Tag Archives: pianists are people too

a public service announcement

When referring to the person playing piano with you, call them your “pianist.” (Emphasis on the “a” so as to not be accidentally confused with a member of the male anatomy.)

Please do not call your pianist an “accompanist.” We do more than “accompany.” On average, we have to work as hard on your pieces as you do. More importantly, we have to know your part as well as you do – even if you don’t know ours. We are following your every move and calculating what you will do next. We follow your breaths. If we sense you will not make the phrase, we will push the tempo ever so slightly to help you out. If you make a mistake, we cover it. If you miss an entrance, we cover it. If you jump ahead or back, we cover it. If you do something you’ve never done in rehearsal, we accommodate. We balance our sound to the hall we’re in so as to showcase you. We voice our parts to your advantage. “Accompanist” is, honestly, disrespectful and dismissive. We are pianists. Collaborative pianists, when we play with you. But we are always pianists.

UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES will you ever call your (or anyone else’s) pianist “accompanyist” or “accompanimist.” They are not real words. They are childish. We will embarass you for it, and we reserve the right to walk out on the spot.

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occupational hazards

Yesterday I was discussing with my professor the possibility of learning Ravel’s Alborada del Gracioso for an upcoming recording project. The conversation went something like this:

Me: So I thought that would be an appropriate piece for this project, but I know it’s brutal.
Professor: Hmm. Yes. You know… (significant look) you have to play glisses in thirds and fourths?
Me: Yes, I noticed that. How do you do that? Without getting blood on the keys? (a legitimate question)
Professor: Yes, heh heh. That can happen. (a pause in which he gives me time to come to terms with the fact that my cuticles will be bleeding on the keyboard and there’s not much I can do about it) Well, when I first learned it I ended up with blood blisters, which turned into calluses after a few weeks. Now that doesn’t happen because I learned how to play them properly.

Nobody tells you this when you start taking piano lessons. You think it’s going to be civilized. Classy. Nope – it’s totally metal.

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some thoughts on returning to beethoven after a long period of playing much more recent music

All of last semester, and up until today, I have been playing somewhat unusual rep for a piano performance major. It was almost exclusively chamber music, most of it written in the past hundred years (I hesitate to use the term “modern”), and anything common practice was an orchestral reduction: not written for piano (with only one exception). So in all cases, difficult because of either the notes, the awkward writing, or both.

This semester instead of Copland, Shostakovich, and some Big Romantic Reductions, I’ve got Beethoven and Brahms! And Scarlatti! And maybe some Mozart! Okay there’s still some Shosty, I can’t lie, but still. Tonality! And let’s jump right in because that Beethoven horn sonata performance is in a week!

And these are the things I noticed as I got reacquainted with Beethoven.

1. I learned the entire sonata tonight. In about two hours. I will hit up some of the less obvious spots tomorrow and then it will be rehearsal-ready. Granted it’s not that difficult, but the last 24-page piece I had to learn took me more than a week to get the notes under my hands and required hardcore woodshedding every day just to keep it at acceptable levels. And let’s not talk about how much work/time to get it sounding good. It feels unnatural to not spend eight- or ten-hour days slaving over it just to accomplish a few pages. It feels too easy. Like I’m missing something or I’m cheating.

2. It’s relatively easy to play. It’s written for piano, by a pianist. The scale passages, melodies, and chord patterns are logical and fit under the hands. There are no strange tricks, I don’t have to finagle fingerings or orchestrate major note redistribution, acrobatics, or weigh the importance of individual notes and play Sophie’s Choice. I just have to write in the occasional finger number or accidental.

3. It requires more smart thinking than elbow grease. In this piece, every rhythmic or technical issue I encountered could be solved by either re-barring, re-stemming, or shifting hand positions. Yes, solved. In every piece I played in the last six months, every rhythmic/technical issue had to be mitigated by lots of slow work and an infuriating amount of repetition. Also copious cursing.

4. Simple rhythms are suddenly challenging. An eighth-note melody over a sixteenth-note accompaniment? Impossible. Requires some fingering write-ins and a few slow readings to get it right. A triplet embellishment of that same melody over that sixteenth-note accompaniment? Nailed it on the first try. (This may be because the last time I had to play straight eighths, it entailed a jump of more than an octave per hand twice per measure on consecutive eighths. And wasn’t tonal.)

