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.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

The Role of Duets in the Piano Studio

I love playing piano duets! I always have, too. Throughout my studies, getting to play great music with another pianist has proven to be lots of fun while still addressing important pedagogical issues. Because it is not always convenient to include piano duets in our studios, sadly many teachers neglect this portion of the repertoire. Here are just a few of the benefits that students of all levels can gain from diving into these rich works.

  • Improves recognition of notes and rhythmic figures. From the very beginning, young children benefit from duet playing because the parts are often below their current level, allowing them to focus on reading the notes and rhythms accurately. As students progress, duet playing's focus on a single clef (in most cases) also develops their sight-reading skills.
  • Strengthens aural skills. Since all of the music is not coming from a single set of hands, student pianists quickly learn that they must depend upon their ear in order to insure that the two parts are fitting together properly. Additionally, students are exposed to chord progressions in duet playing that are often technically too demanding for their solo repertoire
  • Develops independence of playing. Pianists quickly learn how to confidently play their part while hearing another theme or rhythmic pattern in opposition to their own.
  • Improves the inner sense of rhythm. Students no longer have the luxury of adjusting the tempo to fit their technical needs. Those playing duets quickly realize that the beat must be maintained in order for the performance to work.
  • Allows soloist to experience performing in ensemble. The study of piano is primarily a solo pursuit. Making music, however, is not always a solo effort. The duet repertoire is a wonderful introduction to the sense of community, collaboration, and camaraderie musicians enjoy when playing in ensembles.
  • Serves as excellent preparation for future roles as accompanist and chamber player. Few pianists will enjoy a career exclusively as a soloist. Truthfully, much of our time will be spent as accompanists and chamber musicians. Playing duets -- especially with students at a lower ability level -- can be a great introduction to the art of collaboration and the skills necessary for a successful performance.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Tips for Transposition

Pianists try to avoid it like the plague. The very thought of it can send shivers down the spine. Who in their right mind would willingly agree to play a piece in a key other than the one it is printed in? Transposing is definitely not for the faint of heart.

Even though most pianists hate doing it, transposing is an essential skill for the collaborator. Here are a few tips to make your transposing assignments a little easier.
  • Begin with a chordal analysis of the piece. Knowing how chords progress makes things much easier in the new key. This is also the time to begin marking passages that look as though they will be problematic. If you think it will be helpful, write the chord names in the score as well -- especially in the most difficult passages.
  • Notice shapes, intervals, and repetitions that appear in phrases. A passage that has a repeated figure suddenly becomes much easier to transpose when we deal with the pattern instead of each individual note.
  • How will chromatic alterations impact the new key? Will the printed sharp result in a natural instead in the new key? Depending upon the spacing of the score, it might be helpful to write in the altered notes in the new key with a colored pencil.
  • Pay careful attention to extended cadences and modulations. These passages can be some of the most complex harmonically. I begin the transposing process at these points so I know where things are ultimately going.
  • Practice, practice, practice! There is no substitute for it. The key to feeling confident about your transposing is to feel comfortable with the piece in the new key. It just takes time and a lot of thought.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Finding the Right Fingering

The beginning of the fall semester is right around the corner. That means that pianists of all levels are gearing up to begin working on new repertoire. It's an exciting part of what we do and is one of my favorite times of the creative process. Along with the fun and excitement can come times of frustration as we struggle to navigate challenging passages. While there are many things that can be the source of the problem, often I have found that one of the biggest things standing between me and a successful performance is finding the fingering pattern that works best in the passage. There seem to be so many possibilities.....and the only "rule" is that the pattern you select simply must work consistently. Here are some of the things I typically work through when trying to find the best fingering for a challenging passage.

Decide where you need to end. Does the hand continue to play at the end of the difficult passage? If so, what finger needs to be available for the continuation of the line? Mark these fingerings because this information will help as you begin the process.

Determine what finger starts the passage. This is only necessary if the tricky portion is flowing out of a phrase that is actively moving before the craziness starts. If the tough part can begin with a hand shift -- especially if it comes after a rest -- then the starting finger may not be essential to figure out at this point.

