The Ballet Pianist– an unknown profession?

by Massimiliano Greco

Massimiliano Greco is Principal Pianist and Head of Music Department at Académie Princesse Grace in Monte-Carlo. In this blog, he writes about his first experience as a ballet pianist and the requirements of this unique profession.

If anybody asked me what kind of profession that of ballet pianist is, I would not find it easy to answer. Nevertheless, I’ll try!

I was trained as a pianist in a very ‘traditional’ environment – a conservatoire degree with honours, the successful participation to various piano competitions, the specialisation at Accademia Chigiana in Siena with the great names of international concert piano performance. Never would I have thought to play for ballet nor that such a specific profession existed.

My encounter with the world of ballet happened in fact by accident. Accustomed as I was to often give concerts as a soloist, one day by pure chance I found myself in a dance studio, a completely new and ‘improbable’ environment – the piano no longer in the centre of the room, but at the side; a group of people in front of me moving oddly; a teacher telling me incomprehensible words… I played for a ballet class which included a series of exercises at the ‘barre’ and continued with exercises ‘in the centre’ (of the room). They were telling me to play a certain kind of music to support the quality of the exercise, by using specific rhythms and melodies.

At the start I wasn’t sure of how this correspondence between music and dance could ever happen, but with time I discovered an extremely interesting world. I started to understand how to play and what to play, and I began to compose according to new parameters.

What struck me the most in the world of dance, especially as a composer, is how movement draws a special geometry in space. At first, I couldn’t understand the communicative power and style of classical ballet, yet I would perceive it as something thoroughly beautiful. With time I understood I could translate the geometries and expressions through melody, rhythm and the way I played; and I was able to compose new music, following and re-writing in sound the movement of arms and legs as I watched it. The outcome has been the beginning of a long period of composition and interpretation in dance which continues today.

I discovered a unique profession, which demands the musician a great musical culture and deep knowledge of dance techniques. I learned the style and tradition together with the huge musical heritage. The job resembles that of playing chamber music – the pianist is asked to realise musically the choreography the teacher creates for the exercise, choosing the right touch, style and musical atmosphere on top of melody and rhythm. The best outcome is achieved through a secure knowledge of ballet technique and the ability to improvise at the piano, which is an important part of the job, if not the most important. The willingness to create a form and melody that reflect those of the movement, should encourage the musician to research the musical repertoire widely, not just in classical music but in all genres, thereby developing an uncommon musical knowledge. 

But how and where do you learn to become a pianist for dance? Well, the courses are out there but they are just a few – which is one of the greatest gaps in music education in general, especially in Italy, my home country. In other countries, music and dance conservatoires provide for more opportunities.

Nevertheless, in the majority of cases pianists learn on the job, not without difficulties in understanding the specific requirements of dance and ballet. Many give up eventually, because of this lack of formal education to prepare young pianist for the profession. Those who persist, have often the opportunity to work all over the world, in academies and companies – the spirit of the dance pianist is often that of being available (and able) to travel and move as the job demands, in fact, from the States to Europe. As for learning, a good way of starting in this world is to find a collaboration with local dance schools that often require pianists to accompany exams. Often the profession starts there to then move to more defined professional contexts.