Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Watching the Baton: Pianists Working with Conductors

Pianists are often called upon to serve in many functions. In addition to solo repertoire, we are often asked to collaborate with instrumental and vocal soloists as their accompanist. We might be called upon to play in a chamber ensemble -- performing piano trios and quartets.. These roles often come fairly naturally to most pianists because in many ways they are extensions of the same role -- that of soloist.

There is another role that is common for the pianist. In this role, the soloist must now function as orchestra. No longer does the pianist make musical choices based solely upon their personal interpretation. Now, every decision is subject to the direction, vision, and mind of the conductor. The various settings where the pianist might sit under a conductor's baton are wide and varied; they range from large orchestras to choral ensembles, opera rehearsals, and churches. Regardless of the setting, the expectation of the pianist is always the same -- follow the conductor!

Personally, I did not do a lot of pianistic work under a conductor's baton during my studies. I've sang in choirs to fulfill the ensemble requirements for my degrees, but rarely served as the principle accompanist for the ensemble. As I grew into my profession, I found myself learning how to follow a conductor through rehearsals for musicals and a few high school choirs.  My situation has changed immensely now that I am in West Texas. Currently, I sit under 6 different conductors on a semi-regular basis. These conductors include collegiate professors, Ministers of Music, and community musicians. A few of these conductors are among the best conductors I have ever sat under and I learn more about the art of working with a conductor each time I sit in one of their rehearsals. Most of the conductors I have had the pleasure to work with are actually quite good. I have been very lucky. Occasionally, there are people on the podium who should never have held a baton in their life. Thankfully, those encounters are few and far between!

I am not a conductor at all! Let's start with that statement from the beginning. My conducting consists of merely maintaining a beat pattern and attempting to convey some of the musical shape I want. I choose to remain behind the piano instead of on the podium for a reason. However, while sitting at the piano, I have learned that there are a few things that the pianist needs from the conductor in order to provide them with the best accompaniment possible.
  • Clarity. Whether we are talking about the beat pattern or the verbal instructions coming from the podium, it is essential that your communication be clear. This is not a matter of enunciation either (although that also helps). When working through a difficult passage, please don't stop showing me where the downbeat of each measure is. If you are bouncing your hands in the air on every eighth note in an effort to "make music," you are probably not telling me much that I need to know. It is also helpful if you tell me -- and the other members of your ensemble -- where you are beginning in the score when addressing trouble spots. I am trying to read your mind as much as I can, but there are limits.
  • Respect for my time. Most of the time, this is an extension of the clarity issue. Please thoroughly prepare your rehearsal before starting and know what you intend to do before your ensemble walks in the room. If I am waiting for you to figure out what you are doing next -- or worse, if you have to pause to figure out the rhythmic pattern that you are trying to teach -- you are not making the best use of my time. Additionally, please be aware of the ending time of the rehearsal. If things need to run longer than expected every once in a while, I'll be a team player and hang in there with you. If you are extending the length of the session every time I see you, I'm going to begin resenting the fact that you don't care about my other commitments and I will begin looking for an escape.
  • Maintain a sense of humor and joyfulness. If you are not passionate about the music and enjoying the process, how can you expect those who sit under your baton to feel any differently? When things just aren't going right, a word from you -- whether it is witty, silly, or encouraging -- can change the direction of the entire rehearsal; often times, when you help us relax, things suddenly begin to improve dramatically as well.
  • Give me honest feedback. I hope I'm doing a good job for you. It helps to hear your opinion on the subject too. Let me know what is working well and what's not. I can't fix things if I don't know there is a problem.
Let's face it.....sometimes we will all encounter a person standing on the podium who is calling themselves a "conductor" who probably shouldn't own a baton. If only there were a law against the misuse of such a powerful item! When this happens, what can a pianist do to make the best of the situation?
  • Be a team player. Remember that you aren't the only one getting poorly communicated information. Do your best to support the ensemble.
  • Ask questions. In some cases, the conductor just needs to be asked for clarity in order to make a change. A politely phrased question can often do wonders for everyone involved.
  • Maintain a professional, positive attitude. 
  • Do the best you can in the situation. Thoroughly prepare your portion of the music and make sure that you are not adding to the confusion.
  • Walk away from an unproductive situation if necessary. Sometimes we are experiencing more frustration than the help we are trying to provide. When these situations arise, make sure that you are finishing the commitment you are currently in (especially follow through to the performance that you are preparing for), give ample notice of your departure, and avoid unnecessary confrontation with the conductor at all costs.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

"Down in the Forest" by Landon Ronald

With the beginning of a new semester, a lot of new repertoire is making its way to my music rack these days. Most of it is vocal music, much of which I have either performed or studied. When a student hands me a song I don't know....by a composer with whom I'm unfamiliar.....I become very intrigued and excited to learn more. Such was the case last week when I was first introduced to "Down in the Forest" by Landon Ronald (1873-1938).