Now that you know where you need to begin and end, begin to figure the fingering out by working through the passage backwards. I know it sounds crazy, but it actually makes things much easier to figure out and will give you extra practice through the more complicated aspects of the passage by working through it from the end.
  • Begin on the finger that you have determined needs to end the passage. Look backward and determine how much can be played without having to make a shift. (Here's a hint.....I generally look for thumb placements.) Let your training in scales, arpeggios, and alternating passages (1-3-2-4) guide your thought process. Mark where your thumb lands and realize that the fingering you are selecting right now is not set in stone. There will be opportunities later to modify it.
  • Continue looking backward to determine what finger needs to make the cross over the thumb. Once again, think about the fingerings you have used in other pieces. For instance, if my right thumb has landed on a C and the note immediately before it is a Bb, I'm probably going to try using the 4th finger there. Make note of the cross finger and continue back to the next thumb.
  • Combine the separate phrases and make minor adjustments as needed. When you add the new section of fingerings, does the first one you decided on still work? If it does, you're ready to move to the next section. If things feel strange, decide if you need to make a change. Normally, I try to make only one adjustment at a time so I don't forget exactly what I've done! Once you've settled on the changes you need to make in the passage, update your markings in the score.
  • Continue the process in this way, adding one short passage at a time. You are not adding musical phrases, but instead you are focusing on the technical structure of the phrase -- how it fits in the hand.
  • WRITE DOWN YOUR FINGERINGS ALONG THE WAY! I cannot emphasize this enough. In order to master a challenging technical passage, it is essential that you use the same fingers every time you practice. Most pianists find that they only need to write down non-sequential fingerings in the score. That allows the brain to realize that something unusual happens here, so I need to pay attention.
  • Once you have developed a fingering for the entire passage, continue to modify as needed and then set it to memory! I encourage students to identify tricky passages early in their learning and to find good finger patterns as soon as they can in the process. There is no reason to develop poor habits that you will ultimately have to unlearn later.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Helping Struggling Students in Group Settings

Teaching piano in a group setting is becoming more and more common. There are advantages to the set-up. We can teach more students with less time since much of the early instruction can be introduced in the same way for most students. For many teachers, however, the situation can be challenging and intimidating. Few of us were taught in a group, so transferring concepts from an individual delivery to one appropriate for a lecture hall can be tough. What's more troublesome is how to offer help to students that are struggling with a concept. Do we hold the rest of the class back or begin teaching a bunch of private lessons in a large room? Here are some of the ways that I have found to offer help to a struggling student while maintaining the structure and integrity of group instruction.

Repetition! Repetition! Repetition! Once a new concept has been introduced and the task has been successfully completed by the majority of the students, it is time to begin working on something new. However, mastery of the recently achieved skill also needs to occur. When you have students that are struggling with a skill, try to find a piece that refines the newly acquired skill while also introducing a new concept. This allows the struggling student to continue focusing on the problem area while offering practice for the rest of the class without making them feel as though they are stalling out. If you can't find an appropriate piece, consider composing one yourself or assigning composition projects to your students.

Move from the known to the unknown. Whenever possible, connect new skills to those that have already been mastered for easier understanding. For example, before introducing scales that involve the crossing of the thumb, I have students play a melody that requires the index finger to reach over the thumb. By experiencing the movement of the finger out of the 5-finger pattern, students are ready to begin exploring how the hand naturally moves with a finger cross.

Include instruction on how to practice. Students generally want to succeed. They understand that personal practice is necessary to succeed. What they are often missing is a full understanding of HOW to practice. Demonstrate how to pull out sections of the piece to focus on. Help students develop practice techniques that lead to mastery of that section. Encourage students to use similar approaches in their private rehearsal. As you introduce new practice techniques, students will become more capable of determining what technique is most helpful for each passage.

Offer mini-lessons. Before asking students to play for a grade, I try to offer a brief mini-lesson a few weeks in advance. These short 5 or 10 minute sessions pull students out of the group setting and allow them to get personalized attention. After a student plays the piece (or assigned segment) for me, we begin with an evaluation of the performance before identifying the next step needed to arrive at the desired outcome. If several steps are needed or the student seems overwhelmed, this is an opportunity to develop a road map or practice path that breaks the final goal into smaller, achievable goals. If a practice path is developed, it is advisable to include deadlines for each small goal in pursuit of the final outcome. With support and reassurance, the student will gradually become confident in creating their own road map to practice success.

