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.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Accompanying on top of the world

From Wikimedia Commons
Today I feel like I can honestly say that I played on top of the world, both literally and figuratively.  This time the recital was in the Blue Ridge Mountains of southwestern Virginia, in the tiny rural town of Meadows of Dan.  A young violinist, probably about 10 years old, had asked me if I would play for her very first violin recital.  I had only accompanied her a few times previously but her lovely, gentle spirit and quiet determination to perform made it impossible to resist the request, in spite of the long drive out to their community.  I had absolutely no idea where I was going as I made the trip out there but driving along the Blue Ridge Parkway in the heavy rain, and then past that, out into the country, I realized that I didn't really care.  I had entered a completely different world than I was used to and based on similar experiences in the past, I had a feeling that this Suzuki Book 1 recital was going to be well worth the time.  

It was.  Times 10.

The recital was in a tiny church that was located at the end of a long gravelly country road.  There really wasn't much of anything surrounding it except for land and some houses and small farms.  I arrived 45 minutes early but the church already had quite a few people in it that were just sitting quietly, watching what was going on in preparation for the program.  As I waited for the recital to start, I listened to the conversations going on around me.  By now the church was pretty much filled with people from this small community.  An older man behind me was telling whoever was sitting next to him that he found "something like that little instrument thing" up in his attic a while ago but didn't have any idea what to do with it.  Others were trying to guess which instruments were cellos and which one was the violin - not such an easy task when many of the instruments are smaller versions of the full-sized ones.

The recital began with quite a variety of selections and performers which was followed by the young girl's book recital.  Again, I had no idea what to expect.  It was, after all, a first recital experience.  But this violinist, she was so self-assured, so musical, and what really moved me, she was so in her element.  We had hardly ever played with one another yet whenever I looked over at her, she was right there, looking right back at me, indicating in the wordless, magical way that music allows, what she wanted to do with the music.  I couldn't help but smile.  I couldn't help but soak up the joy that comes from communicating with another musician in this way.

The recital concluded with her teacher and I performing some short movements and by this point in the recital, an hour's worth of music had already gone by, without any pause or intermission.  Yet for the entire time, there was not a peep from the audience.  Afterwards I was approached by just about everyone there and I was amazed to hear what some of their comments were.  Several mentioned that they had never heard classical music before and what an honor it was to finally hear it in their community.  Another said, "I've been around the world a bit but this is like the stuff you hear in the big cities like New York.  This is culture, right here."  A woman approached me and said that she runs the nursing home in town and what an honor it would be to have music like this some afternoon for the residents.  It was one excited comment after another and I left, grinning from ear to ear but also grappling a bit with what I had heard.  How could it be that some of them, perhaps many of them, had never heard classical music before?  It reminded me of how much larger the world is from my own little musical world.  

As a thank you, this young violinist gave me a tiny mouse that she had knitted herself.  She hadn't picked up the yarn at Michael's though, or purchased it off the internet, she had spun the yarn herself from local sheep and had also dyed it herself.  She had done this all from her home on top of the world where classical music isn't even elevator music.  As she handed me this most special mouse, I realized that thanks to this wonderful experience, I was literally and figuratively on top of the world myself and I find it difficult to want to come back down.

Perhaps I won't.  

Saturday, March 5, 2011

More twitter fun - haikus written in honor of our collaborative profession

An extension of my previous post, I decided to go ahead and compile all the haikus that I could find on twitter that were written in honor of collaborators and accompanists everywhere.  These clever haikus were created about a week ago and went flying across the twitter timeline for a day or so.  I think they are worthy of preservation and could prove to be the perfect comic relief needed on a collaborator's more stressful days.  They might even be useful to those with whom we work - our valiant instrumentalists and singers.  Perhaps they will give some great (or not so great) insight into what to do and what not to do when working with us.  

Special thanks goes to the website, Topsy, where I was able to find these haikus all in one place and to Michael Monroe, @mmmusing, the author of many of these accompanist haikus and the twitter friend that pointed me to Topsy.  Thanks also to all the authors of these wonderful poetic musings.  If anyone notices that one is missing or I've attributed one incorrectly, please add to the comment section to this post.  


When a singer falls
Off pitch, off rhythm, off beat
I just play louder

No need to turn and
Nod as if I'm the butler
I'll play when you breathe

Paul Hindemith wrote
sonatas for everyone.
I wish he hadn't

Critic in Row M:
I accompanied ably.
Last sentence is done.

No really, it's fine.
I'll just guess what those notes were
on the last system

Sonatas sometimes
have spots where the piano
has the tune - not you.

Here goes the applause
but don't mind me over here -
I don't need to bow.

Did you want me to
transpose down a half step
or were you just flat?

Score is in E flat
Playing in B flat as asked
Why are you in C?

I can play softly
even with the lid way up.
It's not a loud switch.

The Franck Sonata;
so versatile, it even
works with viola.

Sure, I'll play that piece
from manuscript open score:
once the check has cleared.

Hal Leonard page turns
turned me into a fan of

Why is my music
more difficult than yours is?
Damn you, soloist!

A whole orchestra
reduced for only two hands
or maybe for three

At a certain point
A reduction of "Wozzeck"
Defeats the purpose

Nobody panic
The measures you just skipped
Didn't matter much

I know my music
Do I have to teach you yours?
I'll have to charge more.

