Thursday, April 21, 2016

Getting the Best Performance from Your Collaborative Pianist - Part 2


Today, I will conclude my look at those things that build the most positive relationship between soloist and collaborative pianist -- leading to the best possible performance. Now let's look at specifics related to the rehearsal process and performance.

  • The first rehearsal sets the tone for the entire collaboration process. If you have never worked together, this is your opportunity to see how each other works. Is the overall mood relaxed and jovial while being productive? Or is it straight to work with no down time? Knowing what the relationship is like from the beginning will make the rehearsal process run much more smoothly.
  • Every rehearsal should not include a run of the program. I generally like to start rehearsals with a read through just so we can begin to figure out how things fit together and decide what passages need immediate attention. In many cases, the parts line up easily and simply getting familiar with the piece will solve a multitude of problems.
  • If we are not playing the entire piece, how do we work through it? Efficient rehearsals will involve a good deal of conversation. You and your pianist need to discuss your overall interpretation of the piece as well as issues related to breaths, rubato, tempo changes, and ritardandos. Once you have discussed a passage, isolate it from the whole and work on that segment alone. This allows everyone to direct their attention to the point that was just discussed and then evaluate the execution and effectiveness. Is a better cue needed? Who gives it? Is the tempo change driven by the pianist or soloist? As you work through these passages, each member of the ensemble makes note of issues they need to correct in their personal rehearsal time; it makes no sense to waste the other musician's time while working out technical and musical problems that can be effectively corrected in the practice room alone.
  • Your first run through of a piece should NEVER be a coaching session with your teacher. This is a personal pet peeve of mine. It's simply unfair to ask your pianist to attempt to keep the piece together in front of another professional whose job is to help the student shape musical phrases and deal with technical challenges. At the very least, a preliminary rehearsal -- in advance of the first coaching session -- should be held to establish tempi and to alert the pianist to any odd ensemble passages. Soloists who repeatedly put their collaborative pianist in this awkward position may find themselves in need of a new chamber partner. (The exception to this would be a piece that is very familiar to all pianists -- things like the Brahms' clarinet/viola sonatas or the Hindemith trumpet sonata. It's still not a great idea to have a coaching without a rehearsal, but at least the pianist has some idea how this standard rep fits together and has probably played it before. Still, you are taking a huge chance that your coaching session will be a waste of time by not rehearsing in advance.)
  • Subsequent rehearsals -- after coaching -- are all about polishing. There is no substitute for rehearsing together to allow music to fully mature and for your ensemble to gel. As you continue to rehearse on a regular basis in preparation for your performance, focus on issues related to balance while continuing to address ensemble concerns related to cues and phrasing. Don't allow technical challenges to become the main focus -- after all, making music together in partnership is the ultimate goal of any collaboration. Your final rehearsal before the performance -- a dress run, if you will -- is all about getting a sense of the flow of the program. If at all possible, conduct your dress rehearsal a few days in advance of the performance.
  • Continue to be gracious during the performance. Your audience will notice the strength of your partnership as you graciously acknowledge the pianist's work through shared bows (the days of extending a hand to the "accompanist" after the performance are gone) and genuine smiles. Don't forget to be gracious backstage as well. This is not the place to comment on passages that didn't go as well as you hoped. Keep things positive while complimenting and encouraging each other. If you have built a true collaborative partnership during the rehearsal process, this mutual respect and admiration comes naturally.
  • After the performance is over, your continued support of your collaborative partner is greatly appreciated. One of the best ways for pianists to get new performance opportunities is through word of mouth referrals. If you enjoyed working with your pianist, tell your colleagues about your experience and encourage them to get in touch with your collaborative pianist for future engagements. The pianist will be grateful -- and might even cut you a deal for future work together.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Getting the Best Performance from Your Collaborative Pianist - Part I

It's that time of year when students are preparing for end-of-the-semester juries and other performances. That means collaborative pianists across the country are getting inundated with requests to play for these exams. Having served as a collaborative pianist for many years, I have realized that some "obvious" things about the needs of the collaborative pianist are not always so clear in the minds of students. Here are some tips that will set you up to get the best possible performance from your collaborative partner.

Provide copies of the music as soon as possible. Musicians sometimes think they are doing their pianist a great service by holding onto the score until the performance date gets closer. After all, the accompaniment "doesn't look too hard." Here's the first thing to understand -- just because the accompaniment is not filled with running sixteenth notes does not mean there are not passages that need to be worked out. Get the music to your pianist as soon as you can; it will then be their decision to determine when they need to begin working on it.

