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.