An Interview with Trisha Wolf: Pointe Shoes and Piano Keys
It’s not often you meet a ballerina who is also an accompanist.
Over three years ago at a session of ABT‘s National Training Curriculum for teachers, I had the pleasure of admiring Trisha Wolf’s clean technique and gorgeous feet as we challenged ourselves in a Level 1 ballet class. Afterward, we remained connected through social media and I ended up learning something new about her: she is an accomplished pianist.
And not just any old type of pianist but an accompanist for ballet classes and rehearsals. This is a distinct branch of the field that requires not only playing skills but solid knowledge of musical tempos and time signatures as well as the ability to work in real time with other performing artists.
And I thought, “Who better than a classically trained ballet dancer to thoroughly understand all of these nuances?”
I reached out to Trisha to learn more about her lifelong journey of pointe shoes and piano keys, from ballet studio to recording studio.
Trisha’s music can be found on Spotify and Apple Music. And follow her on Instagram (major bonus: Trisha demonstrating her aforementioned ballet skills!) to stay updated on the upcoming “My Valentine” album, a mix of classical and pop music being released just in time for your Valentine’s Day inspired classes.
Trisha Wolf's Ballet Class Music
Laying the Foundation
‣ So which came first, the piano or the ballet shoes?
I began taking piano lessons at two years old. My Mom is a piano teacher and apparently I begged her for lessons! I kept up my studies with her until I was around fourteen or fifteen when ballet really started taking over most of my time. As a child I did a few ballet lessons but it wasn’t until I restarted classes at age eleven that it became my passion.
‣ I, too, studied the piano and ballet during my youth and like you, it was ballet that ended up winning the slot for valuable time. How did they end up overlapping again after you established that ballet was where you wanted to devote your energies?
My ballet teacher found out my Mom was a pianist and roped her into accompanying my classes in exchange for a discount on my tuition. When I was thirteen or fourteen, my ballet teacher suggested I try playing for a couple of the little kid classes. Luckily they had set music for each level so I was able to bring the music home and work on it a little bit before I started so I was prepared to play for class.
‣ Wow, it sounds like the path was being paved for you! And clearly, your teacher spotted another one of your talents. Did you end up pursuing the piano playing more, or did you decide to keep your focus on ballet?
At 16 I left home to continue my ballet training at the Nutmeg Conservatory for the Arts. This was a much needed step as my local school was small and didn’t provide enough classes if I was looking to go the professional route. Unfortunately, during my second year at Nutmeg I suffered a serious ankle sprain that took me out for the rest of the year. I stayed around to watch class but didn’t really have much to do with my time so Sharon Dante – the director at that time – asked if I’d like to accompany some classes. I had only played for children’s ballet up until that point, and with set music, so I was a little nervous but I decided to give it a go. I found it easier than expected and played for a few classes as we finished out the year.
‣ See? This is the benefit of having many skills – when one is out of commission, you’ve got another to back you up! What was the next step on your journey?
I called Princeton Ballet School where I used to take open classes as a teenager to see if they needed any accompanists. It turned out their head accompanist had suffered an injury and they needed someone to step in right away so I moved back to New Jersey and started playing piano there almost full time!
‣ It seems that at this point, being an accompanist had taken priority over ballet. Did you miss dancing more full time?
Yes, I missed it a lot! I had started taking open classes every morning after some encouragement from Princeton Ballet School teacher Douglas Martin, but taking class once a day wasn’t enough. Luckily, about two years into my time at Princeton Ballet School, Martin took over as the Artistic Director of the affiliated American Repertory Ballet and offered me a company contract for his first season as director. I ended up taking the dancing contract while keeping my pianist job at the school in the afternoons to make ends meet.
From New Jersey → Pennsylvania → North Carolina
‣ That is a lot of work!
It really was way too much as I was working almost seventy hours a week. My body couldn’t handle it and my previous ankle injury was really making dancing too painful. I finally had surgery on my ankle and went back to just playing for classes. A few other opportunities opened up for me after my dancing days were over and I was able to start teaching ballet, train new accompanists, and also was the ballet mistress at Princeton Ballet School.
‣ Still sounds like a lot of work…Do you ever sleep?
I was always looking for new opportunities at this point and reached out to Pennsylvania Ballet when I heard they were opening a new school to see if they needed an accompanist…
‣ I guess not!
They hired me on the spot and offered me classes playing for both the school and the company. This was so much fun for me as I loved the change of scenery and also the chance to watch the company dancers each week. Also through friends I was able to start playing company class at ABT. This really was a dream come true. I remember getting lost in the basement at The Met and having to ask James Whiteside to help me find my way out!
‣ You do realize that you went from playing for little children to stars of one of the most prestigious companies in the world over the span of a couple of decades, right? I feel like we need to take a moment here to thank your first ballet teacher for “roping in” your Mom that day.
I’m guessing the story doesn’t end here…
A few years into my time at Pennsylvania Ballet they needed a rehearsal pianist mid season to fill in immediately. I stepped in and then was offered the job full time for the following season. It was a job I truthfully never wanted but I felt like it was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up, plus I loved working with Angel Corella, the current Artistic Director, and the other Ballet Masters there.
I spent the 2018-2019 season as a full time rehearsal accompanist with Pennsylvania Ballet but decided not to continue on at the end of the season. I’ve always preferred playing for class and working with students, it’s where I feel my talents are put to the best use and it’s fun! My year as a rehearsal pianist taught me so much but it also highlighted the reasons I didn’t want the job in the first place.
Playing piano reductions of the orchestra scores is extremely difficult so I was putting countless hours into learning the music on top of an already jam packed rehearsal schedule. The stresses of that plus the high pressure environment of the studio wasn’t good for my mental health and I really missed being involved with the students. It was scary leaving a steady job and stepping out into the unknown but looking back I’m so glad I made that choice!
‣ You are clearly a survivor, though, so surely you would find something else to fulfill your artistic tendencies.
My parents had retired down to Western North Carolina so I decided to spend some time there to see if I could decide what to do with my life. I ended up finding a job as a vocal accompanist at a college here almost immediately and also started teaching ballet at a few local schools. It was during this time that I was teaching without a pianist for the first time so started recording some music for myself to use while I was teaching.
Once the pandemic started in March I found myself with a lot of free time on my hands as all my jobs were shut down for the rest of the semester. I decided to continue working on the recordings I had started and work towards getting them distributed. My first album came out in April of 2019 and it’s been non-stop ever since! I’ve had so much fun reconnecting with old friends in the ballet world who’ve been using my music and it’s been a great way to feel a part of everything while working through this challenging year! I am loving the challenge of finding ways to incorporate both the newer pop hits and classical music into my albums and I wake up inspired every day to keep creating new music.
Cherilyn's lifelong passion for ballet has opened the door to the next chapter of her journey. Her strong foundation includes training at the School of American Ballet, being a featured dancer with Hartford Ballet and Carolina Ballet, and being co-director/owner of City Ballet Raleigh. She was granted the Affiliate Teacher Award after successfully completing the ABT National Training Curriculum®. A professional career in the industry along with extensive global travel provide her with a unique set of experiences to draw upon as a journalist and audience member. Cherilyn is excited to be sharing her insight about ballet around the world.