What is a warm up? How is it choreographed? What music should you play? Trying to answer these questions we’ve discovered that actually Warm Up can be one of the trickiest exercises in a ballet class. If you’re playing for a new teacher – not only are you introducing yourselves to each other musically and choreographically, but learning how the teacher sets an exercise and their own personal quirks and preferences.
Warm up is one of those exercises that can be over in a flash or go on seemingly forever. There can be tempo and even time signature changes depending on the choreography.
In this episode we discuss how we approach a warm up, David explains the purpose of this exercise for a dancer and what music he enjoys as a teacher.
In this episode we also discuss the difference between dancers and musicians counts. We’ve included a basic guide to understanding this which can be downloaded here.
Music Referenced in this Episode
Transcription of this Episode by Jonathan Still
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.
CH: Hello listeners, and welcome back to the Ballet Piano Podcast. I’m Chris Hobson and as always in the room with me is Matt Gregory
CH: Akiko Hobson
CH: And hashtag David Yow of Instagram
CH: In today’s episode we’re going to be discussing warm-up, which is where all ballet classes begin.
DY: Well, if I’m honest, that’s not actually where it begins. It begins way before that. For me, when I’m in the studio with the students, the most important person actually in the room, who I really want them to acknowledge, is the pianist behind the piano. So, what I ask them to do is to do a révérence for that pianist, whoever it is, and for me, we usually use a 3/4, and we do four bars of 3/4 without any introduction, just to make them aware that that person is going to help them all the way through class. So the gentlemen will do a bow, and the ladies will do a curtsey, and then we’d start the warm-up.
CH: [inaudible/all laugh] So apart from the obvious, David, can you tell us, what is a warm-up and what’s it for?
DY: A warm-up is the first exercise that we do at the barre. A barre is like a piece of wood, or a parallel long bar, that you hold on to so that you can actually have some stability on your legs first thing at the beginning of a class. So what we would do is we would actually warm up the actual muscles that we use, very much the feet, all the way through the. . . to articulate through the bones of the feet, and to wake up those very small muscles in the feet, to stretch the achilles and to just bring all the movement to the joints, to warm-up your heart rate. That’s what I’m trying to get at [MG laughs]. So I would usually use like a very steady 3/4 or a 4/4 to begin that, and all the movements at the beginning of the barre tend to be slow, just so that you have time for the dancer to feel where their muscles are, to be aware of their body, and to be in tune with what they’re doing, so mind and body connection, that’s what you’re trying to create and strengthen.
CH: So could you give us an example of how you’d set a warm up?
MG: Yeah, and what sort of steps maybe you would include in the warm-up?
DY: OK so let’s begin like, for me, even before you start thinking about the magic word “turn-out” in classical ballet, I might start with the feet in parallel, so feet side by side, right together, underneath your hips, and we might just like bend the knees, and push over, let’s say, one of your insteps and then we go back and stretch our knees, and then do the same thing on the other side, and we might do that a few times, and then we might like pad through the feet and what you’re doing is you’re actually making the dancer aware of where they are, of where their body is in space, and the weight of the body when they bend their knees. At the same time, you’re actually stretching the muscles underneath the feet, and waking up all the kind of like the mind-body connection. So if we start, I’d say perhaps usually “Could we have four bars of 3/4 to begin with as an introduction,” or what we call in dancing a “preparation,” whereas what you’re doing is you’re listening to the music but you’re also going to put your hands onto the barre, so I might start going [in rhythm] “and five and a six and a seven and a eight. And that would be the actual preparation or introduction before we start. And then we might start going over, and I’d say, [in rhythm] push over the foot and stretch your knees, and bend over the other side, and four. And again and six and a seven and a eight. And then we might say let’s go and pad through the feet, and I call these affectionately “pony trots.” One two three two and a three, so what I’m doing now is I’m rising up onto the balls of the feet, and then lowering one heel, and then going back on to the demi-pointe on two feet, and then lowering the second heel, so I’m alternating the legs all the time. We might do that for eight counts, dancers’ counts, so that would be like one bar each time. So we do one two three two right through the bar to seven and a eight.
