The following is the second half a two-part conversation with Richard Maddock, a Toronto-based musician who has been accompanying dance for twenty-five years. Go to Part One to hear his thoughts on the dialogue between accompanist and teacher and to learn more about Richard, including how he got his start playing for ballet at age fourteen! It’s a great story, you don’t want to miss it.
Below Richard talks about some of the necessities for any school hoping to or even considering collaborating with an accompanist for dance classes. His view from the piano bench is a great vantage point to appreciate the art form of dance and its dancers. I know you’ll find it inspiring.
Making Space For An Accompanist
Although I’m sure it is wonderful to have a grand piano available for dance classes, is it possible to get by with something that is more conservative in size?
Unless the ballet studio has a lot of space with a nice budget to work with, almost every studio I have ever worked with either has an upright acoustic piano or a small, apartment size piano. Either of these will do just fine for classes.
What would you recommend as the basic necessities for a studio that wants to provide equipment for a pianist?
It is preferable that the piano have enough power – that it is strongly-built and in good working condition — so that I can play with strength and with as wide a dynamic range as possible. Some pianos have more power than others.
The studio I work at has three studios – one large and two small — as well as a small theatre space that seats about 100 people. The two smaller studios and the theatre space have an upright acoustic piano, and the larger studio has a baby grand piano. I actually prefer to play on the upright acoustic pianos as I find their tone more appealing – not to mention the fact that I can get more emotion out of these pianos!
Every pianist has their own personal preference, but all of my colleagues agree that it is extremely important that the pianos be well-maintained and tuned on a consistent basis especially for improvisation, as a badly out-of-tune piano can adversely affect a musician’s inner hearing.
It is always preferable to play classes on an acoustic piano, even though electric pianos never go out of tune. I have the impression that electric pianos are quite often used by studios that don’t have an accompanist very often. If it is a full keyboard (88 keys) and touch sensitive with a sustain pedal, then these electric pianos are sufficient for classes as well.
If studio owners would like to buy a used piano that is in good condition and reasonably-priced, I would suggest that they contact a well-known and respected piano technician/tuner in their area. Of course, the purchase would be a tax write-off for the studio as well! The only cost afterwards is having the piano tuned three or four times a year if they want to take care of it.
Keeping the instruments covered when not in use will help to protect them. Also, be sure to keep the humidity levels in the studios as consistent as possible, and, once it’s been tuned, position the piano somewhere in the room where it won’t have to be moved to often. Following these practices will help the instruments maintain good tuning for longer periods of time.
What do you find most challenging about accompanying dance?
I find “free classes” for advanced dancers to be the most challenging, as quite often I am scheduled to play for three hours for the younger classes, and then immediately afterwards, I have to improvise at a much higher level of creativity for the advanced classes.
Last year, Kimberly Glasco (ex-ballerina from the National Ballet of Canada) came to our studio as a guest teacher and did a few master classes. I was very nervous at the start of the first class with Kimberly, but I soon relaxed! I enjoyed playing for her classes, and it was wonderful to see how the dancers looked up to her and wanted to do their very best, as most of them had seen Kimberly perform in ballets with the National Ballet.
After doing this for over twenty-five years, perhaps the most challenging thing is to go in five days a week and continue to be original in my composing/improvising — to continuously give inspirational melodies that suit each and every exercise all the time. I don’t like to be repetitive, as I believe that too much repetition is unhealthy for both the dancers and for myself. It can be challenging to constantly try to play the RAD set syllabus as if it was the first time I played it.
One With The Music
What do you love most about accompanying for dance?
I love to play and I love to see the dancer tell the story of the music with their bodies, and I feel I have been blessed with a gift, which is to be able to play the piano and to create melodies.
I enjoy seeing the really young children being truly “in the moment,” and dancing with so much joy and innocence.
Since I have been at the same studio for the past seventeen years or so, it has been wonderful to play for so many dancers and watch them go through all the grades and become better dancers. For many of the dancers, I have played all of their classes and exams from preprimary all the way up to the highest level they can attain within the school, so there is a connection there and (I like to think) a mutual respect and appreciation.
I am thankful that for the majority of my life, I have been surrounded by so many dancers both young and old, who are doing all they can to become the best that they can be. I couldn’t have asked for a better job, and I would like to think that I have helped to inspire and be a part of the educational and artistic path that we all walk along.
Every day is always completely new, there is always new inspiration, a new connection, a new idea, and I couldn’t imagine being anywhere else than where I am right now. I look forward to each new day, and I am forever thankful to my wife for encouraging me to go after my dreams. I have always played from my heart, and I think that when a dancer goes beyond what they even think is possible, there is magic, that when you can see the soul truly dance from within, there is no greater art form to watch. When the dancer becomes one with the music, I am left with a great sense of awe and of respect.
I would also like to say that since I began recording CDs for ballet classes and started receiving feedback from teachers around the world, hearing their stories and forming friendships with many of them, I have been so overwhelmed by the kindness, the support and the encouragement I have received from teachers who have never even met me.
I feel very humbled to know that dancers are dancing to my music in studios all around the world. To know that my music is being appreciated and that it is helping to inspire so many people of all ages…there is no greater reward than this!
What are your concerns or reservations about using a dance accompanist?
Do you utilize Richard’s CDs for class? Share your thoughts in the comments.