Improvise while the
Soprano makes up German?
All in a day's work

Sure, I can transpose
Your aria down a step
But it'll cost you

You think you are
conducting the choir yourself.
The organist leads.

It may "be easy"
but give me the music now
because I'm not you.

What to wear today?
Another day performing -
black, black, black, or black?

I need a favor...
Can you play Rachmaninoff?
Why are you twitching?

You hummed a few bars
Is that your real tempo?
Nope.  Not even close.
-Eileen Huang

"Accompanist" is
a dated term.  I prefer
"Collab'rative pack mule."

We need you to sight
read this piece tomorrow! The
composer'll be there.

"Hey, could you ditch your
final dress for my hearing?
Um, let me check. No.

Oh, the life of an
accomp - er - collab'rative
pianist.  My bad.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Haiku in honor of the National Association for Teachers of Singing competitions

This weekend the Virginia NATS association (National Association for Teachers of Singing) is gathering for their annual festival/competition.  I went the previous two years to accompany singers from Virginia Tech and enjoyed working with all of the singers.  But there was one thing that inspired quite a deluge of anger from me and that continues to bug me.  The association has a rule that the pianist must play from original music, not photocopies, for the auditions.  If a pianist fails to do this, the singer will be disqualified from the competition portion of the weekend and can only receive written comments.  

Well, when a pianist is playing for up to ten different singers, what does that mean?  It means a lot of things.  It means the pianist...
  • has to lug around all of the books and keep them organized (I had about 20 books one year) or they have to rely on the singers to remember to bring the books themselves (never a good thing.)
  • has to deal with page turns.
  • has to grapple with books that won't stay open on the piano, which can often be uprights, which don't make particularly good music stands
  • has to transfer markings made in their own copies to the original music. 
In other words, it's a whole lot of fussing around instead of doing the job that we like to do our singers and play beautiful music.


OK, I'll stop for now.  The reason I brought this up, actually, is because I came across the most wonderful haiku that a fellow collaborator, Billy Whittaker, wrote and posted on her wonderful blog, "Good Company."  I believe it is written by Billy and I do believe she's been to NATS one or two times herself, judging from the haiku.  
Dear NATS: your rules on
'original copies' means
I play with one hand. 
Ha ha! Just reading it makes me feel better.  And need I say more?

If you're interested in reading my earlier rant on this whole topic, feel free to read the post, "Copyright Law and Sheet Music - why it can wreak havoc for an accompanist/collaborator."

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

A very quiet but powerful reminder of why I collaborate with others

Photo by Georg Feitscher, on Wikimedia Commons
Virtually every day on the job for me, as a collaborator/accompanist, is full of wonderfully satisfying moments.  I have my not-so inspiring days too, of course, but I have to say they're pretty rare and tend to have more to do with external factors that have little to do with music-making.  But even with this general blissful relationship with my job and with those with whom I work, there are sometimes moments that present themselves in such a way that I am completely blown away and amazed by the honor that I feel to be doing what I do.  

I had one of those moments today.  I'm still recovering.

Once a month I play the piano for a local cello studio's performance class.  It's a pretty large studio with students of all ages.  Most of the music I play for these classes come straight from the Suzuki repertoire and after having played for this particular group of cellists for 5 years, I can say that I've probably played every piece in those books a dozen times, at least.  I guess you could say that I know the music like the back of my hand. 

So that's where I was this afternoon.  Cello class.  Several hours long.  Same music as I always play.  A few folks with memory slips so I take on the challenge of smoothing those out.  Some adorable little ones playing open string tunes without an ounce of fear.  Nothing new.

But then, after about an hour and forty-five minutes, a teenage girl, that I haven't played with much and that seems quite shy to me, stepped up to the piano to tell me that she was going to play the Sammartini Grave from the g minor sonata.  No problem.  A very straight-forward movement.  She tuned and we began.  Actually, she began all by herself, with an eighth-note upbeat that completely caught me off guard and immediately transported me into a new world - her world.  This one eighth-note and the phrase following it were very, very soft and very, very slow.  Not a "bow in the wrong part of the string" soft or a "she has no pulse" slow but an other-worldly soft and slow that had both dimension and meaning.  Now I have to admit that after a few phrases of this, the old, or perhaps I should say older "more experienced" (translate to "jaded musician") found myself questioning the wisdom of picking this way to express this particular music but that feeling only lasted a brief moment because the more she played, the more I was drawn into this wonderfully intimate space that she was creating.  

Now her performance wasn't all quiet.  There was a section in the middle in which she stepped out a bit from that space she had created.  But it was all in perfect context and all wonderfully done.  When we arrived at the last note, I couldn't help but smile.  I couldn't criticize the tempo or the dynamics because she had made them her own.  They were part of her and for those three minutes, I became a part of her and her interpretation as well.  An incredible feeling.

A teenage cellist - not a prodigy, just your typical girl.  Yet today she showed me a glimpse of something else, of something very, very powerful.  She took me by the ear and showed me a completely new, fresh interpretation of this piece of music that I've played many, many times before.  She also reminded me of how honored I feel on a regular basis, to be invited into other's emotional and creative worlds with no words of explanation needed.

Truly a gift.