CH: Perfect. So you can hear from that David’s just set the exercise then that it’s a relatively slow almost waltzy 3/4, it could have a slight swing to it, or something like that, but the way that you set it, if you’re an inexperienced pianist, you’re going to know roughly what tempo you want from that, you know, [sings in tempo] one two three two two three, and that’s one of the first things to listen out for isn’t it, as an accompanist, when you’re . . . whether you’ve got experience or not, and you’re working with a new teacher, or you’re just coming in to the job, your eyes and your ears are always engaged for anything that could be a time signature and a tempo.
MG: Yeah. You should be able to, within the first couple of seconds.
AH: Yes, that first eight counts, no? You kind of guess what music is going to be the right thing.
DY: But it’s so important for the teacher who’s doing that, to actually use their voice in a very specific way to actually say the words, to the movements that you want, in the actual tempo that you want
MG: And time signature, to sing that time signature, that indicates to us, what time signature that the teacher wants.
DY: Because then you’re giving so much information in a very short amount of time when time is actually precious in the actual class.
CH: And like the first one for the warm-up it could be anything, you know, it’s usually going to be on the slower and slightly legato side. Not always, but usually it’s going to be on that side, so if you’ve got a slow waltzy 3/4 and something you know, either straight or with a slight swing on a 4/4, that’s a minimum of 32 bars long, or up to a 128 counts, or something like that, you’re going to have your warm-up pretty much covered.
AH: I feel like it’s just going to go on forever. It’s very long.
DY: It’s a very long exercise, and it’s done on purpose, because you need to actually warm up the body very slowly, so that you don’t injure . . . the dancers don’t injure themselves.
CH: I struggle with warm up sometimes, because you can prepare for it in your head, you think, OK I’m going to have a three, or I’m going to have a four, but you don’t always know what you’re going to get, so having someone set something very clearly like that is going to be a big help, especially for the first exercise of the day, or if it’s a teacher with a new pianist or vice versa, you’d want that first exercise to have no questions or queries about it, don’t you, I presume it’s the same for a teacher, it’s certainly the same from our side as musicians.
MG: I always choose something that could be played in adagio style, or something slightly quicker, so then the teacher within the first four counts can really adjust me, and I know that what I’ve chosen to play will either work really slow, or I can fill it out in an adagio style. Or something slightly more
CH: You can take it up tempo and it’s still going to work [cross-talk/inaudible]
MG: It’s still going to work as a tune. If it’s a teacher. . . if I’m unsure from what the teacher’s set, I’ll sort of have something in my mind that can work either really slow or slightly quicker.
[07:09 MUSIC: Ballet Piano Podcast ident]
CH: So, just coming back to what we were saying, warm-up: horror stories. I’ve had a couple of horror warm-ups throughout the last 17 years [all laugh] in the studio.
AH: Before like horror stories, when I started as a ballet pianist, I didn’t understand that I’m meant to start playing the piano when the teacher says “and,” or “preparation.” And I was like, “and what?”
CH: That’s true, you get the exercise set, and you hear this beautiful [singing/sighing, with AH:] “A-a-a-and” and from the corner you say “and what?” Yeah. How long did it take you to discover that’s what it meant.
AH: One class!
CH: So you learnt pretty damn quickly yeah!
AH: Yeah, the other one, it’s nothing to do with warm-up, was that the teacher kept saying “a little bit steadier,” but at that time I was [in my] second year in the UK, and English is not my first language, so I didn’t quite understand what this “steadier” means, so I just smiled back to the teacher, pretended that I understand, only to discover about half a year later that the teacher wanted it a bit slower.
CH: Didn’t you once make a t-shirt that said “steady is not a tempo”?