While we're on the topic of providing copies of the score, here are a few specifics to consider:
  • Originals are always preferable - especially intricate instrumental scores.
  • If you are providing a copy, make sure you know the pianist's preferred format. With more and more performers using digital scores now, it is not always necessary to hand the pianist a paper copy. If you can save a tree -- and save your pianist a step in their preparation -- that's always a good thing! Digital copies also cut down on the clutter of scores that inevitably pile up on the piano lid -- and possibly get forgotten there.
  • When making copies or scans, give us the clearest version possible. I appreciate knowing that you have done a lot of advance work on the piece and have made notes in your score. However, all of those handwritten comments can become very distracting and make the music difficult to read. And in case you're wondering -- YES! It does matter that the copies are straight and that none of the notes (yours or mine!) are missing from the copy.
Include as many specifics as you can from the beginning. When your pianist receives your music, it is added to an enormous stack of other repertoire they are learning. Including details about dates of performance(s) and coachings ensures that the part will be learned in a timely manner without a last minute dash on our part. Musically, it is nice to be told projected metronome markings as well as any recordings from which you are working.

Clarify your pianist's compensation policy. If your school covers accompanist fees in your tuition, you may not have to worry about this point. (Just recognize that "extra" performances are not  included in the tuition-covered fee and payment will be expected as well as deserved.) If your school does not pay a pianist to collaborate with you, you will be responsible for the expense. Does the pianist charge a standard rate for performances or do they use an hourly rate? Is there a monthly rate that includes playing for a weekly lesson as well as performance labs? If there is a set fee, how many rehearsals are included? When is payment expected? One common payment approach is that all payments must be made prior to the final performance. If the money is not in the pianist's hand, it is very likely that they will not play! (After all, this is not a volunteer service.)

Schedule rehearsals in advance and make sure you arrive on time. By scheduling in advance, you are assuring that your collaborative partner is able to build their schedule as needed to give you the attention you deserve. If you begin to wedge rehearsals into any available open spot in their schedule, your pianist may accommodate your request but you won't necessarily get the best results. Hands and minds need to rest, so pianists try to avoid stacking multiple rehearsals when possible. (Here's the simple truth:  happy hands = happy pianist = better performance.)

Treat your scheduled rehearsals like any other professional appointment. Arrive to the location early with your instrument assembled, warmed up and ready to go. Expect the rehearsal to begin on time and end on time. (After all, you're not the only performer needing to rehearse with this pianist.) Things happen and needing to cancel the occasional rehearsal is inevitable. When these circumstances arise, give as much notice as possible -- at least 24 hours is greatly appreciated by the pianist! While we understand that last minute emergencies happen, that should not be the norm. If you miss a rehearsal without ample notification, expect to pay for the session and not be offered a make-up.

Next week, I'll share my thoughts on the rehearsal process as well as stage decorum. Here's hoping you have a very productive interaction with the collaborative pianists in your life this week.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Sources of Cookie-Cutter Performances

Last week, my thoughts were sparked by comments made by Dolly Parton and Seal about returning to "pure and simple" performances. I came to the conclusion that the trend toward multi-media enhanced Classical music performances may often be attributed to a poorly developed interpretation. This week, my mind has been asking a single follow-up question: "WHY?" Here are a few of the culprits that I think are contributing to these less-than-inspiring recitals.

Emphasis placed on technique over artistry. Much of our work in music education is devoted to helping young artists develop their technique. After all, without a solid technique it is impossible to effectively communicate with an audience. However, there comes a point in the preparation process where the performer's focus needs to shift from the mechanics of making music to artistry, communication, and personal interpretation. When the shift occurs, the student often discovers the necessary step of improving their technique in order to accomplish their goals. This can result in a renewed interest in technical study on the part of the student now that they see the purpose of the work in their own repertoire.

The prevalence of recordings. I am an advocate of listening to performers from all generations and schools of thought. However, recordings can be intimidating to a young artist. When listening to a recording that is considered the gold standard, it is possible for the student to become convinced that they will never be able to perform at an acceptable level. Additionally, students may begin to listen to one artist exclusively -- resulting in mimicry rather than using the album as inspiration. There is another danger for the student that listens widely and indiscriminately to recordings. When one encounters a large number of mediocre performances, it is easy to fall victim to the opinion that things are "good enough" in their current state, eliminating the pursuit of higher levels of artistry.

Necessity of quick preparation. Music is not ready for public performance when the notes and rhythms are accurately learned. Time is needed for the melodies and harmonies to marinate in the soul. Collaborative partnerships need time to develop a mutual sense of direction and interpretation. Quite simply, the music needs ample time to mature. Sadly, it has become a trend in many schools to prepare and present material as quickly as possible so we can move on to the next program. The resulting music can often leave the audience wanting more and the musicians not fully enjoying the experience of presenting a mature, well-prepared recital.

