Accompaniment masterclasses — “Works and plays well with others”

This came up while I was reading this post on accompanist masterclasses at Erica Sipes’ blog Beyond the Notes. (I always feel wrong when I don’t put the full ‘s after anything when using the possessive, but I force myself to do it anyway. Makes my eyelid twitch, though.)

It hit me while I was reading her post that the whole idea of masterclasses and workshops for piano accompanists seems to be nonexistent, or at least I’ve never heard of it from my isolated little non-musical universe (which doesn’t make my impression all that trustworthy, I know).

I keep thinking of the article The Juilliard Effect: Ten Years Later that occasionally surfaces in online discussions, and one throwaway line that struck me immediately when reading it but that often goes unremarked upon: “They were among the 44 instrumentalists who graduated in 1994, excluding pianists, who generally follow a distinct career path of their own.”

The bread and butter of a working pianist is going to be accompaniment, mostly for all those kids who anticipate rocketing to clarinet stardom. It’s very ironic that an instrument that is so perfect for accompaniment, and so often used for it, is so often practiced and taught to one person in a room, alone.

Of course, this ability to stand on its own is what makes the piano the perfect accompanist; most pianists will earn their daily bread playing the ultimate standalone instrument in a supportive role behind others.

I just think that a masterclass or workshop like this, rather a whole series of them, is probably vitally and badly needed at most music schools and conservatories and should be required, especially at the top ones like Curtis and Juilliard where all the pianos students think they will be the next André Watts.

That’s why it needs to be required, because having been in my early twenties some time ago *whistles vaguely* I can guarantee you that far too many kids would see such classes in the schedule and think, “Oh, I won’t need to know that.” I wonder how many of Sipes’ experienced adult students sit there and soak up what she has to say while thinking to themselves, “I wish I’d had the opportunity to take classes like this twenty years ago — and the brains to realize I needed to.”

So yes, it’s going nicely.

This is what I’m provisionally calling the “Brass Bottom Rag,” because it’s in Bb. It wants to come out, and I might as well let it. It’s fairly unremarkable but it’s fun and I’m enjoying myself, although I do need to get over a sticky bit.

“If you play this piece fast, I will hunt you down.”

I think that would have been the last step in Scott Joplin’s progressively more and more impatient tempo markings.

The reason I’m thinking of this is because my head has finally and inevitably been hijacked by a ragtime demon that insists on playing rags in my brain 24/7. It was bound to happen. This is the piano style that my dad got obsessed by after “The Sting” came out, and we listened to it constantly when I was a kid, especially after he found out that Joplin had written an opera. I love this stuff, and it means my childhood and time spent with my dad, and I was bound to finally get taken over with it. I thought it would come as a result of a few Haendel arias, but it seems to have sprung up of its own accord. (I’m still planning on doing the Haendel arias in ragtime style, though.)

Fun, but tiring.

And as someone who likes ragtime and tends to dislike stride — “I played the whole piece in 14 seconds! I r smrt and gud peeAAAAAAAAnist!” — I’m cringing at the thought of how these pieces could conceivably be brutalized by playing them at the typical egotistical breakneck speed of stride, which is how Joplin’s music was mangled by East coast pianists within his lifetime. (Fast boogie? Fine with me. Fast stride? Please, you’re just playing ragtime at the wrong tempo.)

I may have to use Joplinesque tempo markings on my own pieces. “Play this piece at a leisurely speed, or I will trank you personally.”

So STEM folks don’t have a Plan B, huh?

Yet again, this whole don’t-have-a-Plan-B horseshit continues to stink just as much as it ever did.

If having a Plan B is good enough for an astronaut, then having a Plan B is good enough for you.

And here’s another one from Chris Hadfield, who went into the same career just as clear-eyed as Seddon about the need for a Plan B.

This bullshit belief among Ahtists that no one else has a Plan B in their lives, and that the constant exhortations to them to have a second choice in place reflects some kind of lack of confidence is … well, a bullshit belief. Every successful person, even in the most demanding STEM jobs, has a Plan B. They generally have Plans C, D, E, F, and so on.

The only people who don’t have Plan Bs are people with Grandpapa’s railroad investments behind them, or who married wealth — or both.

The next time someone exhorts you to “live your passion!” and “take a risk!” by not worrying about how you will pay your rent with your art, I want you to do the following thing:

Ask them how much money their parents are worth. Ask them their spouse’s net worth and annual salary.

Then, you wise up and you do what Rhea Seddon and Chris Hadfield did — you get yourself a Plan B. Never stop moving toward your goal, but make sure you can pay your bills and put food in your stomach on the way there.

I know I keep harping on this, but it is never pointed out anywhere else, and needs to be. I’m not saying there is anything morally wrong with being born on third base, but it sure does seem to make one fairly clueless about the value of the life lessons they can teach other people. The rest of us cannot learn how to hit a triple from listening to their earnest advice. And if you do not have family wealth as a safety net beneath you as you leap off that cliff, you will get destroyed if you try to apply their advice to yourself.

And possibly the worst part about this is the damage it does to art itself, by ensuring that only a very narrow and privileged slice of humanity will do it for any significant period of time. :-( The rest of the world will end up having to sell their instruments and give up — and not because they didn’t have “passion” or “dedication,” but because they didn’t have someone else’s money to prop them up while things gelled.