Jamie Narushchen was born and raised in Minneapolis and began studying piano with his grandmother at the age of six. He studied piano performance at Johns Hopkins Peabody Conservatory, and joined SF Ballet as an accompanist shortly after moving out west. His passion for improvisation led him to take additional coursework in composition at San Francisco Conservatory of Music.
In 2013, SF Ballet named Jamie a Lee R. Crews Endowed Pianist in addition to his position as pianist supervisor for SF Ballet School. Throughout his thirty years at SF Ballet, he has regularly provided accompaniment for the West Coast auditions held by American Ballet Theatre, The Juilliard School, Boston Ballet, and others. He also enjoys the opportunity to play for Mark Morris' and Suzanne Farrell's classes during their visits to the Bay Area.
Jamie Narushchen joined San Francisco Ballet School as an accompanist in 1987. Since then he has also taken on the roles of music teacher and pianist supervisor, organizing the schedules of about a dozen full-time and part-time pianists to play about 130 classes weekly that require live accompaniment. We’re approaching Mr. Narushchen’s 30th anniversary with SF Ballet, so we took a break between classes to discuss the importance of music education for dancers:
What do ballet students gain from having music classes as part of their curriculum?
It’s like learning to swim; sure you can learn about different swimming strokes by observing someone in the water, but you can't learn to swim without jumping in and moving the water around you. Music is a fundamental component of dance. You can’t fully understand and appreciate the music, particularly how it relates to the steps you are dancing, without learning how to break it down and put it back together again.
What is your goal for the students in music class?
The goal of the class is to ensure students have a relationship with music; to just listen to the music is not enough. Before the end of the first semester, students will be able to articulate what they hear and also learn simple composition techniques to create their own music.
How is a music class at SF Ballet School different from a music class that a student might take at their academic school or in instrumental music lessons?
The students must learn the basics--terminology, rhythm, meter, harmony, tempo, but it is all rooted in and related to the music that they will hear in ballet class and at the Opera House during SF Ballet’s Repertory Season. One activity students participate in is active dictation: two students play different rhythms simultaneously on the piano and the other students must decipher and write down what they hear. It helps them learn to understand what they hear. In addition to this, they write their own harmonic and melodic phrases for ballet class exercises for barre and center. One of the culminating projects is to watch a ballet, identify the meter, rhythmic motifs, and how they relate to the choreography.
How have you seen the students change their approach to dancing once they’ve experienced music classes?
Ultimately I've seen that the students have become better listeners. There is such an expansive range of music being used in ballets now, so a solid understanding of basic music concepts is imperative. Because the classes involve SF Ballet’s repertory program music, the students have a familiarity with the music when they see the performances, which builds confidence. They are more involved in the experience.