This week we’re lifting the lid on the plié exercise. It didn’t take us long to discover that we all are completely in love with this exercise and its our bread and butter, sets us up for the day and really gets us in that zone.
We’re discussing why it has such a special place in our hearts, how a teacher would set a plié exercise, should it be on a 3/4 or a 4/4 and of course – what music we love to play and why we like to play it.
We also touch on how pianists might organise their repertoire, how we choose what we want to play and what a pianist needs from a teacher. The 3 basic things (in no particular order we decided we need from a teacher to play an exercise well are
- What the time signature is
- How many ‘counts’ are required / does it go immediately to the second side, is there a port de bras tagged onto the end or is there a balance etc
- Any accents – is the leg up on the and or is it on the one?
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.
MG: Hey there podcasters, and welcome back to the Ballet Piano Podcast. I’m Matt Gregory, and as always in the room is the podcast team, Chris Hobson
MG: Akiko Hobson
MG: And hashtag David Yow of Instagram
CH: Was konnichiwa just for the international crowd or have you got particular friends at home that are listening to this?
AH: Well I thought there might be a few Japanese listeners, so [all laugh] nihon no minasan kiite masuka? [Japanese, translation: “are people in Japan listening to us?”] I just wanted some Japanese fans.
MG: Now in today’s episode, we will be discussing the plié exercise, and I think it’s fair to say that when one thinks of ballet and ballet dancers, the plié is synonymous with that, would you agree?
DY: Absolutely, yes, because it’s the basis of everything that you do, practically.
MG: Yeah, whenever one does an impression of a ballet dancer, they do a plié don’t they.
MG: So David, what can you tell us about a plié, what is a plié?
DY: So, the language of ballet is French because Louis XIV, the “Sun King,” he was a very big admirer of ballet, and he thought it was just fantastic, so if he did it, the whole court had to do it. And that’s how ballet began, in the Royal Court. So, all the terminology is in French, so plié means to bend, or bend, and what we’re doing is we’re bending our knees and our hips, and it’s one of the first exercises that you do usually in the day, in the traditional barre exercises.
AH: Do you love it?
DY: You get to love it. [all laugh]
MG: And so what is a plié exercise?
DY: So, plié is one of the, let’s say, first three exercises that you do in the barre, the barre exercises; we start at the barre so you’re more stable by holding on to something, and it’s a very—, like the warm-up, it’s a slow exercise, generally. What you’re trying to do is to feel the muscles that are going to be actually used when you jump. So we’re bending the knees and we’re using our lovely turn-out muscles to make the classical positions of first, second, third, fourth and fifth; and usually we use first, second, fourth and fifth, and more often these days, just first, second and fifth. But you bend your knees in a turned-out position in all of those positions. And then we might finish, or include in each of those positions a body-bend forward side, backwards, and often we used to go onto the demi-pointe which is like up onto the balls of the feet, to feel balanced, and to feel the muscles stretching.
MG: And so is the plié exercise primarily for warm up?
DY: It is part of the warm-up, but more recently, people have questioned where really it should actually be, because it’s very stressful on the legs.
DY: If you think of a traditional barre, yes, it is at the beginning, and we might start on a steady 3/4, or a slow 4/4, and what you’re trying to do is control the amount of bending that you do in your knees, so that you’re using more of the muscle fibres to guide what you’re going to do later on when you start to move faster in class.
MG: Yeah. So can you sort of give us a quick example of how you would set a plié exercise? What you would give the musician and the dancers.
DY: Sure. Yes. Normally what I would do is, I would think, because it’s like the second or the third exercise, you’re still in that kind of waking up kind of mode, really. So we would introduce the exercise by starting with a preparation of four bars or four counts of something, like say if you’re in a 4/4, we’d go [in rhythm, slowly] five and six and seven and eight. And on those very slow introductory counts, what we’re trying to do is alert the dancer to the actual tempo of the music, the feeling of what they’re going to dance to. And also, so that they can actually prepare their bodies in a very stylized and controlled fashion. And then we might do, let’s say, in first position, where we put the heels together and the toes are in opposite directions, almost—you’re aiming for 180º turnout, which is in opposite directions, so the toes aren’t facing each other. And we might say, let’s say, I might say let’s have two demi-pliés, so we’d go, in a 4/4, we’d go, let’s go down on one and two and then we’re coming up to stretch the knees, three and four. And let’s do that again, so we do the same thing, and then we come back up again. And then I might say, let’s do a full plié and we might go, use the same four counts to go all the way down to a demi-plié and a full plié, so that your bottom is practically on your heels by this time, and then we’re coming up, put your heels down on the floor, seven, stretch your knees on eight. And then we might do a forward bend, so you’ll try and put your head near your knees now, with stretched knees, and we’re going forward for one and two all the way down, coming up three and four, and we rise on to the demi-pointe, five and six, lowering the heels, seven and tendu—that’s stretching your leg to the side, perhaps—and lower on the eight. So there’s like one position of pliés, and then we might repeat that sequence in second position, and fifth position. Something like that.