What additional suggestions do you have for ensuring that all of your students succeed? Please share your ideas in the comments below.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Will You Play for My Wedding?

It's a question that most pianists will hear repeatedly throughout their career. I've played for more than my fair share of wedding ceremonies. Family weddings. Weddings of college friends and fraternity brothers. Other friends, acquaintances, as well as random individuals have contracted my services for their special days. Now that I've played so many weddings, I can confidently say I have made some mistakes and learned a few lessons along the way. Here are some of the tips that I wish someone had told me when I first started this summer rite of passage for the pianist.

  • Establish your base rate. Playing for weddings is part of the business of making a living as a pianist. It is important that you know your base rate as well as what services are included. Average rates for pianists vary by location, so begin by doing some research on the average cost of wedding musicians. Once you know the range, determine how busy you want to be and set your rate accordingly. As you set your rate, take into account your level of experience, availability, and professional credentials. At this point, it is also helpful to determine what basic services are included/available for every wedding you play. In my current situation, I don't want to play ceremonies very often, so I have a rate at the higher end of the spectrum that includes processional pieces for the bridal party, a standard recessional march, and the accompaniment of one vocal solo. If other services are needed (e.g. prelude, postlude, transposition), there will be additional charges.
  • Have a list of suggested pieces available for the bride at your first consultation. When you speak with the bride, get a sense of what type of wedding she is looking for. Is she a traditional bride or is she looking for something "different" from the norm? Is there a strong religious component to the service that needs to be reflected in the music? As you define various wedding scenarios, you will be able to suggest appropriate pieces. If the bride has something specific in mind, be able to clearly state if you know the piece and have music in your library or if it's something you will need to obtain and learn. The latter situation will be reflected in your fees.
  • Realize that most brides and wedding coordinators you work with are not musicians. This means that they can't always clearly tell you what they need. It is your job to read between the lines, offer ideas based on your expertise, and make the music work. (The same can be said of many of the "singers" that are asked to perform at the wedding. It's not unusual to find that they are a merely a friend who can carry a tune, but has no formal training.)
  • Speaking of singers, carefully craft your policy on transposition and the use of lead sheets. Do you offer these services at all? How far in advance must transpositions be finalized and unchangeable? These skills are highly specialized and require more time than learning an arrangement from the page. Make sure that your comfort level with these skills are reflected in your rates. (If I'm going to transpose something with just a few days notice...that's fine, but YOU WILL PAY DEARLY!)
  • Determine any exceptions to your established policy. Hopefully, every pianist has friends and family members that they will want to celebrate with as they prepare to marry. Most performers offer their services at a reduced rate or even offer them as their gift to the couple. Work through these exceptions in your own mind -- but don't advertise them to potential couples -- in advance so you can make sure that you are taking care of yourself in all circumstances. My personal policy is that I play for members of my immediate family for free; "immediate family" is based on my definition and no one else's. Additionally, I have made it a practice to offer my services as wedding gifts to a select group of fraternity brothers. I have identified the years included and have made very few exceptions based on personal relationship with men who fall outside of those specific years. Anyone else that falls into an "exception" category -- close family friend, extended family, other fraternity brothers -- are offered a reduced rate. I let them know what the ceremony would normally cost and then inform them of the discount. Sometimes these individuals are insulted that I don't offer to play for free; others insist on paying the full rate. I have found it important for me to remember that while this is a joyous celebration for the couple and that I want to celebrate with them, it is also a business endeavor for me that I have to be compensated for.
Let's end this post with a few HELPFUL TIPS I've learned over the years during wedding rehearsals and ceremonies.
  • Meet vocal soloists 30 minutes prior to the beginning of the rehearsal. If you meet earlier, you will end up doing more playing and the bride inevitably becomes involved. Additionally, wedding rehearsals rarely begin on time, so you will have a little wiggle room. If everyone has learned their part, this should be more than enough time for the rehearsal. In the event that additional rehearsal is absolutely necessary, it is always possible to hang around in the sanctuary for a few minutes after the wedding rehearsal to fix problem areas.
  • Processionals can be the most problematic portion of the rehearsal. Suggest to the coordinator that the party walk through the processional without music first so you can get an idea of how much music will be needed. Truthfully, you are just looking for cues to make transitions to the next piece of music (e.g. last member of the bridal party, movement of the mothers, etc.) and making sure everyone knows where they are going before adding music to the mix.
  • Keep an eye out for sight line problems from the piano. If there is an issue, mention it to the coordinator quietly and together come up with a solution. In most cases, the last groomsman/bridesmaid is able to communicate with you without distracting the audience's focus from the center of the ceremony. 

