“Music is a moral law. It gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, a charm to sadness, and life to everything. It is the essence of order, and leads to all that is good, just and beautiful, of which it is the invisible, but nevertheless dazzling, passionate, and eternal form.”

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

On Learning Music Quickly

A student of accompanying asks for suggestions on learning repertoire quickly.

Accompanying, a specialty usually referred to these days as the collaborative arts, often demands of its practitioners the ability to learn music under pressure. Unlike the specialist in solo repertoire, the collaborative pianist plays everyone’s repertoire, not just a collection of his/her own solos and concertos he has prepared well in advance for a particular concert season. The collaborator must be able to play art songs in many languages—if you’re wondering why language matters, remember that the first step in figuring out an accompaniment is to understand the poem—and identical works in several keys in order to accommodate different voice types, often at short or even no advance notice. Add to this already considerable repertoire occasional pieces and instrumental sonatas, often very technically demanding, and the pianist might well find himself locked in the practice room buried under a mountain of scores, never to be seen again.
One important attribute of the successful professional collaborator is the ability to read well at first sight. So, that’s where I’ll start. In order to improve sight-reading, do it on a daily basis. Elsewhere in this blog I discuss reading techniques in some detail, but the basics are these: scan the piece looking for surprises, set a pulse that will accommodate the fastest passages, always look ahead in the score and not at your hands, keep going no matter what. I recommend keeping some scores handy that are technically somewhat easier than you can really play and use these for 10 minutes of reading in every practice session. And/or, set aside a session for just reading.

Collaborative pianists often live in pigeonholes; they are either vocal accompanists or instrumental accompanists. There’s no good reason for this. Instrumental sonatas tend to be technically more challenging, but the vocal accompanist is called upon, more often than not, to be orchestra, conductor, scenic designer and vocal coach. I submit to you, gentle reader, that all of these skills are required for any pianist who hopes to be considered an artist. This is why I always recommend to my soloist students that they work with other musicians in order to learn to listen not only to themselves, but also to the inner workings of the music they play.

So, soprano Madame La Bella Voce or violinist Tossi Spiccato has called upon you to play this weekend at a gala event and could you please rehearse tomorrow afternoon at their home. They invariably have an ancient piano, of which they are unreasonably proud. The pedals don’t work, “But you don’t really need them, do you?” (I’m not kidding.) Side note: Invite them to your own studio at a time that suits you. Be sure to inquire about the piano you will play at the event, Will it be tuned? Do they actually have a piano? (Again, I’m not kidding.) Your heart has stopped pounding enough to consider how to begin cramming the repertoire. Do not—I repeat—do not start playing the pieces through over and over again in a blind panic.

Do this: 1. Look through the repertoire list—with any luck at all you will have played some of it already—and select the most technically challenging movement. In this challenging movement, scan through to the end of the piece away from the piano. Note the gnarly places and begin there, as slowly as you need to and not faster than you can. Gradually work in this one passage until it is up to a respectable tempo. Then move on to the next place in this same piece or in a different piece until you have covered all of the technical issues. This will give you confidence. 

Remember, the first encounter is only a rehearsal. You will need to make an impression on your partner, especially if you are meeting for the first time, and you will need to keep up with him in repertoire that he already knows (presumably). But this first meeting is, ideally, an opportunity to work out issues. You can ask to work on sections that bother you, not just be at the beck and call of your partner. Singers very often need to be led, as in arias, and they need help managing breathing, so work this into your own practicing. The placement of the pianist’s beat with singers is on the vowel, a little more sluggish, perhaps, than with a string player who is more likely to be precisely on the beat or a little ahead. This is why we listen. (See the article on raised piano lids for thoughts on balance.)

Do this: 2. Practice focusing on the solo line. If you can play all of your part and sing the solo line, this is great. If not, play just your bass line and sing or play the solo line. This is the single most important skill of the collaborator, I think. That is, to be able to arrive with the partner, adjusting imperceptibly as necessary, on his beat. A well-meaning woman once came to me after a concert and gushed that I was such a fine accompanist, I followed so well. It was a nice compliment, of course, but I hasten to point out here that a good accompanist doesn’t follow, he anticipates. In order to anticipate, the pianist must be inside the solo line at all times.

I am of the opinion that all collaborations are partnerships. However, in the case of instrumental sonatas, both players are equal partners and must give way or lead depending on who has the leading voice. I once played a duo recital with a violinist from the Heifetz class, a duo recital because I had been asked to play a Beethoven solo sonata in addition to her repertoire. Her father came to me afterwards and pointed out that the pianist shouldn’t share the fee equally, but rather only gets a portion of it. When I explained that I had actually played more than she had, he begrudgingly agreed and we split the fee. No one offered to pay me more, though, for my extra effort. Sigh. (See Gerald Moore, The Unashamed Accompanist, for more on fees and other delicious topics.)

Do this: 3. Look for the essence of the piano part. What does it contribute to the overall meaning? This is particularly important in art song, where the piano sets the scene or creates a mood. Consider Schubert’s bubbling brooks, horses on the hoof or wind in the wimple. Look for preludes, interludes and postludes, where the piano is featured and make sure that these sections are soloistic and secure. Look also for scene changes and notice where the change occurs. Does the pianist make the change, perhaps during an interlude? Or does the partner do it first? In a well-written piece these changes are clearly audible in the music, but when in doubt, consult the text (with which you are already intimately familiar).

Orchestra reductions, such as arias or concertos, should be made to sound orchestral. I know. We only have a piano. But a piano staccato is sharper and drier than an orchestral staccato. Woodwinds have a different voice, a sharper more defined attack, perhaps, than strings, which can be more cushioned. Above all, though, remember that a reduction is just that; it is someone’s idea of how to realize the orchestra at the piano. Your own thoughts about sonority might be just as good or better than the one printed. So don’t be afraid to make changes. And certainly don’t be constrained by arbitrary technical issues. In arias, where the pianist is orchestra and conductor, he might lead the entire effort, providing the singer with a secure rhythmic foundation. Likewise, in some concerto passages and motoric music, the pianist must just keep a steady beat, without trying to adjust to rubato in the solo part. This is particularly true after the first movement cadenza in Mendelssohn’s concerto where the violin plays spiccato arpeggios.

Do this: 4. Look for oceans of similarity. Does the piano create waves of sound on E flat for measures on end? Look at it and move on. Ostinato passages can be a lifesaver. Once noticed, they only need repetition. Mark off sections and practice in sections.

Do this: 5. Look for possible ensemble difficulties and make sure you understand the rhythmic connection of the piano part to the other part.

In short, take care to be familiar with both parts, how they work together rhythmically and how they play off one another musically. A well-prepared partner will know the piano part in addition to his own.

Learning music in a hurry is not ideal but sometimes is necessary, especially when one’s livelihood depends on it. Don’t turn down a job because you would rather study the music and rehearse for weeks and know the music inside and out. With determination and thoughtful selective practicing, a fine performance can result and with more experience, even an exemplary performance is possible. 

Tip: Learn a song per day from anthologies of Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Strauss, Faure and Duparc and you will eventually have a respectable repertoire of often-programmed music. Add Falla and Poulenc as needed. Leave big instrumental sonatas for ad hoc occasions, though Schubert sonatinas and Mozart violin and piano sonatas make excellent sight-reading material. Do familiarize yourself with the three Brahms violin sonatas (look at technical spots), the Beethoven Spring and possibly Prokofiev D major.