Company dancer Rachel Malehorn recently sat down with Company Accompanist Steven Ayers
April 27, 2010
Steven Ayers is the accompanist for Milwaukee Ballet. His job is to play a simplified version of a full orchestral score while the Company rehearses for ballets like Peter Pan, slated to be performed with a live orchestra. While this might seem relatively straight-forward for an accomplished musician like Steven, the process of becoming acquainted with the daily flow of ballet rehearsals has been quite challenging for him in many unexpected ways.
Steven received his training from Indiana University, majoring in piano. After several years of teaching piano post-graduation, Steven and his wife welcomed their first son, prompting Steven to look for a somewhat more stable source of income. He became a CPA at that time and spent 17 years helping others with all things tax related. However, three or four years ago, Steven began to feel as though he was missing the music in his life. So with both sons now grown and in college, he began to shift his career back to his love for making music. This led him to a job as a finance advisor for the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music. He began to once again teach piano lessons and accompany string players. Then Steven saw a job listing for a Company pianist for Milwaukee Ballet. He decided to apply—and after an audition consisting of sight reading some music from (what else?) The Nutcracker and playing a piece of music that he had prepared ahead of time, Steven got the job and joined the Company.
“My first impressions of the Company (because before I came here, I knew nothing about ballet) were that all the guys are real characters and the girls, well, they all seem pretty normal,” Steven said while chuckling. “This year I’ve gotten to play lots of Prokofiev (Cinderella and Clowns and Others), Tchaikovsky (The Nutcracker) and now this brand new score for Peter Pan by Philip Feeney. So far, if I get to play such great music all the time, well I love it!”
He admits that it’s taken a while to become accustomed to the ballet rehearsal process. Lots of stopping and starting, going back to oddly named musical landmarks like “Hook’s Pants Are On Fire,” and constantly adjusting the tempo for the dancers are all things he has learned to do automatically. “It’s been an education for me to play for the dancers. It’s hard for me to understand exactly why the music can express anything visually. As a musician, the music is everything—it’s inside of us. Seeing dancers create something visual in addition to the music is adding a whole other level. When I accompany a violinist, and we’re not together, I can always tell. When I’m playing for a ballet rehearsal, and the dancers and I aren’t together, sometimes I have no idea! Michael Pink has such specific musical goals that it becomes so important to coordinate the movement and the music.”
Working on the music for Peter Pan is a process that started for Steven months before the dancers began their rehearsals. He was first given the full score with plans to write a simplified version for his use in rehearsal. “I just feel like there are too many notes—horizontally AND vertically!” The complex interplay between instruments in the orchestra create too many notes and rhythms for one person to play on the piano. “I go through and pick out what I consider to be the most important melodic notes and I plan to play just those. The problem is that I don’t always know which notes Michael wants to emphasize with his steps, so sometimes I have to put back in certain notes that I took out.” It has been such a labor-intensive process that he is just now finishing only one of the acts after working on the project for months. For rehearsals, he says that he scans the full score while he’s playing and tries to pick out the main melodies among thickets of 32nd notes—not an easy task especially considering he’s doing it on the spot. “I only wish that I didn’t make so many mistakes in rehearsals!”
Myself and all the other dancers are extremely appreciative of the patient and talented work that Steven does for us. Imagine one person bringing an entire orchestra to life! Now imagine that he has to do it every day for six hours a day, amid dancers flying around in harnesses, Indian Braves fighting Hook’s pirates, Lost Boys shooting arrows, and various people shouting instructions to one another while they move the set pieces. We couldn’t do what we do without him and we are happy to say thank you to the man behind the piano.