5. It’s tonal. There is a colossal difference between “It was written in 1948 but all the harmonies are triadically based so it’s easier to read! Too bad it’s a different triad every single eighth at Quarter Equals 152” and “It’s in F with a harmonic rhythm of one measure.”

6. I’m playing off a library copy. I never do this. I always buy and play from my own copy (if I don’t borrow one from the soloist). However given the short lead time on this performance, I borrowed one from the library (I haven’t even met the horn player yet). And after spending only about two hours with the score I’m feeling a special kinship with whoever used it before me. First off, they erased all their markings before they returned it (the first time I’ve ever seen that! Props to you!). But as usually happens, ghosts of their markings can be seen if you look closely enough. And every time I go to mark something for myself, I find a ghost – this person made the same marking I am. Every accidental, fingering, circled reminder, was made by the person before me. I feel a strange kinship with them. “You kept missing that Bb too, huh?” “Yeah, they give you the start of the turn but not how to get out of it. I agree, 4 as the pivot.”

7. I missed Beethoven. I have been having (and will continue having) a pretty steamy affair with Shostakovich, but one quick harmonic turn brought it all back to me. Only Beethoven could find such perfection in such a tiny detail. It’s nice to be welcomed back, and with a wink at that.

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i am probably going to punch someone

As usual, names hidden to protect those who need it.

Background: I am accompanying a Young Baritone. He has secured me to play one piece for him on a recital tonight, some kind of area or diction recital. 730pm (19:30).

I played for his lesson today around 1130. Went over the piece he was singing. I went home to clean my kitchen and make cookies. I text him.

Me (15:36): 730 tonight, in [recital hall]?

No answer. Proceeded to hang out with Friend, made us dinner. Approaching showtime, I change out of cooking clothes and into All Blacks and get myself and Friend to school. I assume it’s in the same recital hall as last time he had me play for one of these. I go to that hall – there’s a violin recital going on. I text him again, since at this point I have probably four other halls to choose from.

Me (19:12): Dude where is this recital

Please note my lack of contractions and punctuation. I am getting annoyed. Meanwhile, I text Friend in performance management and have him check the schedule to find out where this recital is.

Me (19:13): Can you look up on the schedule where the 730 vocal recital is? Might be for diction or something. My singer isn’t answering
Friend (19:14): I see nothing

MEANWHILE I receive this:

Young Baritone (19:14): Oh god im so sorry! They cancelled it at noon today and i forgot to text you back when you texted me in rehearsal. Im so so so so sorry

Indeed.

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waste of time

Yesterday was Valentine’s day. In case you didn’t notice. I had a regular day of rehearsals and lessons, so for me it was just Tuesday. One of my students, on the other hand, was a little preoccupied.

Anyway, yesterday was my weekly rehearsal with “Singer I”. She came in looking frazzled, and told me she was in charge of organizing her group to perform singing Valentines, or something to that effect. So I wished her good luck, and we started rehearsing.

Things were going pretty well, considering she wasn’t exactly warmed up. After the third song, somewhere around the twenty-minute mark, she took the time to answer a text, justifying it by saying it was regarding these singing Valentines and everything has to be just perfect because people paid good money for these and she’s the only one doing any work and if she doesn’t do it the whole thing will fall through, etc, etc. I said fine, whatever. If she wants to spend part of her weekly thirty minutes with me texting, it’s her money.

She sets down her phone, and we start another song. It’s in ABA form, and it’s probably not the easiest piece she’s ever sung, with some interesting meter changes and harmonies. And it’s in Italian. She seems to have a pretty good handle on it. She gets through the A and B sections, no problem. Return of A, she starts singing, and in the reflection on the piano I see her – still holding the music – pick up her phone and answer a text while she’s still singing.

I stop, spin around, and say, “You are not seriously going to answer a text while you’re singing. WHILE YOU’RE SINGING.”