AH: I actually do have a t-shirt
CH: Right. Well, to go back, horror stories, for me, warm-ups are always the ones still where it can go drastically wrong, it’s the first exercise so you don’t want it go wrong, and there can be so much variation, if we go beyond what David set earlier you know, for the nice beautiful 3/4, teachers can want the tempos to be sped up, to be slowed down, sometimes I’ve played for teachers who want the time signature to change and the feel’s completely changed from the slow 3 to a brisk 2 and then almost into a tango or something, it’s this sort of exercise, I don’t think that you can, there’s no one or two ways of doing it, it can be absolutely anything, can’t it, it depends on, I don’t know, teachers’ experiences or something, David, you can tell us about that, where do you get your exp–, where do you get your inspiration for a warm-up from?
DY: Technically, the warm-up doesn’t exist. If you look in a vocabulary of classical ballet, it doesn’t actually exist. It starts with pliés, traditionally. Over the years, what’s happened is with you know, sports science and all these things from you know, understanding across different disciplines, we’ve found that you actually have to encourage the dancer to open their ears, to listen to music before they even start doing their pliés, and to feel their bodies much earlier, so the introduction of a warm-up has become like the norm, the normal practice through trial and error more recently.
CH: So how long’s a warm-up been around? I mean, are we talking about the last hundred years, fifty, twenty?
DY: When I was training as a student, when I was 10 which is quite a few moons ago I can’t remember doing a very long warm-up, if any at all, so it’s been a more recent thing.
CH: That’s interesting, because I thought it had been around quite a while, actually, I didn’t. . .
DY: I guess it depends where you train as well
MG: Yeah, because I mean at the company at ENB, they have guest teachers and what-not, and that Cuban that they have, you know
DY: Goes on for ever
MG: It does, it goes on a while, and there’s different tempi within the warm-up exercise, and it’s not a horror story, it’s just something that you learn. You have one tempo they’re doing you know things en croix, and then it’ll go into a quick [battements en] cloche with the legs, and obviously that’s brighter, in 3. And then once they start the port de bras section with the stretching of the body and the arms and the back and all the rest of it, it’s much, obviously much slower and stretched out
MG: And obviously when you’re new to playing for company class, I didn’t know that
CH: It’s scary.
MG: You know when the ballet master or the mistress gives you that look, you know [all laugh] it’s like the rolling fingers means speeding up? Or? You know two palms meaning slow down?
CH: Is there anything scarier though than that first company class warm-up that you ever do, do you remember the first one?
MG: The very first company class I played for was on the Coliseum stage, ENB
DY: Oh wow.
MG: With the big names in the company, and the size of that stage, there’s a huge delay from the piano to the middle of the stage.
AH: Was it piano or keyboard?
MG: No, real piano, which is obviously good, and then when the teacher’s setting something on the other side of the stage, you can’t hear what they’re saying. So, and then you start to bead sweat, and then if something’s not right, you know, sixty or seventy people look over at you, like you’re the one to blame. So. . .
CH: And because the sound can take so long to get from one side of the stage ot the other, they immediately start to speed you up, and then within four bars, they’re slowing you down.
CH: And it’s like oh my God, and you can want the ground to swallow you up or fall into the orchestra pit or anything, just to get out of the next hour and a quarter, can’t you.
AH: And also in a company situation, they don’t really mark the exercises, they just go “and,” and just expect you to know.
DY: We don’t actually, just hearing you say that, we don’t actually think about that when we’re actually setting the exercise about things like how sound travels, and does it actually take a lot longer in you know, different rooms
MG: Well, yeah. Playing for class on the Albert Hall stage, you play something and then the sound disappears immediately, you’ve got nothing to say how loud or soft you’re playing. You’ve got nothing that bounces back. You just have to trust.
AH: Even worse, when the teacher starts to clap with the music with the distance, it confuses [a lot of crosstalk, agreement]
CH: That’s difficult. We’ve got a studio where we currently work, haven’t we, downstairs, and it’s so echo-ey, I mean it’s difficult to hear the teacher setting an exercise for starters, but then if, what Akiko’s just said, if they start clapping, it’s confusing. I find it confusing.
