Playing for Ballerinas: The Accompanist

You walk into class and prepare to focus, warm your body, and dance. But dancers often forget that accompanists help train our ear and our bodies with their intricate and ever-changing music which they produce on the spot.

Christopher Hobson, a freelance Ballet Répétiteur, Orchestral Musician and Composer, plays, prepares and sells music for ballet classes around the world. He plays the piano, percussion, violin, saxophone and clarinet. Having grown up with music, Chris transitioned into working with dancers later. Today, he talks with us about the 20 dance classes he plays for a week and the challenges and beauty of merging music and dance.

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How did you get into studying music?

When I was 4 years old my grandparents were watching a pianist on TV. I pointed to the TV and said, "I want to do that." My grandparents bought me an old upright piano and from there I started to have lessons. I studied at one of the foremost music schools in the UK, Chetham's School of Music, and subsequently went onto study at the Royal Northern College of Music. Whilst studying, I had a wide variety of musical interests from classical to jazz, pop and musical theatre. Along with piano, I also studied orchestral arranging and conducting.

When did you get involved with merging music and dance?

I started accompanying dance when I was 17. My first job was working at a contemporary dance conservatoire where I worked for a year before heading to Birmingham to work with Elmhurst School for Dance and Birmingham Royal Ballet. This was my first experience of accompanying ballet and it was quite different to contemporary!

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Photo: Christopher Hobson believes working with dancers has made him a better musician.

At first, what was difficult about creating music for ballet?

If I'm being completely honest, I didn't have a clue what I was doing and I'm surprised that my first company kept me for so long! I think the most difficult thing was learning how to pick up the tempos, time signatures and the 'feel' that teachers wanted for different exercises. Once I started to pick this up, I started to feel a little bit more comfortable in my new career. However, occasionally I still get it wrong - you can't be perfect all the time!

What did you feel like you had to "learn" as a musician working for dancers?

I've learned how to approach music differently. It isn't necessarily about what's written on a page but it's about what you can get from the music artistically.

Some of the best dancers and choreographers I've ever worked with are incredibly musical but have no formal or traditional musical education - they feel the music.

I'm fairly convinced that after working with dancers and choreographers for all of my professional life some of this approach to music has rubbed off on me - incidentally it also makes me enjoy music much more then I did 10 years ago - believe it or not!

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Photo: Christopher Hobson

What do you look for when creating music for dancers?

When playing live I try to make the music and melodies I'm either creating or arranging fit the ballet class choreography perfectly. For example, for a glisse with nice port de bras I would consider keeping the rhythm in the bass with my left hand to represent the feet, whilst having a more flowing melody in my right hand to represent the port de bras. There should always be artistic collaboration between both music and dance.

I believe one of the most important things to always remember when you do this job is that you are there to provide musical support and inspiration.

How is it different working with dancers than performing a concert with musicians?

When playing a piano reduction of Swan Lake or Giselle, for example - the same basic rules apply really. You have to recreate the orchestral instruments on the piano in the best way you can, adhere to tempos that are dictated by the music director and also tempos that work for the dancers. I think the differences come when composing music for a production or creating music for class. Quite often (especially in contemporary dance) you will be asked to play more 'earthy' or something with a bit more 'beat.'

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Photo: Christopher plays for 20 dance classes a week.

What do you find interesting about music and dance?

I love the challenge of playing a class. You walk into a ballet or contemporary dance class, and quite often this can be with a teacher you've never worked with before, and you have to provide the correct support, dynamic and feel for the teachers, choreographers and dancers. I love the fact that having spent a decade perfecting my job and learning all the rules - occasionally it is fun to break them!

It's such an enjoyable experience to be able to play a class well and see smiles on the dancers faces after a class.

How have you grown as an artist since working with dancers?

I approach all aspects of my career differently now. I think about my phrasing very differently and I will imagine how pieces of music could work with friends' choreographic ideas. I still accompany a lot of contemporary classes along side my ballet work and have since bought African drums such as a djembe, a small cajón drum and even an African Kalimba (perfect for pliés!) which I've taught myself to play in classes. I quite often mix between the drums and the piano and other tuned percussion when accompanying classes to give little musical lifts and different feels for exercises.

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Can you share with us a moment that was a highlight for you of your music career?

There have been so many to be honest. I got the chance to perform my own arrangement of jazz music in London back in 2010 with choreography by David Nixon which was pretty cool. I toured to Hong Kong and Macau back in 2010 and then went to Bangkok for a week - that was awesome! I am very thankful that I get to work with so many artistically, creative people on a daily basis who inspire me on a daily basis.

What advice do you have for young musicians who want to work with dancers?

Be prepared to make mistakes! I work with many pianists in England 'training' them in the art of accompanying a ballet class.

I truly believe that the only way you learn in a ballet class is by making mistakes.

When I first started accompanying class I didn't even know that dancers needed an introduction before the exercises started! Most people you work with in a ballet studio only want you to be the best that you can be so if you're new to the job they will support you and give you as much advice and information as they can. One of the biggest things to remember is that if you watch and listen to the teacher you will generally be able to pick up the tempo of an exercise, the time signature and also where the accents are.

Why is your job awesome and challenging?

It's awesome because of the people I work with! It's challenging because I never know what I'll be asked to play or what music I will create when I walk into the studio. I always feel that this is a challenge I love to rise up too - it excites me. When work stops exciting me, I'll know it's time to do something different.

How is your job unique?

When I was a child I didn't know that "playing the piano for dance" was even a job! I never had any formal training and learned how to be better by learning from my own mistake. I want to be the best and I'm still aspiring to this!

What process do you go through when creating CDs for ballet classes?

I plan a lot for my CDs: the tempo of the exercises that I select and also the music that I use. I take a dictaphone to every class I play and make notes of tempos, exercise lengths and so on. Once I have a rough idea of music and tempos I will use, I try to play the same music for different teachers and see what responses the music gets - not only from the teachers but also the dancers.

I usually spend 3 - 6 months planning a CD, on and off, before the recording process even begins. Once recording has finished and the music is being 'mastered' and goes through it's final edit with my engineer, I give a few copies to friends who then use the music for classes. This is my final time for feedback and it's certainly the last time that I can make any changes before the music is submitted to iTunes and physical CDs are made.

I think the music I record should reflect how I play in class - and I try not to choose repertoire for CDs that is hugely different to my 'live' class repertoire. I like to choose music from as many different genres as possible but while trying to choose music that will engage dancers and make them want to dance! It's a hard job but somebody's gotta do it!

What's on repeat on your iPod right now?

Moishe's Bagel - Don't Spare The Horses (particularly the MacGoldbergs' Gig and Reel), Jools Holland The Golden Age Of Song, Max Richter - 4 Seasons (recomposed)

What inspires you?

I try to take inspiration from as many things as I can - paintings, movies and concerts. I also try and see many different genres of dance companies to see their approach to performance, music and stage craft.

Who inspires you?

My first music director is probably my inspiration. He was the one who taught me how to work with dancers, how to play a piano reduction of Tchaikovsky ballets and how to appreciate music - even if you don't personally like it. He is still a personal friend and my mentor.

We ask everyone: Do you have a life motto?

I have two! -

1. "Have a heart that never hardens, a temper that never tires and a touch that never hurts." - Charles Dickens
2. "Music expresses that which cannot be said and on which is it impossible to be silent." - Victor Hugo

To purchase Chris Hobson's Ballet CDs:

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Find him on iTunes

Visit his website

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