Landon Ronald was an English conductor, pianist, and composer. His first professional break came in 1891 when he became accompanist and coach at Covent Garden. Ronald would later make his conducting debut in the same house, conducting the 1896 production of Faust. Shortly thereafter, Ronald would meet the soprano Nellie Melba who was without a pianist and needed to be prepared for the role of Manon. Melba recounts that Ronald spent a sleepless night learning the score (since he was not familiar with the opera) before arriving for rehearsal the next morning. The two worked through the opera as well as many art songs. At the conclusion of their time together, the soprano told Ronald to "Remember that for the future, you are Melba's sole accompanist."  Many years later, in the 1920s, Ronald recommended a career specializing in piano accompanying after hearing a performance by the young pianist, Gerald Moore.

Melba and Moore were not Landon Ronald's only influential friends. He was also a devoted companion of the English composer Edward Elgar and the violin virtuoso Fritz Kreisler. Ronald would become a major proponent of Elgar's symphonic music; as a result of his devotion, Elgar dedicated his symphonic poem Falstaff to Ronald. Landon was the requested conductor for many of Kreisler's concerto recordings. 

Conducting opportunities in major houses soon began to dwindle for Ronald (as they did for many of England's conductors in the early 20th century). As a result, Ronald looked to other arenas to make an impact on the English musical tradition. From 1898 to 1902, he conducted musical theater productions in London's West End. Beginning in 1910, Ronald served as principal of the Guildhall School of Music in London; he would remain in this position until his death in 1938.

The compositions of Landon Ronald are diverse, ranging from a symphonic poem and incidental music to a ballet, Britannia's Reign. However, it is his song repertoire that has seen the most success; of these works, "Down in the Forest" is the only piece that remains in the modern repertoire. 

"Down in the Forest" was composed in 1906, the second song of a five poem cycle entitled Cycle of Life. Upon listening to the song, it is clearly reminiscent of the early years of musical theater with its soaring melodic line and undulating accompaniment. Although the harmonic progression is relatively slow, the perpetual movement in the accompaniment helps to propel the song from one verse to the next with the aid of a recurring piano interlude. Ronald's song is a sharp contrast to the other vocal works produced in the early years of the 20th century and a charming example of British song.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Returning from Injury

With the beginning of a new academic year, I decided it was also an appropriate time to return to weekly posts here on Collaborations. It is also appropriate since I am returning to the keyboard after a minor injury....and I decided that would be a great place to resume our conversation. Since I'm not a health professional, I will simply share my own story of injury and my road to recovery.

At the end of the spring semester, I knew something was wrong. While playing vocal juries, I began to experience numbness in the pads of fingers 1 through 3 in my right hand. There had been no noticeable warning of the problem. It just came on suddenly while playing a Brahms lied. I did not experience pain. I did not lose dexterity. But still, something wasn't right.

That's the first thing that must happen when dealing with an injury -- you simply must admit to yourself that there is a problem. This can also be one of the most challenging steps to recovery. Many pianists will attempt to write off their problems as simple fatigue. Let me be very clear.....there is a difference between an ache and acute pain. Pain is not a sign that the hands are merely fatigued. Pain and numbness are not normal and should be addressed.

Summer break was fast approaching for me, so I knew I had some time to rest and recover...and seek medical treatment if necessary. I immediately cancelled all of my upcoming engagements for the summer and began to turn to remedies that had provided relief for my hands in the past. I rested and took a significant break from practicing. I visited a massage therapist and experimented with both warm water soaks and icing to hopefully reduce any inflammation.

Although the numbness was not getting worse, it wasn't improving either. In order to make sure there was ample time to recover over the summer, I began consulting medical professionals fairly soon after arriving at my parents' home in eastern Arkansas. My first visit was to an orthopedic surgeon. I knew the doctor was the son of one of my former piano professors from graduate school and would be aware of the demands that pianists put on their hands. I was rather disappointed with this consultation. It consisted of a 5 minute conversation about my symptoms and a quick tap on my wrist with his fingertips. He immediately proclaimed that I had carpal tunnel syndrome and that an injection would provide relief. I explained that I was more interested in recovery rather than a short-term fix to my problem....so an injection was not really the route I wanted to go. He then prescribed a regiment of the oral steroid Prednisone. If the steroids did not solve the problem, he would begin to prepare me for surgery.

