Monday, April 11, 2011

Working with a pianist #1

It's a good time to write about working with pianists.  I'm in the midst of preparing a big recital program with my friend, Randy Fusco.  Around the country, college music students are working with pianists on jury pieces and recital pieces.

There are many things to consider when playing with piano.  In this posting, I'd like to focus on personal interaction.

Issues arise in working with a pianist that don't often come up in private lessons or orchestral playing. Forming a real partnership and working on the music together instead of simply taking instruction from a conductor or teacher make this relationship different and, at times, challenging for a young person.

In thinking about this, I decided to speak with Randy and Liz Demio (a collaborative pianist at CIM) to draw on their experience in working with instrumentalists.

Here are some of their ideas:
  • Be sure you're familiar with the working rules of your school's accompanying program. How many rehearsals are you allowed with your pianist?  How do you communicate/apply to get a pianist to play for you? Where do you leave the piano part? Most schools have a set of rules or a student handbook that explains all this. 
  • When assigned a pianist, make contact well in advance of your recital/jury. These people are very busy and need lots of lead time to plan. Last-minute planning on your part can lead to a rush-job with your recital!
  • Conduct as much of your communication as possible face-to-face. Do document communication using email, etc. in case of dispute, but talking in person is best.
  • Use common courtesy when dealing with your pianist. This is a relationship you want to cultivate!
  • If you find a good pianist, treat them like GOLD!! A great pianist can make you sound better than you really do! If treated well, they may be more amenable to granting special favors when needed (recording sessions for auditions, competitions, etc.). 
You can use the skills learned in working with a pianist in other situations in life. I count my musical and personal relationships with Randy and Jeffrey Gilliam (pianist at Western Washington University) as two of the most important I've had in my musical life.  They taught (and teach) me much about artistry, understanding harmony, rhythm and pulse and pacing in a musical piece.


    1. Great tips--

      I'm hoping that in "Working with a pianist #2" (or 3, etc.) you will share some tips about the specifics of bassoon with piano. I always find that combination particularly difficult to balance; the bassoon's sound really seems to be swallowed up by the piano.

    2. The older I get, the more I feel that a successful collaboration between a pianist and singer/instrumentalist can be narrowed down to two things, a keen inner sense of pulse and a sense of breathing together. It’s amazing how many external aspects of music making (ensemble, articulation, phrasing, dymanics, etc.) can be solidified when these two basic internal functions are in place.
      In addition to rehearsing concert repertoire, find time to read some simpler pieces in a non-pressure time frame in order to stay in touch with playing together and allowing the elements described above to become second nature.
      In order to strengthen these skills, try rehearsing in a position that prevents any kind of eye contact. Not only will it hone the senses of pulse and breathing, it requires the players to develop a feeling of trust. When Barry and I recorded the Opera Transcriptions CD, we were separated by about ten feet and the only source of visual information I had was the back of Barry’s head. Talk about trust!
      Remember that duo playing is not a 50/50 relationship. Rather, it’s 100/100. Whether it’s two, four, or one hundred people playing, they are all working as a single instrument to create a single piece of music, which just happens to be comprised of multiple parts.
      Don’t give your only piano score to the pianist. Be sure to keep one for yourself to refer to, and even play from during rehearsals. Take note of where your sound is within the piano texture (top, middle, bottom), and how to balance the sound if one instrument is in a strong register, while the other is in a weak one.
      Understand the nature of the piano’s tone production. The piano’s tone is immediate, but then fades, depending on the length of the tone. So, it is the very beginning of the piano’s tone that makes its impression on the listener. Can there possibly be times when it would be appropriate
      to imitate that kind of sound on a bassoon, violin, clarinet, etc.?