My passion is to help others in the community, young, old, and everyone in between, find relevance and joy in learning, performing or listening to classical music.

Thursday, April 20, 2023

The thrill and terror of being Opera Roanoke's rehearsal pianist

I'm sitting here in my home, doing the only thing I can do at the moment - eating a piece of cake accompanied by a glass of white wine at 4pm in the afternoon. 

I think it's called for. 

Every so often I'm called upon by our local opera company, Opera Roanoke, to serve as their rehearsal pianist. I think this is one of those invisible music roles that most people, even many pianists, don't realize even exist. Perhaps that's because it's a role that can literally just last a couple of hours. Or perhaps it's because there simply aren't a lot of us out there willing to do this kind of work. 

In my opinion it's an example of extreme musicking and it's one that I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with. The work is daunting much of the time, requiring a lot of time to prepare, the experience involves combination of humility and bravery, and often the job doesn't include a performance in front of an audience. On the flip side, I get to work with a brilliant conductor, Steven White, and amazing soloists (who are sitting only feet away from me I might add!) I also inevitably end up having my mind changed about more challenging monumental works (shout-out here to Bartók's Bluebeard's Castle and this most recent venture, Britten's War Requiem.) I love being proven wrong about music. It helps me understand that just like with some people, art sometimes needs to be probed, lived with, and given numerous chances, to win me over. 

So what does being a rehearsal pianist for productions like this entail? 

I'm usually given the score, which is a reduction of the orchestra part, reduced down (sort of) to a piano part, a few months in advance so that I can prepare. The reduction is much easier than reading a full orchestra score with all of its many lines of music, one for each instrument; I don't know how many pianists could actually play for a rehearsal off the orchestral score. Much of the reduction is somewhat playable but there are always pages that are quite frankly nightmares. There can be extra lines of music in addition to the left hand and right hand lines, the texture can be really dense, lines can cross and be on top of one's enough to sometimes make my eyes cross or my stomach churn at first (or second, third, etc...) glance. There are often parts in which there's no possible way a pianist could play everything. I would say that much of the time this is the case. Which leads to one of the greatest challenges - deciding what to play and what to leave out. 

Making this decision means knowing exactly what's going on in the orchestra - knowing which line represents which instrument, knowing whether or not that instrument is heard in that particular spot, and deciding if it's a line that should be played in order to help the soloists pick up their entrance notes or to know when to come in. I do a lot of listening to recordings while following along in the piano reduction. I then make a lot of decisions regarding what I think I should/can play or not play and mark up the score to reduce the temptation to try and do any more than that at rehearsal time.

As a rehearsal pianist I am also very careful to understand the meter and to guess as well as I can how the conductor is going to conduct it. When I'm practicing I make it a point to count out loud while playing to ensure that I know exactly what's going on rhythmically. Of course there's no way to accurately predict exactly how the conductor is going to conduct any given spot, but if I understand what's going on and have pictured what the possibilities are it gives me a much better chance to save some time since rehearsal time is very limited. Doing a lot of this rhythmic prep and visualization also makes it more likely that I'll keep one part of my vision glued to the conductor during the rehearsal. Often times, when sections are really challenging note-wise, I ditch worrying about the pitches I'm playing in order to convey rhythm, pulse, and mood. 

Another goal of mine in this type of work is knowing the piece so well that I can try to mimic as many aspects of the orchestra as I can so that in the rehearsal the conductor and soloists can feel like they're getting a glimpse of what they're going to get with the orchestra. This goes back to listening to recordings over and over again and playing around with different articulation, pedaling, approaches to touch on the keyboard, and dynamics. My goal is to not just sound like I'm playing a Reader's Digest version on the piano.

After all the preparation I do, and here I should add that no matter what I do I never feel fully prepared, it's time for a rehearsal with just me and the conductor. Maestro White and I have worked together enough that we both have said we like to have this initial meeting, which is usually a week or so before the soloists' rehearsal. For me it helps me to find out if there are any lines I should be playing rather than leaving out and to be aware of tempos that might be faster than I had anticipated so that I know what final prep I need to do. It's also a really incredible opportunity for me to glean from him what he feels about the piece. I learn so much from seeing what he finds challenging himself and sensing his enthusiasm and love for the music is always infectious. It's often in these one-on-ones that I find myself inescapably falling in love with the music myself. Last but not least, these rehearsals usually have me falling flat on my face at some point. There's nothing quite like doing that in front of a brilliant conductor to help get over nerve and perfection issues. If I can see that he's fine with some of my more colorful note snafus and imperfections, sometimes even laughing about them together, it makes me a little less nervous for what comes next.