MG: OK. So usually in three or four positions.
DY: Yes, so normally it would be in four positions, but as I said, more recently to do with science, these days, we find that the fourth position is a more exposed position, and it’s more difficult to do, so in terms of safety, and especially with the actual age of the student you’re teaching, or the dancer you’re teaching, we tend to do like, maybe three of those positions, and then maybe we’d like stay on demi-pointe for a lot longer for that fourth phrase, shall we say.
[MUSIC: Ballet Piano Podcast ident]
CH: David, can I just ask you a quick question?
CH: 3/4s or 4/4s for pliés, do you have a preference?
CH: 3/4s! It’s all right, it’s only because you just set it on a 4/4, and I realize I’ve known you for quite a few years now, and I didn’t know if you had a preference. Is there a reason why?
DY: Pliés, when we describe pliés to the students as a movement, we try and iron out the bits where they stop moving, so we try and think of pliés as a circle. So the easiest time signature would be a 3/4 because it’s more rounded.
MG: It’s lilting isn’t it, so you can iron-out those edges as it were.
CH: I always think, I prefer, and it’s, I think it’s personal to me, I prefer 3/4 pliés to 4/4 pliés, I don’t know if it’s just because we’re exposed to them a lot more than 4/4s, but I always think, I’m more comfortable in 3/4 than I am in 4/4. I don’t know what anybody else thinks.
AH: Because musically it’s smooth, lyrical, it has this flow.
CH: And then you can find quite often, I’ve worked with people who want to do pliés on a 4/4, and I end up on a 12/8, so it’s, and it’s incredibly slow, so it’s almost like I’m playing a 3/4 anyway, so the melody is 4/4, but you’ve just got this triplet 1, 2, 3, 2, 2, 3, underneath and it’s you know
MG: To make space in it.
CH: To give the music time to breathe and to support people who are, as you said, putting their bottoms on the floor, it’s not a glamorous job that you’re training for is it. It’s a difficult existence.
DY: But you’re right, Matt, you want space in the music, so that you can move smoothly and slowly, without any jerky movements.
MG: Because it’s still near the start of the class, isn’t it. So, for our pianists, what do we think about plié exercises? I mean, what do we need from the teacher to play a successful plié.
CH: For me it’s how many movements you’ve got, how many positions, sorry, so is it three positions, or is it four positions; and then, are we going to stop at the end of the first side, or are we going to go straight on to the second side. And then, if the teacher’s set the tempo at the tempo we want, we’ve got all the information we need then, because usually a position is going to be for 16 counts
AH: For each position
CH: Yeah, for each position. So if you’ve got four positions, that’s 64 counts, or 64 bars of 3/4, and then on to the next side, you’ve got the same again.
AH: Yeah, so you don’t need like the exact accent, because it’s kind of the same movement, whatever the position, whatever the movement you’re doing, it’s the same kind of flow.
CH: Yeah, whether you’re doing your plié over two bars or over four bars, for me, I’m not going to change the melody or the feel of what I’m playing, because it’s, the movement is still the same isn’t it, it’s not a jarring movement that you’re doing, it’s not a choreographed movement that’s, you know, jumpy or full of, you know, accents. It’s lyrical and smooth.
AH: I feel a bit nervous playing for plié, because somebody, I can’t remember who, but somebody told me that if the pianist played really bad music for pliés, that set the mood really bad for their class. And since then I’ve been really pressured, playing for plié exercises.
MG: I mean, I don’t know, pliés is that exercise you know you’re going to get in every single ballet class. So I have a couple of go-tos, and I have my greatest hits, that I know will work, for any plié exercise. And that’s, I’m using that plié exercise then to work out the teacher for the rest of the barre.
CH: If they like your greatest hits and they’re smiling, you know you’re going to go down a particular style of repertoire, yeah?
MG: Well, just their likes and preferences really.
CH: It’s funny, we all do the same, we all do the same thing, don’t we, we use your warm-up and your pliés to work out what musical preference for your teacher and the class.
MG: Yes, or how they’re going to set it; if they set slightly quicker, which means you’re going to play, you know, slightly under, things like that.
DY: That’s so important, and so interesting to hear you say that, because it’s like a conversation, you’re trying to work out who you’re talking to, so your conversation is going to flow.
CH: It’s a bit like first dates, isn’t it. [all laugh]
DY: What’s the most unusual thing that you’ve ever been asked to play for pliés.