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Keeping Practice Fun

Summer is here and we are all hoping to have a little fun! There are vacations to take and holidays to celebrate. In the midst of it all, it is still important to maintain a semi-regular practice routine. I've found that I do better with my summer practicing if I look for ways to make practicing feel more like a game. In other words, I'm looking for ways to keep practicing fun. Here are some of the key components I try to include.

  • Variety is the spice of life. I make sure that I am working on a variety of styles of music -- classical, musical theater, sacred, jazz -- as well as ensembles (solos, duets, choral, etc.) I can also ensure variety in my practice sessions by shifting my focus throughout. After working on shaping phrases in one piece, I focus on things like memory, learning the notes, rhythm, or dynamics in the following selections.
  • Not every piece everyday. It's summer, so I need to feel that my practice schedule is a little more relaxed. After all, my mind and body needs to rest as well. So I don't feel the pressure to get to every piece I'm working on in each rehearsal. How do I make sure that everything is getting needed attention though? I'm finding that a practice journal is extremely helpful in keeping track of what I've done and revealing what still needs attention. (I'll be talking more about my experience with practice journaling in the next few weeks.)  I'm also finding that sometimes solutions reveal themselves during the summer months when we just put the piece away for a few days. It's an amazing thing that I don't fully understand, but I'm loving the reality of it.
  • Change up your normal routine. Think about your normal practice session and look for ways to make it different this summer. A change of scenery is always a great option. If you can play a different instrument for a little while, that's wonderful. Perhaps you can change the visual appearance of your setting by adding a vase of shells or a new painting on the wall. You can also change the routine by trying out some new practice techniques. Since many of us teach young students as well, summer is a great time to get in touch with your inner child. Is there a practice game you've been thinking about? Try it out in your own repertoire and see what kind of results you get. Not only will you be doing something that might be rather fun, you'll also be perfecting techniques to share with your students in the fall.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Help for the Church Pianist: Chord Charts

Today's post is the first in a new series here on Collaborations. "Help for the Church Pianist" will explore various aspects of the pianist's role and challenges in the modern congregation. Special attention will be given to pianists with little or no collegiate training who are serving congregations that use blended and/or contemporary worship music. To begin, let's look at one of the most common problems for the modern church pianist.

Every church pianist faces this most challenging situation at some point. Rehearsal is only a few hours away and you receive a new song to learn. The only problem is that you are not given a score to read; instead, in your hand is the dreaded chord chart!

Chord charts and lead sheets are very similar, so the terms are often used interchangeably. The distinction between the two is that a lead sheet will include a single line of music (melody line) printed with accompanying chords. Chord charts simply have the lyrics with chord symbols floating over them. (And we hope that the included chord symbols are actually correct!)

How does the pianist approach these uninformative pieces of paper that we need to use to create a satisfying accompaniment? Here is my process.