She was terrified and mortified. And I have to say, it must be a sign of what I go through every day that the reason I yelled at her was not out of disrespect for me, or my time, or for the music, (which are all legitimate reasons), but because she was treating it as a non-time-worthy activity, couldn’t devote her entire attention to singing, and therefore was reverting to old habits she was supposed to be correcting and was thereby reinforcing both the old habits and functioning in autopilot. And I told her as much.

She said she was so sorry, that this was just stressing her out, that if she didn’t do it nobody would, etc. I told her I didn’t care – either focus or do something else. So we ended the rehearsal early.

Really. If it’s so important that you can’t go half an hour without having to divert a crisis, cancel the damn rehearsal.

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out of the loop

Just before I left Tallahassee for the last two weeks, I agreed to take on another vocal student. We’ll call him Singer M. I let him know I had someone covering me, so he needn’t worry about finding a another pianist while I was gone.

Monday, two days after I return to Tallahassee, we have this exchange:

Singer M (16:49): Hey this is singer m are u available to perform at seminar this Wednesday my professor wants me to perform and since we haven’t practiced together I wanted to touch base b4 I finallized the paper work.
Me (16:51): Yes, that’s fine! Drop me the music in my folder and I’ll look at it. When do you want to rehearse?
Singer M (16:53): When are u open tomorrow or Wednesday
Me (16:55): Wednesday, any time before 1230. Tomorrow, 10-1130, 12-130.
Singer M (16:57) : Okay tomorrow at 1 sound good to me
Me (16:58): Okay, see you on the 4th floor! Can you leave me the music before then?
Singer M (17:17): Ya I have class at 11 I can drop it in ur box after class
Me (17:18): Okay fantastic, thanks!

So Tuesday rolls around, and literally six of my eight scheduled vocalists cancel. Singer M has become the first person on my schedule. Around 11, I’m standing in the hallway chatting, and this guy comes into the group looking for me. It’s Singer M to give me music! It’s Handel, and it’s sight-readable. Awesome.

I’m in and out of my room for the next two hours, practicing until his rehearsal. At 12:58, I receive this:

Singer M: Hey I have to drive a friends home for a car emergency I will be their about 20 minutes late

Call me old-fashioned, but I don’t think that’s an excuse to move a scheduled rehearsal at the last second. But I had nothing immediately following him and a pile of music to go through in the meantime. I simply texted “Okay” and let it be. After 20 minutes, wondering exactly how long this would take, I texted him:

Me: Just let me know when you’re back

Because, really.

He showed up, we rehearsed, it was not a big deal. He confirmed that he sent in the seminar paperwork the previous evening, which might have been after the deadline, but we’ll see, he says.  Come 5:00, I’m in his studio, playing for a different student. I requested we go first, since I had to be on the road by 5:30. Before we began, Professor read her list of who she wanted performing in seminar, including Singer M. He summarily announced he was scheduled for tomorrow; Professor was rather surprised.

Then today happened. I’m at school in my all-blacks. Come seminar time, I haven’t heard anything from him one way or the other, so I head down to Opperman. I go backstage. He’s not there, but he could very well be on the way. I ask someone if I can see the program, just to see where we stand. I double-check to confirm: He’s not on it. We’re not scheduled.

Well, this is interesting. I ask people if anyone had seen Singer M. One person tells me he went to the foyer to speak with the Professor in Charge to see if he could get on the program. I head to the foyer; no sign of either. I return backstage. After some deliberation and consultation, I determine I should wait there just in case he shows up, for maybe ten minutes or so. Because who knows. I perk up my ears when Professor Master of Ceremonies announces the program changes. Which don’t include Singer M.

At this point, I think, maybe he texted me. I run upstairs to get my phone – nothing. One last ditch effort. I send:

Me: Are you singing? you’re not on the list and I haven’t seen you

I leisurely find my way back to backstage, correctly assuming he never appeared. I wait another ten minutes, checking my phone. Out of curiosity I check out the attendance sheet in the foyer – and yep, he marked himself as present. One of his studio-mates saw me, and I told her the situation. She told me she played for him last night in their studio, on the assumption that he was singing today. That’s right, I was in his studio, he didn’t tell me he was supposed to sing, and after I left someone else had to play for him. I thanked her and apologized.

