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Meet the Students Behind the Piano in BYU's Ballet Studios

BYU provides pianists a rare opportunity to train in ballet accompaniment

Matt Arnett, a staff pianist for ballet classes in the Department of Dance, had never heard of ballet accompaniment as a profession before he came to BYU. In fact, he had never even seen a ballet performance.

“I didn’t know what to expect,” said Arnett, a senior majoring in music education. “But from the time I started, I loved doing it. Being a dance accompanist is different from any other musical experience I’ve ever had.”

Unlike most accompanist jobs, there is no set music for a ballet class. The teacher demonstrates the exercise for the dancers, and the pianist must choose — or sometimes even improvise — a piece of music that matches the steps and movement quality.

“A good ballet accompanist has to be quick with their eyes and ears, recognize what is happening in the dancer’s movements and translate it into how you interpret the music,” said Arnett. “You need to be flexible and intuitive, making quick decisions and improvisations.”

Brayden Walters, accounting major and head accompanist and coordinator of dance musicians for the ballet area, played accompaniment for musical theatre classes but felt drawn to the creative possibilities of dance.

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Brayden Walters

“I like being able to express myself, and ballet is so expressive,” he said. “You can’t come into a class and just play in the background. With ballet, you feel like you’re giving a solo concert one hundred percent of the time.”

According to dance major Sasha Chopelas, dancing to live music rather than pre-recorded songs makes a significant difference in ballet training.

“Dancers do the same combinations and steps every day — thousands upon thousands of tendus and pliés throughout their career,” she said. “Having a pianist there to give us a little more inspiration helps us feel like we’re not just going through the motions or doing exercises, but that it’s an artistic pursuit in everyday class.”

In many ways, the dancers and musicians collaborate in the ballet studio to bring the music to life over the course of the class.

“When you play the right piece of music for the right exercise, you can see advanced dancers responding to your playing in very subtle ways, and there’s an energy created there that is inspiring for both art forms,” said Arnett. “The way they move changes the way I play, and vice-versa.”

For Arnett, being a ballet accompanist has enriched his experiences as a musician and a music major.

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“It provides a safe space for me to explore and experiment as a musician, and it has given me a broader understanding of the relationship between music and other art forms,” he said. “I have a greater appreciation for the ballet musical masterworks I’ve studied as a music major because of the greater connection I can see to the visual element.”

As a little-known, but highly specialized profession, dance accompaniment can have a steep learning curve, but BYU is one of very few places where pianists can be trained to play for ballet. As a result of their training, both Walters and Arnett have had opportunities to play for classes in Salt Lake City at Ballet West, the largest ballet company in Utah.

“You cannot take a brilliant pianist, throw them into a ballet class and expect them to be fantastic, which is what you can expect in almost every other situation,” said Walters. “When you’re specialized in ballet, that sets you apart, and having that skillset is so marketable because ballet pianists are so few and far between.”

Even when in-person classes were suspended in March due to COVID-19, BYU ballet dancers were still able to benefit from live accompaniment in classes over Zoom.

“I had to play around with it, but I figured out a good setup,” said Walters, who played remotely for classes from his home in Las Vegas. “I’ve been surprised at how well it goes once we get into the rhythm of it, and it’s not as different as you’d expect.” 

The live music provided a sense of much-needed normalcy to the dancers’ daily classes. “Even though we couldn’t be in the same room,” said Chopelas, “at least we were all dancing to the same music.”