After final touch-ups on my own we come to the rehearsal with the conductor and soloists. After all that work leading up to this moment, it is often shocking how short these rehearsals can be. Today's rehearsal lasted just about 2 hours. With the most difficult sections, which I've often spent hours and hours of work on, we may only go over it once. Today for instance the most demanding (I think it's pretty insane, really) sections took about 5 minutes of rehearsal time. All of that work...for 5 terrifying/exhilarating minutes!! Sometimes I also get frustrated at not getting second chances to get something tricky right. I frequently find myself wanting another go but it's not about me and my ego or desire to show that I can play a particular passage. We often just move on and that's that. It's good practice for one's psyche. 

Another aspect I find amusing about these rehearsals is how much focus it takes to get through it with grace. I'm always somewhat torn because here I am in the midst of such amazing musicians, with singers whose voices are phenomenal, yet I'm so focused on the task at hand I'm not really able to take it all in. 

To be honest, I often walk out of these rehearsals wondering if it's really worth it for me. It's a lot of time, a lot of stress, a lot of pressure...and in the end I never get to perform the work as I've prepared it for these rehearsals. 

But my goodness, I have to say I do love it too. It makes my heart race, it dumps me into the middle of remarkable music, and it surrounds me with inspiring talent. I also really enjoy watching the soloists and conductor cheer each other on in rehearsal. So often they end up really moving one another with what they can do technically and artistically. To see them react to one another's art and to hear them talk of how much they love the music heightens my love for this type of collaboration and motivates me to keep doing this type of work. And in the end, when I've survived it all, it makes me realize how unbelievable the whole process really is and what we, as pianists, are capable of pulling off.

It's also a really good excuse for a piece of cake and glass of wine.

Sunday, January 8, 2023

Approaching practicing and performing from a healthier place

Learning music is not like learning facts yet I think so often that's how it's approached. In the practice room, you either get it right or you don't get it right. In my experience, that's not a helpful way to evaluate one's practicing. When I learn a piece of music, when I practice, I'm constantly seeking to improve several things. At the top of my list are:

  • Confidence
  • Comfort
  • Character
  • Conviction

Confidence: I want to keep working at feeling more and more confident about the notes, the rhythms, dynamics, stylistic elements, etc... This one is important to work on from the beginning on working on a piece of music.
Comfort: Comfort is also really important. I'm constantly evaluating how it feels to play the music. Am I doing anything physically that's creating accents I don't want? Am I doing things that are making it harder to play what I'm supposed to be playing? Is there a different fingering, bowing, place to take a breath, that would make the passage more comfortable physically and/or make it more easy to play musically? Character: How clear a character or mood do I have in mind for any given part of the music? How descriptive can my adjectives be for what I want to get across? Do I know what instrument I'd like any given spot to sound like? Conviction: This one tends to be more of a focus closer towards performance time and it's a great thing to focus on when doing mental practice. I like to ask myself, "Can I close my eyes away from the instrument and hear exactly how I want the music to go?" If I can successfully do this, I know I'm on the right track! With all of these points, it's important to note that there's never really any end point for any of them. I can always, ALWAYS get better at them all. My goal when I practice and quite frankly when I perform, is to keep improving each of these. If I've improved one or more aspects in a session, I walk away content. If I've improved one or more aspects in a performance, I also walk away content.
To conclude, rarely, if ever, do I not improve some aspect of one of these areas when I practice or perform. Which means I am pretty proud of the work I do. Which means I quite like practicing and performing. It makes me feel good about myself & what I'm capable of. The audience can sense this and I think it makes it much easier for them to relax and enjoy the performance as a result which then feeds my enjoyment of the whole experience.

One positive thing leads to another. I highly recommend it!

Friday, July 1, 2022

Sightreading Reality Check - there's more than meets the eye

I think about the skill of sightreading music a lot. My pontificating on the topic goes hand in hand with my fascination about the brain and about what we are capable of doing as humans, more specifically as musicians, and even more specifically as pianists. Sightreading is a complex, multi-layered task that involves more than our eyes and hands; just to name a few layers, it involves our ears, imagination, problem solving skills, a kinesthetic sense of the keyboard's topography in relation to our own body, and recall of all that we've experienced at the piano previously. The complexity can often overwhelm me when I'm discussing the topic or coaching someone privately, especially since there seems to be two prevalent views of this skill's acquisition:
  • You're either born with the skill or you're not so you shouldn't expect to get better
  • You can get better by just doing it 
In my opinion, neither of these are correct. I do think some people are perhaps born with skills that help one be more naturally better readers and I also know from personal experience that having constant exposure, especially early on in one's musical journey, can make skill acquisition happen more naturally and easily. But I also believe that it's possible for anyone to improve their sightreading no matter where they are in their journey but it's not through "just doing it" on a regular basis. Yes we need to practice it consistently but we need to do it with strategies in mind to address the many different skills that go into musically processing and reproducing the clouds of black scratches on the page that manage to represent music and all that it can entail. 