I go back upstairs to gather the remainder of my things. I see swarms of vocalists coming down the hall – seminar had let out. I got stood up for a performance.

Then, this:

Singer M (15:30) Apparently I signed up too late so I’ll prolly be singing at the next 1

No kidding. I let that stew for a time, while other interesting (and blog-worthy (stay tuned)) things occurred, and eventually I responded:

Me (20:02): Okay, that’s fine, but shoot me a text next time to let me know what’s going on. I was waiting backstage trying to figure out what was going on
Singer M (20:37): I was too then I saw the program and was like oops and I didn’t have my phone to text u sorry :(

Uh, maybe you could have hung around another two minutes until I got there to uh, you know, tell me? So I wasn’t waiting half an hour backstage wondering where you were?

Then, this evening, Brooks (my substitute) tells me while I was away, Singer M had a studio performance that yet another pianist had to play, since he never told Brooks about it.

This one seems to have a communications problem. Stay tuned.

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just the piano player

IMPORTANT: Please read the comment section for a continuation and clarification of the story.

The short version: the choir director at the church I play for in Monticello is resigning.

The still short but much more intriguing version: After a few years of suspicion and shady goings-on, several members of the church, including some deacons, hired a Private Investigator to check out the pastor. Among other things, they found insurance fraud, falsifying a disability claim, and lying on an application. The choir director says he did not get involved in it, because the preacher and his supporters were already using him as a target and a scapegoat, and it would be suicide to add his name to the list. The committee presented the preacher with the evidence and gave him a week to resign. His supporters went up in arms about how he was mistreated and maligned, and he refused to resign. The committee backed down, the preacher is still there, several people from the committee got fired, including the Chair of Deacons. The choir director’s name got dragged into it anyway and several people left the choir. He has since been maligned, to his face, behind his back, verbally and in print. He is over it, and his resignation was read aloud tonight at a business meeting. His final Sunday is this Sunday, leaving them without a choir director.

Though the resignation was a shock to everyone, I knew as of a few weeks ago. I was prepared to lead the choir in the interim, or even for the rest of my stay in Tallahassee, so long as they paid me for it. I have lead the choir before and they made no complaints about my directing.

I have no official position on the whole matter, as I am not a member of the church, and I like this job’s pay and have no desire to jeopardize it so long as I am left out of the whole mess and it does not affect me. Also, I was not put here to judge men – that is God’s problem.

The choir director’s daughter, Kristin, texted me tonight with news.

The players are: The choir director; Joe, the creepy redhead who fancies himself a tenor but can’t count, match pitch, or read quickly enough to keep up with the music; Sarah, a musically-inclined though (I think) untrained soprano in the choir who is often away on business; Edna, a former choir member who has always hated the director; Lynn, wife of a choir member; Sam, a former choir member.

Kristin (21:12): So dads resignation was read tonight…..church decided that sarah and joe will help lead the choir until someone can be found. Fyi sarah’s gonna be gone
Kristin (21:13): for most of september and october…..so that leaves joe…… :( bad news. Uuuuugh i know!!!!!
Me (21:14): Fantastic. Probably means I will be doing most of it
Kristin (21:16): No youre name came up and they didnt like that idea….. freaking idiots
Me (21:17): Really? That’s interesting. Who objected? The choir or the congregation?
Kristin (21:18) not sure…but apparently u arent being considered cuz u are “just the piano player.”
Me (21:19) Oh well. Good to know that joe has more musical expertise than I do.
Kristin (21:21): Hey they’re gonna get what they pay for…..and im pretty sure joe’s getting a whole lotta nada!!
Me (21:22) I mean that is true, I would insist on a raise if I had to do it, but that’s not the point.
Kristin (21:25): i know……but hey maybe they’ll find someone super quick. Edna, lynn [redacted], joe, and sam are on the search committee……
Me (21:26): I mean I don’t really care one way or the other. They could hire a trained monkey. But I have a few more qualifications than being “just the piano player.”
Kristin (21:28) We heartily agree lady.

(In place of my original closing comments, and in light of more information from someone who was actually there, please check out the comments.)

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Filed under adventures in accompanying, story time, this actually happened