Since I didn't have a good feeling about the prospect of surgery and was not sure that it was the appropriate course of action, I sought a second opinion. After speaking with colleagues in the Memphis area, I learned that several had experienced good results while being treated at the Mississippi Upper Cervical Clinic in Southaven, Mississippi. I have received chiropractic care to deal with injuries incurred during an accident last summer and have seen its benefits, so I decided that it would be worthwhile to at least consult with Dr. Qualls.

Dr. Qualls' examination was very detailed. It was his opinion that the numbness I was experiencing was the result of a series of compressed nerves in my neck. While it would not be a quick solution, he was confident that the problem could be corrected without the need for surgery. I decided to continue with the chiropractic care throughout the summer. I was hopeful that I would fully recover since I was experiencing consistent, incremental improvement.

Now I am 3 months out from the initial onset of the hand issue. I continue to experience numbness occasionally, but it is not a daily occurrence. I am simply being cautious in my playing, making sure that I have ample time to stretch, warm up, and rest during each rehearsal period. I am continuing to receive chiropractic care now that I am back in west Texas and am confident that I will return to full health in the near future.

So what lessons have I learned from this experience? We know our bodies better than anyone else does -- and that often includes our doctors. It is important that we trust our instincts. Surgery seemed to be an overly aggressive response to me since there was no pain and no guarantee that I would be able to continue functioning after the procedure. There were simply too many uncertainties involved when other less-invasive treatments were still available to me. When it all comes down to it, we know which decision is right for our circumstances and our body. Combine your personal instincts with advice from medical professionals and prayer to find your road to recovery.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Accidentals Galore

Earlier this week, I was working on accompaniments for German lieder and found myself struggling. I simply couldn't get the notes right! I was playing slowly and pulling sections out of context to work through them. When I stepped back for a moment to think, I realized the problem was the extreme chromaticism. It felt as though there was a sharp, flat, or natural on almost every note! That's when I decided what I would write about in this week's blog post.....just how do we learn repertoire easily when there are accidentals galore?

The first step in plowing through these passages is to step away from the keyboard and thoroughly examine the passage. What's going on harmonically? Can I identify the chords that are being used? I'm not talking about using Roman numerals either -- leave that work for your theory class! At this point, I just want to recognize that this G minor triad is moving to an F# diminished triad in 1st inversion. You might find that you are encountering triads that have been respelled as well. Don't worry about how the chords are functioning; use names for them that you will recognize and recall. (I'm much more likely to play an F# minor triad accurately in the heat of performance than I am a Gb minor chord. Call me crazy....but it's how my brain is wired, so I'm not going to fight it!)

Now move back to the keyboard and begin to block out the chords. As you begin to hear the progressions and understand how interesting the accidentals make the passage, work out the passage as written at a slow tempo. Make sure that you are practicing methodically and with careful attention to the details. If you find that you are missing an accidental repeatedly, write it in! I find that colored pencils are a great tool to use in this situation. I use one color to mark fingerings and another for accidentals. This helps my eyes to focus on what is needed without having to sort through all the information I have on the page. A score that is filled with symbols and comments is not a sign that the performer is unskilled; rather, it suggests that the pianist is being thorough in their pursuit of accuracy and artistry!

Insert the isolated passage back into context as soon as you are able (even at a slow tempo). Sections that are highly chromatic tend to build on themselves and difficulty can arise getting into and out of the said passage. The sooner you can put the plethora of accidentals back into the whole piece, the more confident you will ultimately feel about the passage.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Why Learn Scales?

One of the most hated assignments for developing musicians is the dreaded appearance of scales. Students complain because scales are boring. They hate the demand that specific fingers be used. By this point in every term, I hear the question.....Why do we have to learn scales anyway?  Here are a few of my answers from a pianistic point of view.

  • Scales build finger dexterity while developing basic technique. Fingers four and five are naturally weak. Passing the thumb under the fingers (and the reverse) are not common motions. Scales are an easy way to build fine motor skills in a balanced way while establishing common finger patterns that will be used routinely in the standard repertoire.
  • Understanding scale structures helps with score analysis and memorization. Scales emphasize the relationship between sol and do as well as the function of the leading tone. The more we know about the scale's structure, the easier we can begin to understand how chords progress in music -- and that leads to easier memorization.
  • Knowing scales assists in sight reading and learning repertoire. Scales are the basis of much of our music. They are found in repertoire of all types in various ways. If I can recognize a scale that I have already mastered, it is not unexpected that the fingering pattern for the scale passage will be the same as that which I have drilled into my head.
  • Scales improve the pianist's aural skills. Although playing scales can sometimes feel mundane, by actively listening to the progression of the notes from one to another, the pianist will actually strengthen their ears as they develop relationships between the various scale degrees.
  • The process of learning scales is an introduction to the rehearsal process. Discipline is required to learn scales correctly. Scales can also present some technical problems for the developing pianist. The skills and tenacity required to master the scale patterns will serve the musician in the future as they face challenging repertoire.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Investigating the Inventions

