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 21, 2011

Defying the silent accompanist image of old

Later I happened to appear next to her on the stage dozens of times, but I was not sure of how to bow, where to look, nor how many steps to walk behind her.  I glided, like a shadow, without looking at the audience.  I would take my seat keeping my eyes to the ground and then put my hands on the keyboard.
- From Nina Berberova's 1934 novel,  The Accompanist

From Wikimedia Commons
In the past, way in the past, accompanists, and that's what they were called way back then, were expected to simply follow the soloist in a prim and proper way, physically, psychologically, and musically. Not so any more, thank goodness.  Now pianists that choose to be collaborators, the updated word for "accompanist," have the freedom to also choose what type of collaborator they want to be.  Beyond just the standard question of who a pianist prefers or tends to collaborate with, there's also the question of how a pianist works in the rehearsal room itself and for me, my personal answer to that question has evolved over the years into something that I feel very comfortable with but that involves me as a pianist who is anything but silent.  

So when do I tend to speak up in a rehearsal situation?  When...
  • there are wrong notes or rhythms 
  • tempos that aren't working
  • I can't read the soloist's cues
  • no music is being made and it sounds like just a bunch of notes 
  • the soloist is obviously frustrated about a particular passage
  • the style in which the soloist is playing doesn't seem to match the style of the piece
  • the soloist mentions anything about needing to perform something "perfectly"
And why do I speak up?  

I have come to the conclusion that I do not want to become one of those pianists that falls into the trap of collaborating as if it is merely a job.  I fear that if that were to happen, performing would also turn into a job and performing, for me, is simply too magical an endeavor to throw down at the feet of banality.  So if I am accompanying someone and find myself drifting into a "here we go again" state of mind because of a lack of spark in the soloist, I feel like I owe it to myself, the person I'm playing with, and any future audience members to kick myself back into a convincing, energizing musical world.   I also speak up because I realize how little time teachers usually have with their students.  It amazes me how much material needs to be covered in lessons in order to get a musician ready for the necessary hoop-jumping and it seems virtually impossible for a teacher to catch everything, especially when the soloist is more often than not, playing for the teacher without the pianist there until right before a performance.  

Now do I do this with everyone I collaborate with?  

No, certainly not.  It depends on the person with whom I'm working, the situation, and how long I've been working with him or her.  If it's a student, it can also depend on who their teacher is.  But as I've gained experience (in other words, gotten older) I've gotten more and more bold, in a gentle way of course, about offering my own opinions and ideas.  

On an ending note, I want to say emphatically that whenever I choose to speak up in a rehearsal situation, I make sure I do it with respect for the soloist and their teacher and with the best of manners.   To me it feels a bit like combining the best of both worlds - the old style accompanist, with their quiet but supportive spirit, with the more contemporary translation of collaborator.  

I recently had a rehearsal with a student that was new to me.  At the end of an hour long session, in which I talked quite a bit, he smiled and said, "Wow.  You're not like a normal accompanist.  You actually have opinions.  You actually talk."

Ha ha!  Perhaps a wee bit too much.



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