AH: Yeah, I can’t play like
CH: I hate playing in there.
DY: Because the noise just reverberates forever. No, no, that’s really interesting, I didn’t know all that. Thank you.
CH: Musically for the warm-up, what does everybody go with, I’ve got these sort of, I don’t know, like, I’ve got four or five greatest hits that I quite like to bring out every now and then. And it’s always going to be something that I’m going to try and test out, especially if it’s a new class or a new teacher, I’m going to see what do people like, what do people want to hear today. I’m going to play you something that I like to play, and I hope you like it, and if people start rolling their eyes or looking at me and frowning, I know, oh gosh, I’m completely on the wrong tangent with this today.
MG: Well, I played for BRB at Sadler’s [Wells], and I don’t know, it was Dominic Antonucci, and he said to me “Oh we have this pianist in Birmingham, and he plays Somewhere Over the Rainbow for every plié or every sort of, anything slow in 3, and I was like, OK, well I’m going to do this now. So first warm-up, facing the barre, aren’t they, and give some general introduction, and then I start playing Somewhere Over the Rainbow, and half the company look over their shoulder at me, and so you know, four bars, eight counts later or whatever, I just completely changed it up. So, it just lightened the mood of that class that day. I sort of, you’ve won them over, I guess, in those first eight counts.
DY: I was going to say, it can alter a whole class, just by what you play first thing.
MG: Yeah. And I don’t like to play too loud for the warm-up, or too, nothing that’s too intrusive, you know, because they’re doing very slow, they’re finding their bodies. So nothing that’s too overpowering for a warm-up.
AH: Sometimes when I don’t’ know exactly what I should be playing, I just start off with some sort of improvisation, so it can go either way, and then like you can change to something else.
CH: So you must know David, from that, you know, depending on the experience of the pianist, what sort of class you’re going to have by how they approach the warm-up, yeah/
DY: Absolutely. Yeah.
DY: Yeah, really. Because you can almost feel the personality of the pianist behind the piano, and that really helps me as a teacher, because then I know how far to go. [all laugh]
CH: You gauge whether this is going to need support or help, or how much is. . . Because it’s the same for us isn’t it as pianists, isn’t it, you know, you can tell what, how the teacher’s going to set the rest of the class usually by how they approach the warm-up, if it’s just talked through very quickly and then they look at you and say “I want a slow 3,” you know that they’re unlikely to be demonstrating or talking through at tempo.
MG: Mm. Well I had the most lovely compliment this week, because I’ve been away, podcasters
CH: Welcome back, Matthew!
MG: I’ve been away for a bit, so I haven’t been playing class in London for about four months, so I came back this week, and one of the teachers said to me, “Oh I feel secure now that you’re behind the piano.”
AH: Oh that’s so nice.
DY: That’s lovely
MG: And that is a wonderful compliment. Because you know, teachers, I’m sure David you’ll agree, if the pianist is a little inexperienced, [DY: Yes] you must feel like you can’t relax into your class, because you’ve got one ear or one eye on the pianist. So yeah, that was a lovely compliment.
CH: Well we’re happy you’re back as well. It’s been a long few months without you.
MG: It feels great to be back.
CH: How great does it feel on a scale of one to ten?
CH: Yay! Welcome back. Well on that note, I’m going to say that we hope that you’ve enjoyed this episode, and please make sure that you join us next time where we’re going to be discussing the first barre exercise, which is pliés. Also, don’t forget to like and subscribe to us via your podcast provider, to ensure you never miss an episode. In addition to that, why not find us on Instagram or Facebook at Ballet Piano Podcast. So until next time it’s goodbye from me
MG: Goodbye from me
AH: Bye bye
[MUSIC: Ballet Piano Podcast ident]
. . . ENDS. . .
Series 1 Episode 2. Broadcast February 21st 2020
© 2020 Ballet Piano Podcast
Producer: Chris Hobson
Transcription by Jonathan Still 14/4/20