Meet the ballet pianist

Interview with Nicki Williamson, ballet pianist and creator of The Dancing Pianist summer school for ballet pianists

A ballet pianist – isn’t that just playing for kids after school?

Well, that is definitely something all ballet pianists will likely have done at some point in their career. However, at the highest level it is a very demanding but very rewarding career path. I have the pleasure of working with The Royal Ballet, English National Ballet, Rambert, Richard Alston Dance Company, Matthew Bourne’s various companies and many visiting international companies. This year I have played with Tanztheatre Wuppertal Pina Bausch, San Francisco Ballet, Dutch National Youth Company and Mark Morris Dance Group on their tours to the UK. I can find myself playing at the Royal Albert Hall, The London Coliseum, Sadlers Wells or travelling abroad to other wonderful theatres and venues all as a specialist ballet pianist.

How did you become a professional musician for dance?

When I was about 15, my music teacher recommended me to a local ballet teacher as her current pianist was busy preparing for A-levels and soon to leave the area for university. I went along on a Wednesday after school and something clicked. The teacher, Mrs Barnet, was old-school, but passionate about teaching and passionate about creative live music for dance. As she taught the children she also taught me. And although it would be many years before I began to really think about what it was I was doing, she really helped lay the foundations for the career I have now. I was always a musician or performer that found interaction with other artists the most inspiring thing. A solo life in competition on the concert platform wasn’t something that attracted me.

What attracted you to the profession of ballet pianist?

I have had an extremely varied career: musical director, session musician, West End musicals and national tours, conductor, composer, arranger, jazz and cabaret gigs, choir leader, singing teacher, accompanist, performer… and the list goes on! But I always seemed to have a surfeit of creativity that often wasn’t satisfied by these experiences. Playing for a professional ballet class it is possible to bring together all these musical experiences, be creative, improvise and develop themes, play extant rep, and bring myriad styles and techniques to the studio. Where else could you have the opportunity to make a living Improvising, playing Beethoven, boogie-woogie, folk, Sondheim, and Oriental or Middle Eastern music all within the space of twenty minutes?

So what does it mean, being a ballet pianist? And what do you need to know?

There are a lot of misconceptions about the role of ballet pianist. Even amongst musical colleagues it is a bit of a mystical art! At its simplest level, there are two main areas of work: the ballet class and the ballet rehearsal. So, every ballet dancer in the world will do ballet classes. Perhaps once a week as a child, or every day of the week as a professional. The structure of a class is always similar, but as a dancer progresses the technical, physical and artistic demands increase

There’s an understood structure to a ballet class, and a continuum to each exercise within that class. The pianist’s job is to understand the general musical demands of the exercise, and then interpret the teachers’ setting: tempo, style, quality, and provide suitable music. Whilst at first this can seem a daunting challenge, when you understand the rules you have the freedom to be creative and artistic. It is possible to play nearly anything in a free ballet class so long as it adheres to the dancers’ needs of rhythm, tempo, and style.

I like that it harks back to an older age of classical music making too: where improvisation, development, cadenzas and spontaneity were a vital part of any performer’s repertoire.

The other part of the trade is as a ballet rehearsal pianist. Of course if you are working in a ballet company you will be expected to play both rehearsals and class. At the highest level the musical demands are high. And an ability for very swift score reading and sight reading are an absolute must. There is just too much to learn too often to spends days and weeks preparing. And often the orchestral reductions bare little relation to what the dancers need to hear, and so adaptation on the fly is imperative. I once spent quite some time getting my fingers round this really tricky, fast semi-quaver violin and flute line in a ballet score. Then when I played it in rehearsal for the first time the dancers couldn’t work out what was going on. It turns out the most prominent line that the choreography hung upon was a simple tenor line made up mostly of minims and semibreves that I had entirely missed; I didn’t even need to play any of the fiddly stuff!

What is the most rewarding part of being a ballet pianist?

There are many rewards. I particularly enjoy the variety of being freelance and having an opportunity to play for so many wonderful people on a daily basis.

The opportunity to really be able to play the piano as you want to and have your own style and not be constrained by the rep or a setlist. I enjoy having a creative relationship with another artform, and making the visual aural. At the highest level you get to play for some of the world’s most amazing dancers alive today and have an impact on their working day and the nature of their dance. At the other end of the scale you might come up with something really brilliant as you accompany a room of 4 year olds running around the YMCA pretending to fly off to a mystical castle and everyone is having a great time.

If you are a quality pianist in a professional ballet class the dancers’ feedback will be instantaneous and honest. They know what they need, and when it is delivered with style, energy and panache the resulting team effort is a pleasure for all.

What are your plans for the future?

For some time now, as well as playing every day, I have been educating and training other musicians in the art of the dance musician, and the ballet pianist in particular. 2019 sees the third year of The Dancing Piano – the summer school for ballet pianists that I founded in 2017. I would like this to grow further and develop more. I want to share my knowledge and experience with a wider audience and reach more musicians around the world. Hopefully inspiring them into thinking about their music in a whole new way and perhaps even taking a step or two towards the ballet studio for themselves!

I will of course continue to play and take advantage of any interesting and fun projects that come my way. Always striving to learn something new and engage in new experiences.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

That prodigious technique and spontaneous creativity need not be mutually exclusive; talent is not always a substitute for working hard; there are many more and many different musical career opportunities than might seem obvious; good communication will make your working life much, much simpler; good opportunities can be made, as well as offered; and don’t forget to keep practising, listening, and finding new music and ideas!

This year’s Dancing Piano course runs from 30 August to 6 September

The Dancing Piano

Nicki Williamson was 16 when she first played for a ballet class. A local dance school with girls in tunics, chairs to hold in place of a barre, and trips up to London for exams. It fed into an already growing passion for music and dance. The teacher Mrs Barnet was a tour de force of the old school but brilliant and with a passion for music. She passed on priceless knowledge and inspiration, and now 27 years later Nicki is one of the most in-demand dance musicians in the UK.
As a specialist class musician her credits over the years include The Royal Ballet, English National Ballet, Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch, Mark Morris Dance Group, Akram Kahn, Rambert, Michael Clark Company,  Richard Alston Dance Company, all the various Matthew Bourne companies, Carlos Accosta and Friends (London Coliseum), Russian Ballet Icons Gala (Royal Opera House), American Ballet Theatre, Birmingham Royal Ballet, Ballet Black, Northern Ballet, DV8, American In Paris (Dominion Theatre London), Royal Opera (dance auditions), Rambert Orchestra, The Royal Academy Of Dance and English National Opera. She has also worked with most of the major London ballet and dance schools.