The lost arts of reflection, experimentation, and imagination. Because students are preparing performances so quickly for fast approaching deadlines, there is rarely an opportunity to experiment musically. I don't see many students reflecting on the music and developing their personal interpretation. I long to have a student enter a rehearsal and tell me about the idea they have regarding a turn of a specific phrase...and then we give it a try. I believe that it is in the reflection and experimentation process that performers develop their own voice and begin to become contributing members of the artistic community.

I'd love to hear your thoughts. Am I completely missing the point? Do you see additional sources of these cookie-cutter performances? Join the conversation by adding your comments below.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Stripped Down Performances

Earlier this month, country music legend Dolly Parton announced a major tour throughout the US and Canada later this year. The announcement was inspiring considering the singer's age as well as the fact that it has been more than 20 years since her last major tour. What I truly found remarkable and thought-provoking was Parton's description of the tour -- the concerts will be "stripped down" to reflect the promotion's Pure and Simple title.

In our technologically driven society, some observers attribute classical music's declining audiences in part to the genre's failure to entice patrons with the latest technology. This explains the appearance of light displays, intricate PowerPoint presentations, and movie clips in recital halls around the country in recent years. While I am all for using all forms of media when it enhances the overall experience, I also find that its inclusion is not always beneficial. I think it is time that we face the fact that all of the sparkle is sometimes included in an effort to disguise an inherent deficiency.

It seems that Dolly is on to something. During his March 18, 2016 interview on The Chew (ABC), Seal stated that the current plan for his upcoming European tour will feature him and one or two other musicians on stage. No light shows. No dancers. When asked why, Seal suggested that the audience wants to just focus on the message of the music. Is it possible that classical audiences are dwindling because we are no longer communicating relevant messages to them? Have we failed to present music that speaks to the heart? Do we as performers intentionally bring personal interpretations of the music to the recital stage that we have painstakingly developed in the practice room or are we simply regurgitating a soulless version of a favored recording?

That's the challenge facing musicians today. In the coming weeks, I'll explore what I believe to be some of the causes of our present cookie-cutter performances as well as steps today's teachers can take to break the cycle while training the next generation of musicians. I hope you'll join me for the conversation.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Technology for the Piano Studio

As our world is daily effected by modern technology, our piano studios are also changing. Students of all ages come to us more tech-savvy than ever before. They expect our teaching to include the use of apps and other forms of technology that will be beneficial to their learning. Here's a quick look at some of the websites, applications and equipment I am currently using in my collegiate studio on an almost daily basis.

  • ForScore Music Reader. After spending the early years of my career as a collaborative pianist hauling enormous binders filled with photocopies of scores from rehearsal to rehearsal, ForScore changed my life. The iPad app holds lots of music that is clearly displayed on the tablet. With the ability to mark the score easily as well as the imbedded metronome and recording equipment, ForScore is one of the most powerful tools in my arsenal at the moment.
  • AirTurn Blue Tooth Page Turner. Paired with my iPad and ForScore, my AirTurn system allows for hands-free page turning. Set up is easy and the dual pedal configuration is highly mobile, reliable, and affordable. Rarely do I play a performance or important rehearsal without using my AirTurn.
  • Recording Capabilities. Recording lessons, rehearsals and performances is a valuable tool for every musician and most of our students have the capability to record -- both audio and video recordings -- from one of their devices. Additionally, sites such as YouTube and SoundCloud enable performers to reach a large audience without spending a cent on travel. 
  • Metronome. Students have no excuse for not practicing with a metronome! There are many free apps that are quite good. I encourage my students to use the simple metronomes so they aren't distracted by all of the "bells and whistles" that come with many for-purchase apps. Why pay for more when we just need a clear sound that keeps a steady beat?
  • Online Music Sources. It is now possible to obtain music very quickly with the advent of digital scores. Additionally, many free scores are available. I find myself accessing IMSLP regularly as I research new music that is now in the public domain and finding scores for students who are struggling financially.  Students enrolled in my class piano course are no longer carrying an enormous textbook; instead, they purchase a semester's license to EnovativePiano.com. Enovative offers everything from repertoire to score reading excerpts, transposition exercises, and harmonization projects in a single location at a reasonable price. Perhaps most importantly, each of Enovative's repertoire selections is accompanied by a video performance that displays solid technique and musicality. (In case you can't tell, I'm a big fan of the online text and would love to chat with you about it further if you are interested.)
  • Listening Sources. Whether you prefer YouTube, Spotify, SoundCloud, or Naxos, there are plenty of places to direct your students to hear performances -- both good and bad -- of repertoire they should know as well as pieces they are studying. When you don't find what you're looking for, the option to upload your own recording is also an option. When you can't listen to a live performance, these websites offer the next best thing.
  • Survey Monkey. Yes, I'm using Survey Monkey in my studio instruction. It's an easy way to collect comments on peer performances in a piano lab setting or studio performance lab without forcing introverted students to stress over speaking in front of a group of their peers. In my personal experience, I've found that a few confidential surveys help everyone's confidence to grow and realize that they have insightful comments to make on musical performances that can be helpful to their friends.
Now I'd like to hear from you. How are you using technology in your studio? Share your experiences and ideas in the comments below.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Pianist vs. Accompanist