I'm hearing lots of work on the Bach Two-Part Inventions at WBU lately. These are great works to introduce pianists to the finer points of Baroque style while working on independence of hands. They also serve as a perfect entryway to the preludes and fugues of the Well Tempered Clavier. However, young pianists can find them extremely challenging because of the counterpoint. While my colleague was away last week, I found myself offering advice to freshmen preparing these works and a few points seemed to come up repeatedly.

  • Slow and steady practice is necessary. Young pianists often want to attempt to play at top speed from the beginning. This is never advisable, but it is certainly not going to produce success when studying Bach.
  • There is great value in practicing each hand separately. Because these works become very complex very quickly, it is useful to work on one hand at a time. While doing so, it is important to also.....
  • Be meticulous! Make sure that you are playing accidentals throughout the entire measure. Analyze rhythmic patterns carefully and demand accuracy from the start. Settle on good fingering patterns early in the process and don't forget to address articulation as well. Don't fool yourself into thinking you will remember all of your choices either -- take the time to mark your score (possibly in a colored pencil!) as you are working. It may be tedious work now, but you will be thankful for it later.
  • When putting hands together, work from one strong beat to the next. Fewer things can be more frustrating and discouraging than attempting to play a long passage in an Invention when things simply are not going well. Shorten the length of the passage -- maybe to a few beats or a single measure -- as you are putting both lines together. This increases the chance for success and highlights technical patterns that may exist between the hands. Personally, I find that working from the beginning of the measure to the next downbeat -- crossing the bar line -- helps me fix problems while maintaining a constant sense of rhythmic propulsion.
  • Ruthlessly fight for steady rhythms! Students often get into the habit of inserting hesitations into the polyphonic writing. The thought is that note accuracy is most important and that rhythmic accuracy can come later. Unfortunately, these pauses in the musical line quickly become set in muscle memory and are extremely hard to correct later. Instead of hesitating, slow things down and play the invention only as fast as you can play with both note and rhythmic accuracy.
  • Inventions are all about SHAPE! The Inventions are often approached as technical exercises. These charming works are musical gems! As you are perfecting the notes and polishing rhythms, don't lose sight of the music. Listen for the rise and fall of the line. Notice how the two voices play off of each other, creating a sparkling dialogue. As you find the music, the Inventions will become much more exciting to study, causing you to spend more time with the work rather than dreading more time trying to fix the problems. Simply put, let the two voices sing and enjoy the melody.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Song Transcriptions Today

I have always enjoyed playing accompaniments of the art song repertoire. However, since I'm not a trained singer, I find that my ability to fully enjoy the song is sometimes diminished because of the absence of the vocal line. Recently, I have found myself looking to song transcriptions to quench my thirst for song repertoire while providing engaging solo repertoire. It's the best of both worlds!

At its most basic level, a transcription is a piece for solo piano that is based on a larger work from the chamber, orchestral, song, or operatic repertoire. Most pianists are familiar with the masterful transcriptions by Liszt, but there are actually many more of them than you might expect in the classical realm. Clara Schumann has some lovely settings of many of her husband's best loved songs. Edvard Grieg transcribed his own songs as well. While many of the other transcriptions were provided by lesser known figures, the results are often quite nice -- especially since they were based on pieces that are considered standards of the repertoire.

We continue to stumble across transcriptions in modern settings as well. Often composed for mainly pedagogical purposes, music bins are filled with transcriptions of folk songs as well as current pop songs, show tunes, Disney songs, and themes from major movie soundtracks. Because the sounds are familiar to most students, the transcription can often be a motivating factor for the student who is struggling to make progress at the instrument.

In my own world, I find that I am learning new transcriptions on a fairly regular basis in the form of hymn arrangements. These compositions take the familiar tune -- in this case, the hymn tune -- rework its harmony, and embellish the melody while ensuring that the basic tune remains recognizable by the audience. The result is a work that can easily fit into most worship services without the need for additional explanation while allowing pianists to display their skill as an act of worship.

Whether you are looking to include standard works by master composers, contemporary songs, or classic hymn arrangements into your current repertoire, consider giving transcriptions a try. I think you are certain to find something in the genre that will appeal to your musical taste.