  1. Learn the melody. Whether dealing with a chord chart or a lead sheet, begin the process by listening to a recording. Pay special attention to the tempo and overall style. At this point, weed out all of the extra runs fluff the singer may have added on the recording and learn the melody as simply as possible. After all, that is the melody that the congregation will most likely sing. Once you have the melody in your ear, begin to pick it out on the piano. If you prefer relying on notation instead of memory, this would be the time to write out the melody on staff paper. It might be time consuming now, but it will be incredibly beneficial later!
  2. Determine the key. Before beginning to work out the accompaniment, make sure you know what key the song is going to be performed in. Start by establishing the key used on the lead sheet/chord chart. The key signature, chord structure, and melodic line can all be used to come to a final answer. However, accept the fact that many of today's contemporary artists perform music in keys much too high for use in most church settings. If your worship leader provided you with a chord chart, it is probable that your worship team is guitar driven and you will be expected to transpose on the spot. One clear way to know if the chart will be played in a different key is to watch out for "capo" markings......they are normally found at the top of the chord chart and will read something like "Capo 2." (If you're not familiar with how a capo works, talk to any guitarist around for a quick tutorial.)
  3. Block chords under the melody. Now that you know the key, you can begin to put chords under the melody line. Keep everything simple right now. Root position chords will help you make sure that the chord progressions make sense. If you run into chord symbols that look like F/A or Eb/F, simply play the chord listed above the slash (or those before the slash) at this point in root position. As you play, listen for chords that are unexpected; you will want to highlight these in your final performance. Also make note of any chords that are difficult for you to spell. You'll need to be very familiar with all chord spellings in the next step.
  4. Try to play the melody with some harmonic support in the right hand alone. I know this sounds tedious, but it will make the transition to your final arrangement much easier. I promise! Play the melody in the upper voice of the right hand and add as much harmonic color as you can by adding the other notes of the chord below. This step of the process builds fluidity in your playing, forces your right hand to use various inversions of the chord, and ensures that you can provide melodic support at any time that the congregation seems to struggle during the learning process.
  5. Add octaves in left hand. Now that you have harmonic structure in the right hand, you can fill things out by adding octaves in the left hand. In most cases, you just need to play the root of the chord.  In other words, if G is printed above the lyrics, play two G's in the left hand. (If you want to add more richness to the sound, experiment with adding the fifth of the chord in the middle of the open octave.) The exception comes when you see chords that include slashes -- like F/A or Eb/F. These types of notations indicate chord inversions or pedal tones in the harmonic progression. The note listed after the slash should be the bottom pitch of the chord you play -- the lowest note in the left hand. So when you see F/A, the easiest solution is to play an F triad in the right hand (using the right hand inversion you decided on when playing the melody and harmony with that hand alone) and an A octave in the left hand. Does it make a difference in the sound? Most definitely! Taking the time to include these inverted chords will make the bass line of your accompaniment move smoothly and help the listener anticipate the harmonic progression of the song.
  6. Lastly, add embellishments. I'll talk more about embellishing in a future post. For now, just understand that this is your opportunity to add things to make the sound more exciting while still supporting the melodic line. Consider including scales and arpeggios to anticipate a vocal entrance. Is there a long sustained note at the end of the phrase? This is the perfect place to add a short counter-melody (as long as it works within the framework of the basic chord.) You can also embellish the left hand to help propel the rhythm. You can often find inspiration for a rhythmic embellishment by thinking about the bass guitar's approach to the song. In a slower song, arpeggios in the left hand can provide a simple accompaniment to a melody that is largely slow and static.
As you can see, chord charts and lead sheets provide the pianist with only the basic information about the song. It can be overwhelming and frightening to have so little direction. It can also be very freeing and give you license to make the arrangement your own. Take a chance, try something new, and see what happens. You might discover that you enjoy working from chord charts after all!

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.

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 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.

Friday, January 29, 2016

What Am I Working On? (January 2016 edition)

I received many requests after my Christmas Celebration video project to continue sharing video posts throughout the year. I'm not sure how often this will happen, but I thought it would be fun to share what I'm working on at the moment.

Hymn arrangements seem to be what the majority of my friends and followers are interested in. I've been brushing the dust off of this arrangement of "There is a Fountain" arranged by Cindy Berry. (Published by Lillenas in The Master's Touch)

I spend most of my time working on Classical repertoire. I am slowly preparing for a faculty recital that I hope to present in the Fall, 2016 term here at WBU.  One of the pieces that I am bringing back from my past studies is the Sonata in F# minor (Op. 26, No. 2) by Muzio Clementi. Here is a recording of my January 28, 2016 rehearsal of the first movement of the sonata. (And by rehearsal, I mean that there are still flaws present in this recording that I am still addressing!)

Thanks for listening! I'll try to post some more videos at the end of February!

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Approaching Orchestral Reductions

One of the most challenging tasks the collaborative pianist faces is grappling with orchestral reductions. We do not have the same variety of timbres available that a full orchestra can produce. "Piano Reduction" often means the editor simply transposed all voices into a single key and tossed every note on the staff with no thought for what might be most pianistic. Voicing and registration must conform to the physical limit of hand span.