I've blogged about much of this before so feel free to check out my other posts on the topic. In today's post I want to share two recent videos that further explain my thoughts on the topic and recommendations for how others can work on sightreading themselves. The first video is on the shorter side. For a more extensive discussion, see the second one.

This first video clip is from the end of the 100th episode of my Sightreading Maverick show, which I livestream most Sundays at 1pm ET on my YouTube channel. 

This second video is an interview I did with David Holter who teaches piano in North Carolina. In the past year he started up a Facebook group specifically for pianists who are interested in improving their sightreading skills called the Piano Sight Reading Community. It's a wonderfully supportive group that now has over 1700 members - I highly recommend joining whether you're a teacher, student, or amateur. We tease out a lot of different issues over the course of 45 minutes. 

If after watching either or both of these you still have any questions or want to share your own experiences or thoughts, please do feel free to comment here. 

Friday, June 17, 2022

Playing around with PlayScore 2 - an app for every musician

As a professional piano collaborator and accompanist I am very protective of my job. It makes sense then that I would be wary of apps and videos that offer accompaniments for instrumentalists and singers to use in order to learn and practice their music. When I was approached recently by the folks at PlayScore 2 about their app, my initial reaction was to politely respond that I don't do reviews on my blog and to leave it at that. But before I responded, I took a few moments to watch one of the videos they had sent along in their email. It had caught my eye because it was titled, "PlayScore 2 for Choir Directors and Singers - Make a Playable Rehearsal Score."

I had recently had a discussion with a college voice student I accompany about the challenges that she has as the choir director's assistant. To insure that everyone in the choirs has the tools they need to learn their parts, she had been regularly taking the time to record parts and combinations of parts and sending them to the singers. Unfortunately this was a process that was taking a lot of time and energy out of her already busy days as a student. After watching the PlayScore 2 video I was excited to check out the app for myself and to see if it was easy and effective enough to use to truly benefit choir directors and their singers.

For the past month or so I've been exploring this app from many different angles. It's one that in my mind is a bit like the Swiss Army knife of music apps. It can serve many different purposes in many different situations for many different types of musicians. 

Are you a choir director, assistant, or choir member?
As mentioned earlier in the post and in their video above, you can create practice recordings using any combination of parts, including or excluding any accompaniment parts as well. Email the files to choir members and they can play them back on their own devices within the PlayScore 2 app. Only the person creating the tracks in this instance would need a paid subscription. Singers can open and playback with just the free version. 

Is reading music notation or sightreading something you're working on? 
Scan the music you want to read in and then use their playback features, which includes a scrolling red vertical bar (see image to the left) and the ability to change tempo, to help you follow along in the score. For sightreading practice, this is one way to encourage you to keep on going when you make a mistake. 

Would you like to have a way to practice and play with another part?
Playing with an app is not the same as playing with real musicians but PlayScore 2 can help in the practice room when you are by yourself. During the pandemic, as a piano collaborator at a college, I've been spending hours and hours recording accompaniment tracks for singers and often times I choose a tempo that isn't ultimately what's best for the singer. There can be a lot of wasted time spent re-recording to try to get the "perfect" tempo. With PlayScore 2 they won't necessarily be hearing a real piano while they're practicing, but they will be able to choose a tempo that works for practicing or experiment with different tempos for performance. If a particular key doesn't feel quite right, choosing to transpose the piano part can help find out what key does work. I also love that you can loop tricky measures. 

Do you want to be able to easily import music into notation software so that you can make your own arrangements?
I play in a trio that is made up of piano, flute, and clarinet. There isn't a lot of music written for this combo so we often have to make our own arrangements. Up until now this has been a painstaking process since I don't have a fancy setup - I've had to hand enter each note into Musescore. I try to take joy in the process but usually I end up pretty tired and frustrated. This past week, with PlayScore 2, I've been able to scan in 2 different pieces which I've then converted into XML files and imported into Musescore. Voilá! Notes are instantly there with dynamics, articulation marks, name it! It's made the process of arranging so much easier. The app works with other music notation software such Dorico and Sibelius.

Do you have a visual impairment?
Using the same process mentioned in the previous paragraph, PlayScore 2 allows you to create XML files which can then be imported into braille music notation apps. Or you can use the app to learn the score by ear. 

