Robert Long has worked as a ballet pianist-accompanist for over 22 years. He has played for Royal Academy of Dance Exam Syllabus classes as well as “open” classes, where the instructor sets the exercises and there is no set music. He has composed two albums of original piano music for ballet class: Ballet Etudes, released in 2000, and Etudes II, released in 2005. Robert has also worked as a church musician for several years, as well as a variety show accompanist/synth arranger. He has appeared in an episode about ballet on a syndicated children’s TV show (“This is Daniel Cook”) and recently has been performing locally in the pop/rock scene. He currently resides in Port Credit, Ontario, Canada. For more information about Robert and his ballet class music albums, visit www.rlongballetmusic.com
Q. What got you started as a pianist?
The same thing as most kids growing up in the suburbs. We had an old piano in our home and there was a lady in our village who gave piano lessons. So, off I went for piano lessons. I was 7 or 8.
Q. Where did you train?
The lady in our village was not affiliated with any conservatory or institution. I stayed with her until I finished high school. I discontinued musical training for a while, then in my mid to late 20’s I entered the Royal Conservatory of Music for piano, and the University of Toronto Faculty of Music for music history and theory.
Q. When did you get interested in ballet?
Shortly after leaving university. I needed work and found some opportunities as a ballet class accompanist. I was dreadfully incompetent in those early days, but seemed to show some promise in spite of myself. From an early stage I found I could watch dancers move and then play a musical selection, real or improvised, that was a sympathetic musical expression of their movement. This in turn fueled my interest.
Q. There’s lots of classical music out there. Why do ballet classes need more?
This may raise some eyebrows but in my experience, a lot of classical music simply won’t work. Most ballet teachers require music with “square” phrasing; that is to say, music constructed in 8 bar phrases or 16 bar phrases, with little or no deviation. Beethoven doesn’t write music that way. Bach definitely doesn’t write music that way. Debussy? Forget it. There are exceptions, but if you do find some square Bach or Beethoven (or Mozart or Haydn, etc.), then you must determine how to apply it. Ballet exercises have their own specific musical requirements (lyrical or percussive, steady or syncopated, grandiose or diminutive, and so on). There are some wonderful waltzes and other selections from Tchaikovsky and Delibes ballets that work very well in class, as well as selections of the ballet music from operas by Gounod and Rossini. I have made good use of some Puccini arias, albeit slightly edited. Mendelssohn, Schubert and Grieg can be fertile sources for selections. Let’s not forget Scott Joplin and George Gershwin ragtime and Broadway music can be very useful and ballet teachers love it). But many of these “chestnuts” are pretty “conked” from a lot of use and repetition (think of Prokofiev’s Cinderella waltz!). Ballet teachers are forever wanting something different from what they’ve been hearing over and over.
Q. What are the advantages of your music for a class?
Well, I have formatted both albums in the shape of a typical ballet class, starting with barre selection (played twice) and moving to the center with sections for ports de bras, pirouettes, adage, petit allegro, batterie and grand allegro. Also, I believe that from my
playing experience I have created pieces that will function for their designated needs. In other words, my battements glisses selections will actually be good for doing battements glisses, plies selections for plies, sautes selections for sautes, and so on. That said, I always encourage teachers and students to use the music to meet their own requirements. For instance, my grands battements en cloche selections at the barre might work for allegro steps across the floor.
Q. Is your music designed for a particular type of class?
I believe my albums are best suited for ballet classes of early to mid level “majors”; that is to say, students from 10 to 17 years of age, roughly speaking, and depending on experience. To be honest and fair, these albums are not designed for beginner’s creative movement classes (the “babies” classes; yes, I know there’s a lot of demand for this!). They are not specifically designed for a pointe class, although I have been told by a user that several of my selections can be used for pointe. Also I do have some polonaises, mazurkas, gigues, polkas, hornpipes and tangos that could be helpful for “national” or “character” dance exercises.
Q. You have 2 CDs, what’s the difference between the 2?
The most significant difference is my second Album, Etudes II, has 10 fewer selections than Ballet Etudes, but is approximately the same length. In general, the selections are longer in the Etudes II album. Etudes II also contains a piece for choreographic study, “E minor Prelude”, suitable for ballet and modern dance.
Q. Are you planning more CDs and what do you hope to accomplish with them?
A third CD is just barely underway. The good news/bad news is that I’m fairly busy managing the two albums I have now, so progress on a new album has been slow. I have been in for one recording session, though, so hopefully that’s the push I need. At the moment I’m hovering between a new album for regular ballet class and an album for young beginners.