The challenges of orchestral scores are at the forefront of my thoughts at the moment. I am preparing a recital that will feature Mahler's massive Kindertotenlieder. Much of the work's appeal is found in the rich orchestration the composer provided to support the lush vocal lines. While dealing with this enormously challenging score, I'm finding a few things helpful as I prepare for the performance.

  • Use the orchestral setting as a roadmap for your piano reduction. It seems obvious, but as pianists, we can sometimes get so wrapped up in the notes on the page that we forget about the sounds that the composer intended. Regularly returning to the orchestral score and recordings helps us make informed decisions about phrasing, color, and layering.
  • Accept the piano's limitations. My instrument cannot warm a single tone by adding vibrato. The core of the sound of a sustained pitch quickly decays compared to one sustained by a wind instrument. Rather than fighting against the piano's limitations, focus on its unique qualities and look for opportunities to exploit them.
  • Carefully decide what is most important and what can be simplified (or completely left out)! Orchestral reductions are notoriously difficult to play. Through carefully examining the score and critically listening to recordings, it is the pianist's responsibility to determine what is essential and what can be left out. Resist the pressure to play every note. In this situation, communicating the intent of the orchestral accompaniment is far more important than sacrifing musical line in the name of virtuosity.
  • Decode the text! The composer carefully chose the text that he set as well as the performance directives included in the score. It is essential that the pianist translate each word included in the score. A marking of agitato combined with lyrics referencing a storm clearly suggests a violent mood. Return to the text throughout your preparation, constantly looking for new insights that will influence your interpretation.

What do you find to be essential steps in your preparation of orchestral reductions? Is there a certain edition or composer whose reductions cause you significant levels of stress? We'd love to hear your stories in the comments below.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

What Makes a Great Collaborator?

As we begin a new year, I though this might be a great time to consider some of the characteristics that often appear in many of the best collaborators. Obviously there needs to be solid technique and outstanding musicianship in order to make beautiful music. But what is it about those pianists who excel almost exclusively as a chamber musician-- whether in vocal or instrumental ensemble? Here are a few of the characteristics I have observed in the collaborative pianists I most admire and after whom I model my own efforts.

  • Passion for chamber ensemble work. Although many pianists can "get through the notes" of the great lieder or piano trios, it is impossible to ignore the emotion and electricity that is generated when a pianist is playing the repertoire he truly loves. It's not enough to just enjoy the literature; passion for chamber music means that you are committed to the collaborative process that leads to a satisfying performance.
  • Constant awareness of breath. Breathing is not only associated with vocalists. The successful collaborator is aware of where breaths are needed at all times. The breath may be motivated by the physical necessity of taking in air or it may be demanded by the musical phrase. In both situations, the pianist is aware of the need and shapes his arching musical line to allow the breath to occur without interrupting the moment.
  • Flexibility and generosity. Part of being a good musician is developing a unique voice that is reflected in your musical interpretation. At times, the collaborative artist will find that his interpretation is in opposition with another member of the ensemble. After discussing the views, the pianist sometimes finds it necessary to compromise. These compromises can directly effect the way the piece is played, requiring remendous flexibility of mind as well as musicianship. Additionally, the pianist needs to be generous with his time; while personal rehearsal has been done to prepare the part prior to putting things together, additional rehearsal is needed for the sake of the ensemble. It is rarely possible for a chamber piece to fully mature without plenty of rehearsal as an ensemble.
  • Humble. Sharing the stage with other performers is not for every pianist. This is not meant to suggest that all soloists are egotistical jerks either. What I am suggesting is that it takes a certain personality to commit themselves to spending much of their time out of the limelight and being absolutely confident that their performance significantly contributes to a successful recital. In many ways, the collaborative pianist can be considered a servant-leader.
  • Able to get along with a variety of personalities. Musicians are a very diverse group of people. With this diversity comes lots of personalities and attitudes. Sometimes the pianist feels as though he is a ringmaster as he attempts to calm the diva while taming an uncooperative lion....All while he executes his own trapeze act of somersaulting arpeggios and death-defying scales! Like the trapeze artist, we are also performing without a net.

What other characteristics have you observed in your favorite collaborative pianist? I'd love to hear about them! Share your thoughts in the comments section below.