Closing thoughts
After using the app for several weeks and talking with the folks at PlayScore 2, it's clear to me that the technology that's used to make this app work the way it does is pretty remarkable and is constantly being improved upon. 

I've also learned that it is very important when scanning music in to follow their recommendations in order to get the best possible results. You don't need a fancy camera - a good phone is all you really need. They have thorough instructions in the app itself and also on their webpage. They also make it clear that the quality of the original score impacts the end result on the app side of things. At this time the technology can't read hand-written scores or one that use a font that looks handwritten. It also doesn't do well with really old editions. If you get stuck you can also contact them directly. They seem more than happy to help troubleshoot whatever issues you might encounter.

And last but not least, the price. You can pay for the app monthly for $5.99 or you can save quite a bit of money, something I'm partial to, by paying for a year at a time which is $26.99. Either option, but especially the year subscription, seems more than worth it, especially if you can use the app for multiple purposes. Right now the app is available for both Android and Apple devices. They are also working on making a PC accessible version. Stay tuned about that! 

In summary, although I don't regularly agree to write about products on my blog, I wanted to make an exception this time since I found so many great uses for PlayScore 2 and have already recommended it to several musicians. Rather than seeing something like this as a threat to my job, I see it as a tool I can use to enhance what I already do as a coach, collaborator, teacher, and performer. 

Give it a try and let me know what you think! 

Tuesday, March 29, 2022

Rediscovering inspiration with a musical mentor

Music is one of those pursuits that we undertake without necessarily expecting for the journey to end -  that's part of what I love about being a musician. But in spite of all of my noble desires to keep improving it can be so difficult to keep the inspiration alive in our own little bubble. To step back and to objectively hear ourselves, to dream and get into our heads what we're capable of, and to push ourselves farther than we imagined possible takes a certain amount of humility and bravery. I've been fortunate over the years to have had several pianist friends for whom I feel comfortable playing and it's a practice I highly recommend. Sometimes it can be good as creatives to push ourselves out of our comfort zone and to get good and truly nervous playing for others before performing in front of more people. It can  also be a way of proving to ourselves that we are capable of performing under pressure and that we can learn and grow, just as we did as students. 

Over the past few years I was given a chance to do just that. One day, out of the blue, I received a private message on Twitter from a pianist who I had long considered my Bach hero. He had written to ask if I'd like to start chatting about Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier since he was working through them himself in preparation for an upcoming recording. Needless to say I was a bit surprised because of who I am - a professional pianist, yes, but one without any recordings and without a huge name or career. In spite of my initial surprise about it all, I accepted his invitation, we met for an initial chat, and we haven't stopped talking since. 

I will never forget the first time he asked to hear me play something during one of our conversations. Oh my. I can't adequately describe how nervous I was! But I knew this was a really unique opportunity and that it would be foolish to chicken out. Through our short exchanges of musical ideas, I quickly learned, not to my surprise, what an incredible musician, coach, teacher, and mentor he is. Over the months, those mini-exchanges with him through our video chats evolved into me sending videos of my playing to him in return for feedback. He in turn asked thought-provoking questions, challenged me to truly own my performances and interpretation of any given piece, and helped me to hear subtleties in my playing that may or not reflect what I have going on in my head. 

My musical mentor has also been watching my weekly piano sightreading since I began streaming them at the beginning of the pandemic. At the start of it all I found myself a regular bundle of nerves because he regularly passed on comments to me about very specific things I could do better even in that context. I admit that at first I responded with a bit of a short temper. I felt that because I was sightreading I shouldn’t be expected to play in such a finessed way. I believe I even suggested that perhaps he could sit in the hot seat for one episode if he thought what he was asking for was possible. This mini tantrum on my part led to an interesting discussion and me realizing, after cooling down and a bit more processing, that perhaps it was possible after all. And guess what? It is. My show is now even more of a joy to do because I’m loving the constant challenge to up my game musically every time, whether it’s on my show or out in the real world. 

After two years of being gifted this experience, I now feel like a brand new musician: my practicing is different; my performing is different; every aspect of how I hear music is different and more fine-tuned. My confidence has also increased more than I could have ever imagined. As a teacher, I’ve added even more things to my toolbox to listen for when working with students. More importantly, perhaps, I'm inspired again to keep pushing myself to get even better and I feel like I have the ears and heart to do so. 

For various reasons I’m keeping the identity of my musical mentor mysterious. As evidenced by the current show, “The Masked Singer,” it seems folks like a little intrigue and suspense now and then. Consider this my personal (and much more entertaining) version of the show. And if you're interested or curious to learn more about who he is, let me know. I just may let you in on my little secret.