Accessibility links


Sign In
  • Home
  • News
  • The role of a Ballet Pianist: What it takes to accompany The Royal Ballet

The role of a Ballet Pianist: What it takes to accompany The Royal Ballet

Jette Parker Young Artist Helen Nicolas on what it takes to work with The Royal Ballet.

By Jenny Gilbert (Dance journalist)

7 February 2013 at 5.53pm | 4 Comments

Musicians working in ballet often have to find their own way into the very specific musical world of dance. The Royal Opera House’s Jette Parker Young Artists Programme is one of the few places offering expert coaching and the unique experience of working with The Royal Ballet.

‘The young conductors or pianists that come to us may decide after six months that ballet work is not for them, but at least that will be an informed decision,’ explained The Royal Ballet’s Director of Music, Barry Wordsworth. ‘I could give endless examples of talented musicians being quite unnecessarily put off working in dance just because of a bad first day.’

Both conducting and playing for ballet, Barry explains, involve inside knowledge, not least the awareness that dancers don’t work by bar numbers. ‘Instead they’ll say “let’s go from my pas de chat”, so the musicians who don’t know their pas de chat from their entrechat six are completely flummoxed.’

23-year-old Jette Parker Young Artist Helen Nicholas began the programme at the start of September 2012 and, after a period of observing what went on in the studios, now finds herself working alongside the ballet music staff, playing for rehearsals and coaching sessions. She cut her teeth on the music for Liam Scarlett’s ballet Viscera, and was been heavily involved in The Nutcracker. The baptism of fire that is Company class is imminent.

Improvising at the keyboard for daily class is a challenge for any pianist, and Helen is typical in feeling that nothing in her previous training has prepared her for it. ‘You can have the best technique in the world, and that won’t help you. You can be a good jazz improviser, but that’s not going to help in a roomful of ballet dancers. This is all about producing music that fits the steps – not only in tempo, but also feel and mood. It’s got to motivate the dancers to do that particular step, and you have ten seconds, at most, to decide how you’re going to do that, from the moment the person taking the class announces the next exercise.’

So far, she says, it’s been a case of trial and error in the staff classes she has volunteered to play for. But for her first full Company class she will prepare plenty of options, ‘including one tune for pliés in 4/4 and another for pliés in 3/4 – you never know which they’ll want.’

Another of the skills Helen has acquired in a few months on the programme is speed-reading. There’s no time to spend days on end practising a score, as she might for a solo recital, so she has learnt to prioritize: ‘Locate the danger points – usually tempo changes – and adapt any technical challenges to something more manageable. What’s important to keep in mind is that this isn’t about you giving an artistic performance, it’s about giving the dancers what they need.’

New technology offers another useful shortcut. ‘In the office we have access to a database of all the ballets we’re doing. Although I know The Nutcracker well, I watched it again on film, and discussed with Robert [Clark – Royal Ballet Head of Music and Helen’s mentor] the bits I’d probably be doing, and with which dancers. That way I can mark up my score in advance. As a new person, I don’t want to hold up the rehearsal while I fumble for the right page. The dancers will have done it a million times, and I need to be up to the speed of everyone else.’

Find out what it takes to conduct for ballet.

This article was adapted from a piece in About the House, the quarterly magazine received by the Friends of Covent Garden.

This article has 4 comments

  1. John responded on 8 February 2013 at 11:46am Reply

    Have the royal ballet considered doing a live webcast day like the royal opera did? It would be a real insight for people like me, who don't know much about the workings of a ballet company but would like to know more!

  2. For Helen and any other pianists looking for material for playing for ballet classes, Marina Surgan of Canada's National Ballet School has some excellent ballet class accompanying sheet music books. They are labeled with the names of the exercises with at least two selections (in different metres) for each type of exercise, as well as with the number of bars in the selection (most are 32 or 64, with the intro, usually 4 bars written and indicated as well). These sheet music books correspond with Ms. Surgan's ballet class cds which the ROH shop sells.

  3. Lynn Inglese responded on 17 October 2017 at 8:13pm Reply

    I have worked just about everywhere. Been offered jobs at Paris Opera and ABT, SFB, etc. etc. Have a repertory of about 60,000 tried and true including all the Big Ballet Scores and classic pop. If you don't have a trusted repertory of about 60,000 tunes ready to go instantaneously (that match the combination demonstrated() you had better stay home and bake cookies...Lynn Inglese - SFB, Lines, Marin, Academy of Ballet SF, Conservatory, etc. etc.

This article has 1 mention elsewhere

  1. La Via dell'Arpa:  TUESDAY’S GREY – 2ND JULY

Comment on this article

Your email will not be published

Website URL is optional