Coty Cockrell

Professional creative site for Coty Cockrell.  Music, Theater, Art. 

At the Piano Barre - My Unlikely Beginning as a Ballet Pianist


I got thrown into accompanying ballet classes with absolutely no experience, and no idea what I was doing. I suppose that's the best way to start something brand new -- otherwise, you'd be scared to death and crippled by the thousands of ways you could fail in a tragic, blazing shame spiral. Better to just plunge right in and cling to the surprisingly powerful shield of ignorant positivity, I always say. Well, at least that's what I thought that day. 

It was the first day of a high-caliber, three-week long performing arts intensive. I learned that morning that I would be accompanying the ballet auditions. Hundreds of incredible dancers from around the world squeezing into a mob of black spandex and pink frilly bits against the back wall of a huge studio with soaring ceilings and pristine mirrors. What was I even doing? How did I get here? What am I supposed to play? What is this strange made-up language that the Lord of the Dance is shouting to the throngs... is that French? Oh god, I failed French. They didn't tell me French would be involved!

Apparently, the "Lord of the Dance" is someone else entirely, and this guy is called the "ballet master" (which sounds WAY cooler, in my humble opinion). As he demonstrated the various movements, passing through positions and poses like a graceful robot (unlike the terrifying animatronic monstrosities I grew up with at Showbiz Pizza), the mass of dancers eagerly mimicked his every move down to the slight flick of the wrist, the subtle tilt of the head. 

It was entrancing, and a little creepy. 

And then he looked at me. I can't even remember what I played. I think it was something hinting at Chopin, but before I knew it they had all stopped, so I did too. And then they changed lines and did it all over again.  I breathed. I played.  Well, that wasn't so bad... It was actually kind of fun!

Over the course of the day, I began to understand how to feel the pulse of the dancers, whether they needed something in three or in four, slow or fast, light and crisp or lush and moving. I started to anticipate the character of the combination, and feverishly searched my brain for fragments of melodies I could throw in to liven up the audition. Something to make the dance faculty crack a smile (which was very hard to do), something to make these hurried, nervous dancers relax and put their best foot forward (pun totally intended).

For one group, I played the opening riff from Stairway to Heaven. For another, the theme from Beauty and the Beast. A Britney Spears song. Jurassic Park. Lady Gaga. I was living for this challenge, searching the room for that knowing smile, the "gotcha" moment, when their eyes darted over to this gargantuan piano in the corner with a gleam of recognition. It was like watching popcorn pop, if you can imagine something so thrilling. 

There are some really, REALLY terrific ballet accompanists out there. Pianists who know every note that Tchaikovsky ever penned, who could whip out a mazurka or polonaise with lightning speed and execute it with frightening accuracy and artistry. 

That is not me. 

I'm getting there, but I have a lifetime to build my repertoire of codas and adagios and petite allegros. All I knew was that this was a fun challenge, it was a creative challenge, and it was a practical challenge -- three things that don't necessarily always overlap in the piano world. 

What I didn't realize then is that my musical life leading up to this moment had primed me in other areas to be an incredible ballet pianist. I started out playing piano by ear, so I took audio cues from the ballet master very well, and was great at interpreting their vocalizations into musical material. My experience in musical theater prepped me for working with dancers and choreographers, which can be a special skill for sure. My training in the jazz world left me with a brain full of chord progressions and the means for making up stuff on top of them. My classical piano degree made me keenly aware of the idiosyncrasies of various piano styles: characteristics of Bach, Mozart, Chopin, Gershwin. And my experience goofing off with my nerdy musical friends playing "the game", in which audience members would shout out contrasting songs or themes and I would have to weave them together in one seamless medley, primed me for this little inventive challenge I'd given myself. 

Sometimes it worked surprisingly well. A Katy Perry song danced across the floor; a slow, expressive adagio developed over a Radiohead ballad. 

Sometimes it was a glorious tragedy, seemingly eclipsing the ultimate downfalls that have beset the human race for a millennia. The fall of the ancient Roman Empire, the Hindenburg disaster, that one time Coty tried to play "Crazy Train" for pliés. 

As I mentioned before, the best strategy is to charge positively and ignorantly forward, snatching up as many bits of knowledge and insight as you can. I have been very fortunate to work with incredible ballet masters who communicate eloquently and musically... and have a lot of patience. 

Now, I play ballet classes, auditions, and workshops in New York City at a number of schools. I'm even the principal pianist for a professional, touring ballet company. And let me tell you, I am still learning. Every single day, every single class. Ballet babies to the mature movers (mature as in older, not that other definition).

I'm thrilled to bring my own flavor of music to each class, a culmination of my experience as a theatrical actor and music director, jazz musician, composer, and classical pianist. But more than that, in the true spirit of collaboration I love creating something that has never existed before, and will never exist ever again, encapsulated in a beautiful string of moments linked together, one beautiful movement at a time.