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.