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.