Thursday, May 26, 2016

Are Collaborative Pianists Inferior?

If you have worked as a collaborative pianist for very long, you have encountered this question. It is often accompanied by a comparison to one of the "star" soloists that the masses adore. It can be a subconscious question asked by fellow musicians. As the question repeatedly appears, it can cause us to wonder if there is some validity to the presumption that collaborative pianists are inferior musicians. As I have wrestled with this falsehood in recent months, I have found that this opinion is based on personal experiences as well as false assumptions in many cases. In this week's post, I will address some of the most common reasons I have encountered and will briefly explain why I think they are entirely false.
  • Collaborative pianists were unable to be soloists. Here's the simple fact -- not every pianist desires to be a soloist. Some of us (myself included) would much rather work with another musician and create beautiful sounds together. Don't be fooled... many of the outstanding collaborative pianists working today have spent years perfecting their craft and are very accomplished pianists. The fact that they rarely play solo programs is more likely due to their preference for chamber music than a lack of opportunities.
  • Why do we assume collaborators are incapable of performing as soloists? Sadly, we have all heard far too many amateur pianists providing poor accompaniments! Let me state this clearly once and for all....just because a person has studied the piano for years DOES NOT mean that they are capable of providing quality accompaniment for your performance. For far too long, it has been accepted that anyone can serve as an accompanist. The result has been low-quality performances that have done little to reflect the quality of preparation and performance of the soloists and ensembles they were accompanying. This is one of the major reasons that many are choosing to refer to themselves as "collaborative pianists" today in an effort to separate themselves from the hack "accompanist" with whom we are all too familiar. However, it is also important to realize that the opposite is also true; there have been countless times where a great pianist proved to the audience that they were not strong collaborators. Collaboration requires more than mere technical facility; it is an art that involves careful attention to minute details that must be worked out in rehearsal with other performers. Even the most gifted musicians will find that a chamber work thrown together at the last minute will be less than enthralling simply because an insufficient amount of time was spent together in order to let the individual members of the ensemble become a single performing unit.
  • There is a false assumption that the collaborative pianist's repertoire is easy to play. Nothing is further from the truth! Certainly, there are some pieces in the collaborative repertoire that are rather simple to put together -- because we have played them a million times before. However, for every simple piece that we play, there is also a massive aria, sonata, or concerto that demands our attention. The difficult repertoire does not necessarily feature the piano, but the technical and musical requirements found in these works are no less demanding than a Beethoven or Prokofiev piano sonata. At times, collaborating can be more challenging than performing as a soloist since two or more lines must be considered when making decisions.
I have tremendous respect for piano soloists and the wonderful music they are capable of producing. I would never want to belittle their work. I have simply chosen a different field of piano performance that is just as demanding and requires the same level of accomplishment, preparation, and sensitivity as my solo counterparts. The only thing I am asking is that we have some mutual respect for each other as we all work to further excellent piano performance in our differing ways.

What do you have to say? Have you heard different reasons for the assumption that collaborators are inferior to soloists? What piece from your collaborative repertoire do you name to show the demands of your work? I'd love to continue the conversation in the comments below.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Solo Repertoire for the Collaborative Pianist

With the arrival of summer, many collaborative pianists are find themselves with a lighter performance load. This is the perfect time to begin preparing repertoire for next season while continuing to develop our skills. I'm finding that it is also a perfect time to venture into solo repertoire that I generally neglect in the height of performance season. Here are some suggestions of repertoire to consider working on this summer to specifically address concerns common to the collaborative pianist.