Recently, I attended a workshop discussing the skills needed to become a better accompanist. At the beginning of the session, the clinician stated that the difference between a pianist and an accompanist was the accompanist's awareness of breathing. I was disgruntled by the statement immediately, but tried to give the speaker the benefit of the doubt. As she continued her presentation, I became more and more convinced that she was a total hack who should never speak publicly about the art of piano collaboration. It also set me on my personal development of workshops on this topic about which I am extremely passionate.

I do not consider myself an accompanist. I am a pianist. End of statement. When one accompanies another person on a journey, the implication is that they are simply along for the ride. They are not significantly contributing in the efforts that will lead to the final destination. The same connotation is often held by those who view the pianist as nothing more than an "accompanist." The pianist is not viewed as a contributing member of the ensemble. While the piano part may be simple at times, there are still significant artistic choices that must be made. In my mind, an "accompanist" is someone who merely plays the notes on the page; a pianist brings artistry to the performance, allowing the notes on the page to take on a life of their own.

The distinction moves beyond the use of terminology though. To say that a pianist lacks awareness of breathing displays a total lack of understanding of the careful study of piano performance. Just as singers and instrumentalists rely on the breath to carefully shape their phrases, the pianist must allow the melody to breathe as it rises and falls. Although our instrument is not powered by the flow of air, playing without allowing the music to breathe in a natural way results in a performance that is stilted and lifeless.

Perhaps a better distinction to notice is the difference between a solo artist and a chamber musician. The solo pianist is concerned solely with the sounds coming from his instrument. The chamber pianist, on the other hand, fully understands the necessity of collaborating with another musician -- whether a vocalist, conductor, or instrumentalist -- to achieve a moving musical experience. (Hence the term frequently used to describe this specialized field of playing -- collaborative piano.) Many pianists find themselves living in both worlds at various times. Personally, I believe that pianists tend to prefer performing as a soloist or a collaborative pianist; there seems to be an affinity for one type of playing over the other.  Neither pianist is superior to the other; the two simply have different approaches to making music and will often find themselves called upon to perform in the other vein of piano performance. The ultimate goal of both pianists, however, is always the same -- to create the most beautiful sounds possible with the skills they have developed over years of study of the piano.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Peer Evaluation in Group Instruction - My Experience

Teaching piano has traditionally involved a single student with a teacher. For teachers venturing into the realm of group instruction, the class can evolve into a series of private lessons taught in spurts as they move about the room. These situations are missing the dynamic opportunities that come with the group setting.

Recently, I have been thinking about ways to actively engage students in learning in the group setting. I decided to experiment with peer evaluations and have been pleased with the results. I immediately realized that students were more aware of their own errors after evaluating others and began to listen to their own performances much more closely.

Students in Class Piano IV are currently preparing one of the following pieces -- L'Arabesque, Op. 100, No. 2 (Johann Friedrich Burgmuller) or Pleasant Morning (Jean Louis Streabbog) -- for performance in their upcoming proficiency exam. Since everyone is now familiar with the pieces, I decided this would be the perfect opportunity for peer evaluation. What I wasn't certain about was the best method to collect student responses. My goal was to gather helpful information for each student performer while assuring the evaluator felt comfortable speaking honestly about the performance.

My solution was to use an online survey created in Survey Monkey. Students listened to each performance and rated the performer in the areas of preparation, note accuracy, rhythmic accuracy, and phrasing. Space for additional comments was also provided for each area of review. Since each station of the piano lab is equipped with a desktop computer, students were easily able to rank their peers immediately after the performance. The online survey assured that each reviewer could offer commentary anonymously and without fear of offending their friend.

The results were insightful and clearly indicated that the students were listening thoughtfully and offered needed feedback. I repeated the process the following week in a master class setting. Students performed before the group once again (because they can never get too many opportunities to play the piece in front of others). This time, their peers were asked to provide oral feedback about each performance; comments were to include praise as well as suggestions of aspects of the performance that needed further attention. Students pointed out errors in pitch and rhythm, of course. I was very pleased to hear them mention phrase shape and articulation as well. After the master class, I asked students to share with me how they felt about offering oral feedback. They admitted that they would have been very hesitant to offer constructive criticism if they had not participated in the online survey first. Since the survey offered various areas to critique, the students realized how carefully they needed to listen to a performance in order to offer helpful commentary.

Now that I have seen the benefits of peer evaluation, I plan to incorporate it into all levels of group instruction that I teach. Its value is immense and the rewards are evident in the evaluator's own performance quickly.