SHARING IS CARING: Advice for Collaborative Pianists

by Michael Refvem (MGBH)

As collaborative pianists, we often have to meet high expectations with little appreciation of our role in performance. For centuries, the now antiquated term accompanist has been used to imply a role lesser than that of a soloist. In early film depictions of concert violinists such as Joseph Szigeti (OBM), the pianist is featured in a distance, almost made invisible by the camera.  Over the years, thanks to the advocacy of collaborative pianists like Gerald Moore (OBM) and Martin Katz (MGBH), the author of The Complete Collaborator, the role of a collaborative pianist has risen in prominence.

BeeSzigeti plays Schubert’s “The Bee”

WITH COLLABORATION IN MIND

Being new to collaboration with other musicians, a pianist may think that her/she has no say so in interpretive matters of a given work. A soloist, however, often needs input, especially from a pianist with experience. In music interpretation, it is important to trust instincts. “Does the tempo really need to be so fast?” “How is the balance?” “Are our interpretive ideas matching (articulation)?”

 

MUSIC SCORE IS JUST THE BLUEPRINT!

For a collaborative pianist, to fully understand the music piece, it is important to see the big picture. Thus, it is best to listen to a recording of a particular piece. This will help in understanding the structure of the composition as well as peculiarities inherent in other types of instruments and how they can affect your performance.

Do not begin your work with the piano part alone. Remember that the score is merely a blueprint of the completed art. The purist conception of a work begins with the sound itself.  Martin Katz takes this one step further in The Complete Collaborator (2) and recommends being able to sing the soloist’s music and play your part simultaneously!

Remember that the score is merely a blueprint of the completed art.

Pianists are often less aware of the necessity for wind and brass players to breathe and how their breathing can influence musical pacing (inserting a little bit of time between phrases to catch a quick breath). The physics involved in sound production for string players means that there is a split second between the movement of the bow and the full maturation of the sound. Pianists should also study the text in vocal scores and be aware of how the language impacts ensemble. My favorite example in German is the word klang (sound). Play with the ANG and not the KL as that is the point where the tone actually forms.

 

LEARN THEM WELL

No matter what, it is essential to give it your best in your collaborative effort.

Sometimes pianists are approached to participate in a project last minute without being given sufficient time to work on a music piece. Unless you know the piece perfectly from, it is never wise to accept such task putting both his and the soloist’ performance at risk.

I can’t tell you how many times I have played Brahms’ (OBM) Clarinet Sonata in E flat Major, Op. 120, No. 2. It is one of those music pieces that pianists are expected to know. If I hadn’t initially learned the piece thoroughly, I would certainly be paying for it today. Having learned that in advance, however, I have ultimately saved myself a lot of frustration and a potential refusal of work.

It is also important to remember that a rehearsal time belongs to all collaborators and not just one. That is why arriving at rehearsal fully prepared is the core of the code of ethics for collaborative work.

 

IT WILL HELP YOUR SOLO PLAYING

There are so many benefits of collaborating with other musicians. In many ways, collaboration has helped me solidify my musical principles and hone in on my weaknesses.

Young pianists often lack awareness or ability to play with a steady pulse and good rhythm. Working with other musicians can bring attention to a proper rhythmic control when the elements have be played in sync.

Typically, expected timeframe for learning collaborative works is shorter than that of solo performances. Thus, pianists have to prepare a new repertoire under tighter deadlines, which can push them to potentially become better musicians by having to be more organized and systematic in their practice.

The essence of great collaboration rests in the act of communication.  Collaborating with an instrumentalist or vocalist is one of the most intimate of settings and thrives on the exchange of intricate musical ideas between the players. Paying attention to the part or parts of the other player(s) helps create an overall synergy, harmony, and a feeling of oneness. In contrast, playing with over-the-top bombast runs the risk of completely drowning your partner.

It is my hope that by adopting these principles, a beginning collaborative pianist can attain the next level of mastery as well as appreciation and recognition.

 

 

References:

(1) “Szigeti plays Schubert’s “The Bee”” – YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Pm6kBXkqT4

(2) Katz, Martin. “Two. Breathing and Singing.” The Complete Collaborator: The Pianist as Partner. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2009. 7. Print.

 

About the Author

Michael Refvem enjoys a multifaceted career as recitalist, chamber musician and concerto soloist. He recently moved to Montréal, where he enjoys walks in the old town and Mount Royal in his spare time.

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