  • Bach's Well Tempered Clavier is good for every pianist to return to on a regular basis. Not only do the preludes and fugues promote good technique, but the emphasis on melodic figures that appear in all voices -- especially in the fugues -- are great for the collaborative pianist. These works bring our skills (or lack of skill) in the areas of balance and phrasing to the forefront while challenging the pianist to maintain a legato line without being overly dependent on the use of the pedal.
  • Currently, I am fascinated with The Songs without Words by Mendelssohn. These charming miniature pieces clearly resemble German lieder with the simple melodic lines accompanied by repetitive figures in the piano. Once again, the Songs without Words require careful attention to balance while also providing an interesting study of harmonic progression and the effect the chords' movements have on the overall shape of the music. I'm working through the 6 pieces in Op. 19 right now in preparation for a scheduled solo recital in the fall.
  • To improve my sight reading, I find myself constantly returning to the sonatas of the Classical era. Their adherence to form allows the pianist to anticipate where things are going; the constant use of arpeggios, scales, and sequences develop finger dexterity as well as speed. When you tire of works by Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, I suggest looking to the sonatas and sonatinas of Cramer, Clementi, and Kuhlua.
  • Song transcriptions are an obvious choice of solo repertoire that will be beneficial to the collaborative pianist. If you are like me, you immediately think of the massive (and incredibly difficult) transcriptions by Liszt and say "No, thanks!" Before you write off the form entirely, a brief search on IMSLP will reveal a treasure trove of standard art songs transcribed by lesser-known composers. Many of these are simply charming and provide challenging material for the developing pianist -- soloist or collaborator. (I'm just beginning my personal exploration of these works, so keep an eye out for a future post about the gems I find in this genre.)
Those are my immediate recommendations. What solo works do you recommend working on during the summer months? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Difficulty with Cadences

Last week, I administered the last section of the piano proficiency exam at WBU. Traditionally, this section has proven to be the most troublesome for students because of its content -- the dreaded scale routines, or what we refer to as SATCs. SATC stands for Scales (two octaves, hands separate), Arpeggios (two octaves, hands separate), Triad Scale (hands together) and Cadences (hands together). Students must complete SATCs in all major keys as well as the minor keys that begin on a white note of the piano. As I began teaching SATCs to second year students, I quickly realized that the I-IV-I-V-V7-I progression was proving to be most problematic. How in the world was I going to teach this concept? The solution I ultimately arrived at is what I'm going to outline in this week's post.

Playing the cadences in root position was not a problem for most of my students. Once I realized that the assumption that they were thinking harmonically while playing them was false -- they had actually memorized hand movements and figured things out by ear -- I began to see that I had to step back to the beginning of the teaching process.  Together we backed up to spell each chord of the progression in root position. Once we were able to correctly spell the triads, I made sure that the concept of inverting chords was clear theoretically as well as at the keyboard.

I had the students play the C major cadence in root position, but this time I asked them to notice what inversion of each chord was being used. I wrote the progression on the board and we discovered together that a "rule" seemed to be at play in this progression. Common tones shared by parallel chords (i.e. I and IV as well as the I and V that would follow) had to remain in the same location of the following chord. For example, the common tone between I and IV is do (or C if we continue to work in the key of C major). Since the C is located on the bottom of the root position I chord, the rule demands that the same pitch (C) remain on the bottom of the IV chord. The result is a IV chord in second inversion (in C major, that chord is spelled C - F - A). We continued to discover that the common tone in the I and V chords is sol. Now we had a pattern to follow!

Before progressing, we needed to find a way to define the 7th of the V chord. The easiest way we discovered to identify the 7th is to add the pitch located a whole step below the root of the V chord. This eliminated the need to remember if we had to think in the key signature of I or V when adding the 7th to the V chord.

Now that we had a rule to follow, we needed to make sure it worked for inverted chords. As a class we built a first inversion chord in C major. To begin the cadence, do is the common tone and remains in the same voice while the other voices move. Return to the inversion of I that was just played and identify sol. Sol remains the same and the other voices move down. Add the 7th (whole step below the root of the V chord) before returning home to the inversion of I. Guess what? It worked! At this point, students also realized that the direction of the non-stationary voices moved in the same direction -- up to the IV and down to the V -- and wondered if that would be true in second inversion.

Second inversion caused a slight problem because the 7th of the V7 chord appears at the top of the chord to allow for stronger voice leading. At this point, students began to see that the 7th was resolving down to the third of the tonic chord in all inversions -- and understood the exception to the rule.

Many of my students were vocalists, so I decided to have them examine the movement of each voice of the cadence independently. What we discovered together is that the melodic movement of each voice remains the same regardless of the inversion and that the most active voice is the one that contains the third of the tonic chord.

