The Life of a Ballet Class Pianist

October 26, 2008

In ballet class, music is integral to each combination, and dancers lucky enough to have a live accompanist know how much more inspiring it is than a CD player. Mami Hariyama, a 23-year-old musical prodigy who tickles the ivories at some of NYC’s top studios, brings a unique combination of talents to her craft.

A former ballerina, Hariyama danced her way to the Kobe International Ballet Competition in her native Japan, as well as the Leningrad State Ballet in Russia, before several injuries sidelined her at age 18. During her recovery, in Japan, Hariyama, who had studied the piano since age 5 (both her parents are musicians), filled in last-minute for a class pianist. Since then, she has accompanied teachers in Russia—including those at the elite Vaganova Ballet Academy—and more than 50 teachers in and around NYC at studios such as Ballet Academy East and Steps on Broadway.

Hariyama works alongside teachers to make class continuous. “[Live music] motivates dancers and helps the flow of the class so the teacher doesn’t have to stop instructing to search for the right CD for the situation,” she says.

Besides nimble hands and a well-trained ear, accompanists must have the ability to improvise, memorize pieces of music and use their imagination. In a fast-paced class, taking the time to flip through scores for the right piece of music can be frustrating for everyone in the room.

In addition to musical ability and technique, accompanists possess an understanding of class structure. “Music for ballet is very different than what you’d hear at a piano concert,” says Hariyama. “It’s important to understand the movements of ballet and observe the teachers in the class.” An accompanist must also be able to keep tempo with each exercise as the teacher is instructing.

As a freelance accompanist, Hariyama works 7 days a week. “Every day is a different schedule and a different location,” she says.

“When a student or instructor gives me some nice words after class, it makes my day,” says Hariyama.