AH: I’ve been asked to do a plié on a five once, which was down two three up and down two three up and. . . I can’t remember what I played, I’m not sure how good it was, I don’t think it was very good but it sort of worked. I think the teacher was trying to go for musicality at the time.
AH: Chris, we had somebody with a mazurka didn’t we.
CH: Oh yes! Do you want to tell this story, or shall I tell it?
AH: You do it.
CH: So there was a teacher who was teaching the class and he says, I’ve been thinking, a mazurka is 3 yes? Yes, it is. A plié is a 3/4? Yes it is. I could use a mazurka for plié? Yes—[sounding doubtful] yes, well you could do, but musically and lyrically it’s not really what we would go for.
MG: It’s not going to benefit really
CH: Let’s take a famous mazurka, Coppélia. [sings the first few bars] It’s not really singing to me a lyrical tune. So I wasn’t playing this particular class, it was on a weekend and I knew one of my colleagues was doing it, and I saw him on the Monday, and he sort of takes me to one side, and he was like, “You’ll never guess what this [mumbling to indicate an expletive] did this weekend, he was like, he did his [mumbling to indicate another expletive] pliés with a blooming mazurka. So I just laughed, I knew what was coming up. I saw the teacher later on that day, and he came up and came up and gave me a big hug, and he was like, “Chris, Chris, it worked. The mazurka for the pliés worked!” [all laughed]. I was like, did it work musically or did it work in terms of counts? And he was like “I think with the counts.” [all laugh]
AH: We had a teacher, she wanted just a chord, a very minimum note, all the way through. And it was quite nice, I’m not sure if I want to do that every single class, but as a one-off thing, it was very beautiful in a way, that you have you know, one chord, one note, and everyone just goes plié.
CH: So was that every bar, or every couple of bars, can you remember?
AH: It was up to me, so I was just kind of looking at their movement, but so sometimes I’d play like a minim every two counts, or sometimes just you know each count. You can just put a small note in between if you want to.
CH: Like passing notes
AH: Passing notes, yeah. But it was quite, in a way, artistic. And it was quite interesting.
MG: I have a little story as well, from a ballet teacher. This was an open class, and he said, we’re going to this little experiment today, for the pliés. We’re going to do first side and second side, but for the first side, can you play as sparse as possible, you know, and I think I played the them from Gone with the Wind which is just really, really held back. And he said “When we go on to the second side, then you can really go for it, and see what happens to the dancers in the room.” And of course, for the pliés, I know dancers really enjoy doing the plié exercise, it’s their bread and butter, and I love playing it because I know they love doing it, and so I like to help them and indulge as much as them, because you know they’re doing all these lovely stretches, and lovely big bends and all this that and the other. And so when I played that for this particular exercise, you know, kept it really sparse on the first side, really held back the accompaniment and the tempo, and then on the second side, you know, filled that keyboard and really used it all, and it makes them listen, it makes them go more, it makes them really commit to the second side, and that’s what I think about when I’m playing pliés, I just want to match their energy and their intention, and how much they’re indulging in their exercise, because, you know, you see it don’t you, when dancers love doing their pliés.
AH: Do you, like, when you play for the open classes, sometimes, you see the dancers they just sing along.
CH: I love that.
AH: I really think that’s really sweet.
MG: And I love open classes because they are living their best life.
AH: And they love music!
MG: And I’m helping them live their best life.
CH: It’s brilliant, it’s so nice to be involved with.
MG: It is, isn’t it. It’s great.
CH: Do you know what I like about pliés, and I have a real soft spot for them, it’s almost like a little, I’m having an affair with pliés Akiko, because I remember nailing pliés once, and I was still really young, you know, I’d done the contemporary years, and I was now a couple of weeks into the ballet years, and I understood that it was only three positions, not four positions, so I chopped out sixteen bars, and it was the first exercise that I’d played, that I knew that I’d nailed, I had the understanding of it. And then since then, it’s always had this sort of little sweet spot in my heart, because I nailed it, and I just remember, this sort of, I was like, I felt very proud of myself, that I understood what my job was, and what my . . . I didn’t realize I’d be doing this job for you know, the next 15 years plus, so, I still remember that feeling of, thinking, I could do this, if I understand this, I can do it. And it’s the first thing in the day, and you wanna, I wanna smile first thing in the day, I wanna do something that I enjoy playing.
MG: Did you enjoy your pliés David?
DY: I loved them [inaudible]
MG: Those years as a dancer
DY: I did!
MG: You see it when dancers love doing them.
DY: It’s like a meditation, it really is, you know, like you were saying Akiko, it becomes a meditation, you’re going inside yourself, to feel what your body’s doing, but you’re also trying to communicate outwards and live with the music, so you really are inspiring us as dancers.
