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.