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.