MG: Yeah. And I really, really love it when the teacher crosses the phrase in pliés, and mixes up the port de bras with grands pliés and demi-pliés. And, yes, say they wanna miss out the grand plié in fourth, because it’s a bit hard first thing, they, you know, they cross the phrase, and then it all comes back, and it’s absolutely beautiful, I love it.
CH: I like it when you get both sides of pliés because it means that I can, selfishly, it means I can be really indulgent. And I quite like, you know, if there’s 64 bars on the first side, and if there’s a little eight in the middle, just to think, OK, right, I’m going to go somewhere else, but I don’t know where I’m going to go, and how are we going to make it work. I think that’s what I like about the job, I don’t think there’s many jobs as a musician, where you’re going to walk into a room and you’ve got a rough idea of what you’re going to be asked to play, but you don’t a 100% do you, until sometimes seconds before you start playing the piano. And, for me, that’s what keeps it fresh and exciting.
MG: For me, actually, the plié exercise is one of those things I’m thinking about on the way to work, it’s one of the things I’m just literally going through my repertoire in my head, and thinking what do I know that I’ve not played for a while, you know, because that’s one of the things that I can sort of plan for.
AH: Not the coffee, you’re thinking about?
MG: I’ve already got my coffee in my hand.
CH: Who goes to work without coffee!
AH: But I remember like, you know, like as Chris said, you can’t really expect what’s going to happen in a studio until, you know, on the spot, so I remember when I started the job, I was absolutely tired after one class, I just wanted to go and have a nap. And three classes a day was just torture for me, first year. I mean, it’s OK for me now, but it was very difficult, I remember.
DY: So long, Akiko, did it take you to build up that stamina, to get through a number of classes without feeling tired?
AH: I think one year. Yeah.
MG: And I felt that recently, having not played, and coming back to it. Obviously, coming back to it with an injury as well, I just feel like muscle memory was lost a bit, and my strength for big waltzes. And I know, obviously it will come back, and the dexterity in the fingers.
CH: Oh finger dexterity, if you have a week off.
MG: . . . of melodies. Exactly.
CH: Yeah, within a week. Akiko and I are off on holiday next week for a few days, and I know I’m not going to play the piano for a week.
AH: We’re going to feel it when we go back.
CH: When I go back into the studio on the Monday morning, I know I’m going to be wanting to really get out the tunes because I haven’t played an instrument for a week.
MG: You feel like you’re playing with like gloves on, and mittens on.
CH: Or like you’ve put your finger inside a sausage, you’re trying to be as dextrous. . .
MG: Exactly, it’s a funny one.
AH: And the back-ache you’re going to have.
CH: Oh gosh yeah. And then . . . it’s funny you say it took you a year, because I, like I was saying, I’ve been doing this job for, what 17 years, and I still sometimes have a nap in the afternoons.
AH: So David, what’s your favourite tune for plié exercise.
DY: Oh, Misty
ALL: We all play it!
AH: From now on, everybody, every single ballet pianist you’ve got are going to play Misty for you.
CH: You’ll go to Hong Kong next summer, and they’ll be chucking Misty out for you
DY: Mr Hobson already indulges me already, so I’m really grateful!
MG: What is everybody else’s favourites?
CH: I dunno, I’ve got a couple of greatest hits, I’ve got a bit of a Queen medley, for a few tunes, so that’s quite good fun, and think ultimately, more than the Queen actually, it’s Oasis, Don’t Look Back in Anger. Because it’s northern, I think that’s what it is, and it’s a damn good tune as well.
DY: Waving the flag behind the piano there!
CH: And it works on a four and a three, so for me. . . What about you, Akiko?
AH: I love, it’s a bit seasonal, but I love playing The Snowman for pliés at Christmas time.
MG: Awwww yes
AH: I just feel festive, and it’s beautiful
MG: Oh yes. At Christmas time actually, I start with some little ostinato in the left hand, and then I start playing the theme from Home Alone, high up on the keys.
AH: Oh yes! I do that too!
MG: And they all just look at you like it’s magic
CH: All that’s missing is fairy dust coming down on to the piano and sparkly lights
MG: And that choir as well that sing on it.
DY: It is magic what you do behind the piano, it’s brilliant.
MG: So that’s it, ballet fans, for another episode. We hope you enjoyed it. Join us next time where we’ll be discussing the tendu exercise, and as always don’t forget to like and subscribe via your podcast provider, and catch us on Instagram and Facebook at The Ballet Piano Podcast, to ensure you never miss an episode. And we’ll catch you next time. Bye bye.
[MUSIC: Ballet Piano Podcast ident]
. . . ENDS. . .
Series 1 Episode 3. Broadcast February 28th 2020
© 2020 Ballet Piano Podcast
Producer: Chris Hobson
Transcription by Jonathan Still 15/4/20