Happy Valentines Day, my little lovelies! It gives me great joy to write to you and discuss all things diva during the month of February. Another special treat of the month is Valentines Day when we profess our love to those closest to our hearts. To those people who help us keep it together during thick and thin – on good voice days and bad – we owe a lot of thanks. They are there supporting, challenging, and inspiring us. As we are all aware these days, life is unpredictable and sometimes our brightest lights are extinguished too soon. Please take some time to appreciate and love those who make your life, all parts of it, possible. May I add just one more name to that list? Your collaborative pianist. Look closely my little doves, your pianist is your partner in crime and supports you through thick and thin when it comes to performance. Summon up that valentine instinct and find yourself a partner — a collaborative pianist – for your Day 14 challenge.
Playing well with others…
The following skills are essential for pianists who hope to become successful collaborators. Many of these skills are taught regularly, others rarely:
1. Technical Facility—THE most important skill for a good collaborative pianist
2. Familiarity with keyboard topography
3. Rhythmic and intervallic pattern recognition
4. Fluency with common left-hand figurations
5. Knowledge of basic fingering principles
6. A strong foundation in theory and analysis
7. The ability to study, audiate and play orchestral reductions
8. Advanced aural skills
9. Confident and advanced sight-reading skills (including open score reading) – Kayla Liechty Paulk
As you can see from the list of skills above, being a collaborative pianist is no small feat. Many pianists find themselves in collaborative settings almost by chance because they begin accompanying for other musicians in school to make some money. Some realize that they truly enjoy the experience and those are the people you want to find. Samuel Sanders was a terrific pianist who first coined the term “collaborative pianist” and worked tirelessly to create higher education programs for the craft. He encouraged pianists to break away from the “accompanist” mindset in which they are subservient to the musician they are accompanying. Stung by the sight of a accompanist following a singer ten paces behind, he wanted to assure pianists they were an integral part of the performance. I grew up in a blessed situation because my mother is a collaborative pianist and helped me tackle so many challenges as a young singer. She is a rock for young, nervous musicians in situations like Solo & Ensemble Contest because she understands the skills outlined above. A good collaborator knows the vocal line as well as she knows her own part. Hopefully, we can return the favor at all times.
“If I were ever described as a ‘tactful, obedient and sympathetic accompanist’ I should feel that that
was another and more polite way of calling me ‘worm.'” – Gerald Moore, The Unashamed Accompanist
How can we show our love and appreciation for such an integral partner in music? To be their muse, inspiring them to new musical depths and heights, because we are ready to work together. There is very little unaccompanied vocal repertoire that gets performed in recital. It is important, then, for us to think of our solo repertoire like chamber music with two players. Like a really small gang… a musical gang – sounds tough, huh? Do not waste time asking your pianist to teach you the music. After all, you have been following 28 Days to Diva (#28daystodiva) so that you know your music inside and out. You have spent valuable time learning the music and devising your multifaceted interpretation of the piece. Strive to find a balance with your pianist in which you both discuss your ideas about the work without relying on her for too much while not also dominating the conversation.
Five Rules for Musical Collaboration
Katherine D. Johnson has a stunning quote regarding pianist and violinist collaborations in her book Accompanying the Violin. She writes, “When friends accompany each other on a walk, no one can tell who is walking with whom. Thunder accompanies lightning, but neither one overshadows the other. This is also true when a pianist accompanies a violinist: neither part is more important than the other. Both parts together make up the whole piece – that’s how the composer intended it.” Elana Estrin’s insights in “It Takes Two” were also written originally for string players, but transcend the specific instrument and are useful for all of us:
1) Treat your pianist as an equal. The piano part is often at least as difficult as the string part, and several composers – Mozart and Beethoven in some of their violin sonatas, for example – regarded the piano voice as more important. Give the music to your pianist well ahead of time so that you will both be fully prepared by the time of the first rehearsal. Schedule enough rehearsal time to integrate the two parts and build a convincing interpretation.
2) Know the score. The pianist has an advantage in being able to work from a score, so if you don’t know how the two parts fit together, you may potentially waste a lot of rehearsal time.
3) Work together to create a mutually satisfying interpretation. This is likely to require more discussion than the old-fashioned lead-and-follow approach, but the rewards in terms of developing an intuitive understanding of each other’s playing will be well worth it.
4) Acknowledge the pianist’s equal status in the performance. Ensure that the concert hall includes the pianist’s name and biography in the programme.
5) Bow together, side by side at the front of the stage. Remember, the literature for stringed instrument and piano is chamber music, so a pianist in a partnership should receive as much respect as a pianist in a piano trio.
If you are already in a long-term relationship with a collaborative pianist, don’t you think it is about time to show them a little extra appreciation on this lovely day? However, if you are currently a single singer, take time today to ponder with whom you would like to share a collaborative musician relationship. Seek out someone whose musicianship you admire. These relationships will pay dividends in your performances together. Who knows? Divas, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship…
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