Q. What kind of skills does a pianist need to accompany a ballet class?
Wish I knew. Just joking, but any pianist who has played for ballet classes will sympathize I’m sure, at least a little bit. In general, we pianists seem to have certain strengths and certain weaknesses. The excellent sight reader may not be as quick to remember music or improvise a tune on the spot if you need him to. The pianist who has a good memory and “plays by ear” seems like a very clever fellow, until he’s faced with difficult sight reading, such as the Royal Academy of Dance syllabus music. Then he wishes he’d stayed in law school, like his parents told him. Perhaps you’ve gathered that I belong more in the second group; I’ve never been a good sight reader, but I do memorize quickly. Also I can learn from hearing, which gives me the advantage of learning music from recordings, without the need for printed music. This can be an asset, and the ability to improvise, or even do a creative “edit” on an existing piece: all of these can be helpful. But the good sight reader can be a good ballet accompanist too, as long as he has a binder full of music and is able to keep it well organized. And he’ll be perfect for syllabus classes. Anyway, that’s my perspective, and of course it’s a male pianist’s perspective. There are many female ballet pianists, and perhaps they have their own views…
Q. Where do you get your ideas for your music?
Almost exclusively from dance. I’ve done very little composing outside of music for ballet. Perhaps I should say that dance provides me with the characteristics of whatever piece I’m composing”. Beyond that, it’s hard to say where the “ideas” come from. It may be that dance “inspires” me in some emotional way or other, but I couldn’t give definition to that, or even be sure that I’m aware of it. If instrumental music is the most abstract of all the arts, ballet can’t be far behind. A songwriter has words for inspiration. A painter has whatever he’s painting. But instrumental music and ballet have a tougher job of it. And once you get your “inspiration”, how do you present it? If you attend a performance of Swan Lake, chances are you already know the story, and if you don’t, you can read it in the program notes. Could you deduce it for yourself just by watching the ballet and hearing the music? I don’t think I’d have a clue. Now of course the good news is you can imagine what it means to you, or just enjoy the experience of watching and listening; after all, maybe the story line is not that important anyway (or is it?). But the composer, choreographer and dancer face the same dilemma: how do you portray whatever it is you’re supposed to portray, and better still, what are you portraying?
Q. Is there a style of music that you prefer for your pieces?
Not really. I’m too caught up with trying to present a product that is useful for my customers and enjoyable at the same time. From the standpoint of my own pleasure or fulfillment, I probably get the most out of writing adage selections, but my albums include ragtime pieces, tangos, polonaises, mazurkas, polkas, waltzes, rap music (just kidding), hornpipes and others.
Q. Do you test your music out on classes and then perhaps change them?
Yes to both. Definitely.
Q. Are there any particular pieces of music that you composed that you like best?
Yes. I must be careful not to shoot my own foot off, but I would be intrigued to know if the pieces I’m particularly fond of have the same effect on my customers. I mean that in two ways: are they enjoyable as music, and are they useful pieces for class. Anyway, from Ballet Etudes, if forced to choose one selection, it would be track #31, “1st Adage Enchainement.” From Etudes II, track #19, “Developpes.”
Q. Did you have a ballet teacher assist you in putting together the music?
Teachers were helpful to some degree for formatting the album, i.e. how to organize the pieces in a way most useful for classroom use. However, the most important contribution made by teachers was identifying what exercises the pieces were suitable for. This could mean steering my first impression towards another exercise instead, or saying yes, but not at that tempo, and so on. Also, suggesting alternate possibilities for selections. I’m very grateful for their contributions, and my albums would be the lesser without their valuable input.
Q. Who are your customers?
To the best of my knowledge, ballet teachers, ballet studios and ballet students. In the past 20 months or so, I’ve had quite an upswing in download sales via Apple iTunes and others, but at the moment, I don’t know how to track who those buyers are. I had a couple of “visits” from Hollywood, but nothing came of either one. A producer contacted me about using my albums in a documentary “Divertissement: Everyday Dancers Stories” but in the end it didn’t pan out.. I was also approached by Paramount Pictures for the possible use of four selections from Etudes II for their upcoming feature film “The curious story of Benjamin Button” (I still have a copy of the email!), but the latest word is I’m no longer in the running. Oh well, it was exciting while it lasted (and they did purchase the CDs).
Q. Do you get a lot of helpful feedback from customers?
I am very pleased and proud of the customer testimonials I receive, and have them pasted all over my web site. On a more serious note, I can tell you that the feedback I received from customers of my first CD, Ballet Etudes, led to a revision of the album. In the original version, I recorded my voice to announce each selection (the same as Royal Academy of Dance syllabus music recordings). Customers let me know they could do nicely without that. They also commented that selections were too short. So I reconstructed the album: the voices were eliminated, several selections were lengthened, and while I was at it, I reformatted the barre and batterie sections so that selections would play twice. This was a big step for me to take (and it cost some money too!), but the album has enjoyed much success as a result. So the answer is yes, feedback has been helpful, even if it’s tough to take sometimes.
Q. How long does it take to compose a piece?
Anywhere from two days to six weeks or longer. Of course, interruptions can be a factor; I do not have the luxury of composing and doing nothing else. So “six weeks” perhaps isn’t really six weeks if several time-consuming diversions interfere along the way. But for all of that, I imagine I’m like a lot of writers: for every successful piece that came to life quickly and effortlessly, there are several that had to be wrestled into submission over several fierce battles (and a lot of time).
Q. Have you composed pieces for choreographers?
Yes, on a small scale. One example is the “E minor prelude”, the last selection on the Etudes II album. (A ballet teacher recommended that I include it as a choreographic study.) I have five or six piano pieces that were “commissioned” for ballet presentations.
Q. Where can someone hear samples your music?
Right now, the best location is CD Baby (http://cdbaby.com/cd/robertlong2 for Ballet Etudes, and http://cdbaby.com/cd/robertlong for Etudes II). You can hear samples from all selections, both albums. There are samples for several
selections, but not all, on my web site (www.rlongballetmusic.com, click on the CDs).