Suddenly, I realized that I had a good method for teaching cadences that seemed to work with the majority of my students. This semester, all of my students passed the cadence portion of the proficiency exam and my freshmen students are well on their way to mastering the first 10 keys that I have taught them using this method.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Discovering Effective Practice Techniques

Another semester is over. Juries have been completed. Many were successful; others were not. Across the board -- at all levels of study -- I'm coming to realize that teachers don't always effectively teach students HOW to practice. Once instructed in the art of practicing, I'm not sure the students are always confident in the effective ways to go about practicing without supervision.

I certainly don't have all of the answers. There are lots of times that I feel like the little guy in the picture above. I'm daily learning how to practice smarter and more effectively. I am also learning how to teach my students to practice. I thought I would share a few of the practice techniques that I have suggested to my students (ranging from late elementary to college levels) this semester. Hopefully some of them will be helpful to you as you continue to discover the practice techniques that are most effective for you.

  • Three pennies game. When it comes to practice, there is no substitute for repetition. However, mindless repetition will not be beneficial in the long run. To use the three pennies idea, isolate a passage that is giving you trouble. Then work through it and DO NOT MOVE ON until you are able to play it flawlessly in three consecutive repetitions; two correct plays followed by a mistake means you start the process over from scratch. Three pennies are used as a visual aid for young students to keep track of their progress and can be placed on the lip of the music rack. (To keep it fresh, substitute seasonal items -- pumpkins, hearts, flowers -- so students remain excited about the activity.)
  • Practice backward. No, I'm not suggesting that you learn the retrograde version of your repertoire! (I'm really not that sadistic!) What I have found in my own practicing is that challenging passages begin to fall apart as I get further into it....and things spiral downward from there. By looking at the passage from the end, I am able to figure out fingerings that allow the transition out of the challenging passage to work a little more smoothly. It also means that I'm practicing the end of the passage more than the the music becomes stronger and more secure as I move through it! Still confused? Break the passage down into chunks -- maybe each beat -- and work out the last one. When that beat is secure, add the preceding one. When you have conquered the two beat figure, continue working backward -- adding one beat at a time -- until you have mastered the entire passage. (I know it sounds strange, but it is one of the most effective rehearsal techniques for me personally. I encourage you to try it out before you completely give up on it.)
  • Work hands separately. As pianists advance, we often forget how helpful it can be to work on one hand at a time. The same concept applies to other disciplines as well. Singers are often encouraged to separate the text from the melody and rhythm. Addressing each aspect of the piece individually ensures that your full attention is on that part of the music and gives you a greater chance at learning it correctly from the beginning.
  • Slow down! Grab your metronome, set it to a slow tempo, and play slowly and accurately. Once your hands have mastered the choreography of the piece accurately, muscle memory will make the process of speeding up much more easy. How do I suggest speeding things up? Turn the metronome up a few clicks at a time and let your hands gradually become accustomed to the new tempo.
  • Play tricky rhythmic passages as dotted rhythms. Why? It will re-enforce the overall rhythmic structure and solidify the technical demands in your hands. If the passage is running eighth notes, begin playing each pair as a dotted eighth follow by a sixteenth. When this becomes solid, reverse the dotted figure. When you return to the original pattern, you should find that things are much smoother and more rhythmically accurate.
  • Reverse hands. I don't recommend this very often, but it can be helpful when voicing issues arise -- especially in an inner voice. By playing each clef in the opposite hand (moving the tones to different registers; not crossing hands), new thematic material emerges to the ear. Once the pianist hears the theme clearly and has developed a basic shape for the line, it becomes easier to bring it out when found in the inner voice. This can especially be helpful with works of the Baroque masters as well as choral accompaniments.
  • Practice away from the keyboard. Far too often, we forget to remind our students that time spent away from the piano can be just as helpful in preparing their pieces. What should I do? Analyze the score and see if new harmonies or melodic lines emerge that you have ignored before. Sing the melody or counter melody -- and let the shape of the sung line influence your interpretation at the piano. Listen to recordings of professionals playing your repertoire. Review recordings of your rehearsals, making notes in your practice journal of issues you want to address in future sessions.
What practice techniques do you find most helpful to your own development? Please add your suggestions in the comment section below.

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.