Thursday, July 31, 2014

Sea-Snatch and The Praises of God: A Look at Two of Samuel Barber's Hermit Songs

The summer is winding down and it's time to get to work on some pieces that are scheduled to be performed in the fall. Instead of just learning the notes and keeping all of my thoughts to myself, I thought it would be fun to share what I'm learning about the pieces and any practice tips I discover along the way.

First, we need to know a little about the Hermit Songs themselves. This cycle of 10 songs was composed in 1953 by Barber and was premiered that same year by Leontyne Price with the composer at the piano.

Sea-Snatch is the 6th song in the cycle and features an ostinato bass line in the piano that serves as the unifying figure of the work. The surging accompaniment is mostly in alternating rhythmic patterns of five and four. Melodically, the bass line continually keeps the opening vocal line before us.

One of the technical challenges the pianist faces is exacerbated by the tendency of many singers and pianists to rush the perpetual eighth notes just as the difficult parallel fourths appear in measures 7. A similar passage returns at the song's conclusion (beginning in measure 27). Let's look at the first of these passages. While the musical structure is one continuous legato line, the phrase is technically divided into groups of two; the successive F's in the fourths can easily be played with the index finger, providing a nice anchor for the entire passage.

The interlude between the verses is the most active passage of the short song. Upon listening to various recordings -- including Barber accompanying Price -- it is clear that the passage is demanding and rarely played cleanly. Some pianists recommend dropping some of the octaves for single notes instead. Others opt to simplify the right hand.  At this point, I am not using either of these options. To aid in fitting things together, I continued using block chords as found on the downbeat of measure 20 before slowly breaking the chords into the two eighth note figure.

The most helpful discovery came from listening to the Barber/Price recording. Barber inserts two rather sizable lifts, interrupting the accompaniment's perpetual motion.  These breaks occur at the end of measure 9 and again just before the final two chords in the lowest register of the piano. Additionally, the composer took a bit of time in measure 19 before launching into the massive interlude.

Once the notes are in hand, settling on a tempo that is comfortable for both pianist and singer will be essential. I am certain there will be a compromise made as we prepare for recital.

The 9th piece in the cycle is The Praises of God and poses some challenges for my relatively small hands. The piece is largely built on broken tenths; to further complicate things, the metric organization appears much more complex than what is commonly found in Barber's other songs. What I found most helpful was to begin with the B major section in the middle of the song first. This section begins firmly in 6/8 and remains in that meter through the end of the vocal line. Next, I turned my attention to the postlude and acquainted myself with the broken 10ths of the accompaniment. Most of the tenths move in third relationships (but beware of the fifth movement in measure 28 though!)

The most challenging portion of the song for me was the transition into the B major section (measures 10-12). I'm not sure if this is due to the dastardly annoying page turn separating measure 12 from the others or the inclusion of a measure of 3/8 before shifting back to 5/8. Regardless of the reason, this is the passage with which I will be spending a lot of time in the weeks ahead.

For now, it's time to head back to the practice room and continue working on these beautiful songs at slow tempi before adding the vocal line to the ensemble!

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Piano Festival Adjudication

I've been following the posts over at Piano Teacher Central on Facebook (an amazing network and wealth of knowledge if you haven't discovered it yet) and was struck by one post in particular that got me thinking. A teacher had just received comments from a festival her students had participated in recently. As luck would have it, the majority of her highly motivated students had one adjudicator; those who were a little more lax in their preparation had a different judge. When the scores were compared, the better students received scores roughly 5% lower than their less-prepared counterparts because the commentators had different standards for their scores. What's a teacher to do?

My first thought is that this is one of the difficulties (dare I say, failures?) of many piano festivals. When multiple adjudicators are involved, a common standard is needed to ensure fairness across the board. While many of the qualities being judged are subjective and a matter of personal taste, there are some aspects of the music on which we can all agree. I experienced this discrepancy myself as an adjudicator. While listening to students, I was most concerned with their musicality and overall communication. My esteemed colleague was solely addressing the technical aspects of the music. In reality, the two characteristics cannot be separated; it's only when we place greater emphasis on one or the other that scores can become skewed.

When adjudicating, I think it's important to encourage the student in their efforts. Commend them for what's going right. However, we also have a responsibility to offer constructive criticism that will help the student continue to develop. It's a balancing act for sure, and very challenging when we find ourselves making comments in a short amount of time in order to keep the festival on schedule.

Students need to know that judges are offering their opinions . . .and that we may not always agree about subjective aspects of music. In my own studio, I try to prepare students for this aspect of music by offering opportunities to respond to the music they've heard. Sometimes we make comments about performances heard in group classes. We also listen to excerpts in lessons followed by a student critique. I always ask students to comment on their own playing before I begin talking. These exercises allow the student to see that everyone has an opinion about the performance. While we don't always see things the same way, it does give the student a little taste of the hard job of offering feedback while preparing them to think critically about their own playing.

When we teach our students to focus on the experience of performing rather than the scores they receive, we begin to develop artists that are confident in their abilities in spite of less than favorable reviews or harsh criticism. Their focus becomes their personal love of making music and effectively communicating with the audience. And THAT'S the ultimate prize!

Thursday, July 10, 2014

The American Sound?

While we celebrated our nation's independence last week, we heard lots of patriotic music. It came in many styles, written throughout our country's existence. While the idioms may have changed, the texts consistently express a willingness to stand for freedom while recognizing the blessings of Heaven on our land.

The sounds, however, have not been as consistent. Take away the words and what's left is a conglomeration of sounds taken from around the world. We hear the influences of the German chorale as well as African rhythms. So it's got me wondering, what is the modern American sound? Can we truly define it apart from the lyrics? I don't have an answer at all at the moment, so I'm hoping to hear your thoughts and insights on this topic in the comments below.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Pieces Every Collaborative Pianist Should Be Acquainted With - Trumpet Edition

I've been in conversations recently with a pianist who is just beginning to explore collaborative work. As we talked, he asked for suggestions of important repertoire to learn. Rather than just spouting off an answer, I asked him which instrument he would most enjoy working with right away. His response? Trumpet.

This got me to thinking. Wouldn't it be great to have a recommended list of repertoire sorted by instrument type that gave pianists a starting point for learning important works they would encounter? I know it certainly would have been a great benefit to me in my early years as a collaborative pianist when I had a bit more time to learn notes at a more relaxed pace.

Back to my friend. Since I had spent a lot of time playing in the trumpet studio in graduate school, I was able to come up with suggestions based on my experiences fairly quickly. My recommendations were (in no particular order):

  • Paul Hindemith, Sonata
  • Halsey Stevens, Sonata
  • Kent Kennan, Sonata
  • Joseph Haydn, Concerto in Eb Major
  • Georges Enesco, Legende

What pieces would you have included in this list? I still wish we had a list like this for the major instruments....with comments about some of the challenges and maybe even a little historical background on the piece. (Could this be a project for me to tackle? Hmmm....) Does such a list exist somewhere that you are aware of? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.