Thursday, February 5, 2015

My Symphonic Band Experience

Last semester, I had the opportunity to play the first movement of Eric Whitacre's Ghost Train with the Symphonic Band at Union University. The score was tremendously challenging and required a lot more preparation time than I first imagined. Issues were compounded because this was my first experience playing in a large ensemble like this. Now that I've had some time to reflect on the experience, I have realized that this type of ensemble playing (as opposed to traditional duets) can be very beneficial for developing pianists.

  • Following a conductor is a skill that is developed over time. As soloists, we often vary the tempo slightly (e.g. rubato). Although many soloists use rubato much too freely in my opinion, it can be done with great musicality. As I played in the larger ensemble, however, rubato was no longer a viable option. Strict adherence to the conductor's rhythm patterns are essential and requires great discipline on the part of each participant.
  • Playing in a large ensemble redefines what it means to "know" a piece.  Not only must the pianist know his individual part, he must also be aware of what is going on in the other voices of the ensemble and how things fit together. This places greater demand on the pianist's listening skills and is a wonderful opportunity for collaborative pianists to refine their skill in this area.
  • Ensemble playing brings musicality to non-melodic material. Much of what I played in Ghost Train was not the important line that needed to be heard above all else. My challenge became developing an opinion of how to shape the line in my personal rehearsals that allowed the most mundane passages to remain musical. Once I had formed that opinion, I then had to execute it in the rehearsal and see how it worked as part of the greater whole. Sometimes the conductor provided feedback, but not always. It became my responsibility to assess my playing in light of the entire sound spectrum that surrounded me.
  • Balance and issues related to voicing became very real. Pianists often address issues of balance in their solo playing. I personally enjoyed watching a small ensemble of instrumentalists playing together in rehearsal until they were satisfied with the overall balance. Some of the things I saw and heard have now been added to my personal rehearsal toolbox as I deal with issues of balance as a soloist.
  • Practice is no longer a solitary pursuit. I think this is one of the greatest lessons for a collaborative pianist to learn. When I'm rehearsing music for an ensemble -- whether it is a symphonic band or a work for voice and piano -- the time I am investing is not benefiting only me. The ensemble is rewarded because of the time I invest; sadly, the converse of this statement is also true.
Not every pianist has the opportunity to play in a large ensemble. However, every pianist CAN seek out ensemble opportunities of some sort in which they can participate. Collaborative playing takes the experience beyond our instrument alone and permits pianists to become part of a musical dialogue much greater than themselves.