. “With dancers,” she says, “you always have to follow them and react quickly. You have to look at the feet, keeping the rhythm on the left hand steady. The left hand keeps the tempo. But each dance teacher may have a different sense of rhythm and tempo, so you have to adjust. Some do plié in two counts. Some in three. Jamie explained that when we work with dancers, we follow the accent. And each step may have a different accent.”
As a classically trained pianist, Ji had had no prior experience with improvisation. “After the winter term, I started playing some [ballet] classes,” she recounts. “On the first day, I was so nervous, playing a master class given by Sofiane Sylve, a principal dancer of the SF Ballet. Jamie stayed with me.”
It went well enough that Ji was given a contract last February, and she now considers the ballet gig her favorite current job, even as she recently returned from a music tour in China.
Unlike Ji, Katelyn Tan [MM ‘20] began working at SF Ballet prior to pursuing her masters at SFCM. A classical pianist with some experience in jazz improvisation, she says improvising is useful because it enhances your understanding of harmony. “Classical musicians don’t learn to process harmony that quickly,” says Tan. “We learn it when we take music theory classes, analyze pieces, and delve into a Brahms sonata by looking very closely at the harmony. But we don’t practice it in a way where you have to know in the moment of playing where the music is going. Music doesn’t stop, and when you improvise you have to know how the harmony is moving and process that quickly. That’s why it can be helpful for developing your ear. You can pull out a chord chart and produce something very quickly.”
Narushchen describes this year’s course, which begins with a four-day session in January: “I give them a handout of music to learn, to work on some basic progressions. I’ve also written out some tunes. And then I’ve taken the same melody and re-written it to match different dance combinations so they can see how it can be adjusted to elucidate the different rhythms that they need for six different ballet combinations. I want the pianists to learn them so they can play without looking at the music. And then they get to play for a class. We sit them down and say, ‘give it a shot.’ They do that for a few days in a row. And then we watch a SF Ballet Company pianist accompany a rehearsal. So you see the full circle, and what it means to be really good when someone’s done this a lot.”
Tan says the course and her work experience with ballet piano have made her a better musician. “It’s opened many doors for me,” she says. “It’s the difference between being a pianist and being a well-rounded musician. Ballet piano gives you a sense of the professional world and what other careers there are for pianists. And the class provides a safe environment to learn about it, to learn how to improvise using chord charts, and how to be a better performer. But you have to be willing to make mistakes. If you don’t make them, you don’t get better.”
SFCM offers piano students who want to learn the art of accompaniment and ensemble performance a special place in our keyboard department. More about the Collaborative Piano program here.