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.”

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Ssh, don’t tell the violinists. :-)

Pianists have the coolest brains in the universe

We have Braininators!

We are awesome and terrifying!

Accept us as a primal force of Nature before we destroy you!

*clears throat*

Anyhow, it’s a fun article.

Update: I like this one, too. Now, I don’t really think that any one instrument is “harder” than any others. More ergonomic instruments generally are expected to be played at a higher level with more challenging music, so it all evens out in the end. There are no “easy” and “hard” instruments; there are merely instruments with high and low expectations attached to them. But given the attitudes of some violinists other musicians, I just like pointing this out. Heh. We rock.

Very strange

I’ve said this before, about my concept of music as a more abstract thing independent of any particular quality of sound, and that that’s why I seem to like pianos the best. Well, I like to listen to anything played well, but for me as a musician, I want to play a piano. The fact that you can make gobs of noises at once, and that they are somewhat characterless, means that you can build very large structures that seem to live on the Perfect Plane of music as opposed to being yoked to one particular means of operating one specific device. I just approach music that way — as a writer rather than a calligrapher. Calligraphers care about what kind of pen they use and will admire something completely inane if it’s well-executed. One ordinary little word, or even one letter, can be beautiful if done well by a calligrapher. A writer just wants something that works with as little fuss as possible, and that is as transparent as possible as an obstacle between them and the idea they want to get out there. It’s the beauty in the mind and not the eye that a writer pursues.

(BTW, I think this little gem explains Bach’s enduring fame.)

That’s how I see the piano. Like this. It’s magnificent. When I want to get an idea down, it stays the fuck out of my way, and the fact that it only took me eight years to learn to manipulate it well enough to do so is why.

But I still feel like some part of me should care about some other way of making music. Viola is gorgeous, hands-down the best single-note instrument in the orchestra, but ergonomically vicious and … well, it still only makes one noise at a time. I’m sorry, but if I hear an E7 chord in my head, I want to hear it coming out of my instrument. It was a real surprise to me to discover how bone-deep that need runs to make all the notes I hear in my head, and how dissatisfying it was to hear a chord behind the melody and not make it. It’s so frustrating to play something in CM, move through a G#, and not be able to bang out the whole chord.

The organ was just too fucking big. Owning something that I could only barely manage to find someone willing to move just creeped me out.

I feel like I’m hunting for some other way to be a musician, and I’m not sure why. Creeping dissatisfaction is the bane of any creative person’s existence, I suppose.

“Stepping back” and playing the piano

I’m still thinking of being a pianist versus my curiosity about other instruments. I still have my violas, but I feel myself coming closer to the end of the road on them due to my gradual awareness that, as I’ve said before, I just can’t get behind a device that only makes one noise at a time. But there’s something else there, and I don’t think it means that pianos are inherently the best instrument on Earth, just that they suit my own mind best.

I love pianos most of all because I feel like I’m making music as opposed to just learning how to produce a pleasant noise of a very specific character on one given device.

It’s sort of the difference between arithmetic and algebra. Arithmetic is adding and subtracting specific numbers. Algebra is when you remove the numbers (replaced with x and y and whatnot) and examine instead addition and subtraction themselves. Instead of asking how particular numbers behave, you ask how the underlying structure beneath them behaves, and how that behavior itself behaves, as a real thing. And all the beauty, taste, color, and scent of mathematics descends from that. It’s like turning aside from the shadows on the walls of Plato’s cave and looking right at the thing that is casting them. All of the paralyzing beauty of wave equations, spherical harmonics and Bessel functions, contour integration, quantum mechanics, Green’s functions … it all opens up before you once you take that first step back and say, “Okay, forget about the actual numbers. What’s really going on here?”

That’s how I feel when I play piano versus learning the individual ins and outs of a device that is simply meant to make one noise of a particular arbitrary character.

I’ve always been like this, much more into the abstract than the real even as a child. Not only did the piano set all the notes out in front of me where I could build whatever structure I wanted out of them, like dumping a bucket of Lego blocks on the floor, but it enables me to step back from the sound production. Individual pianos can have individual characters most definitely, but as a whole, you’re removed from that. The device takes care of that for you, leaving you free to float around many miles above it where the air is clear and fresh and the entire landscape opens up beneath you. You’re not chained to the quirks and annoyances of a very specific device and the very specific and very arbitrarily chosen noise that it’s “meant” to make.

(Seriously, why would a violin that sounds like an erhu be considered a poor quality violin, but an erhu that sounds exactly the same be considered glorious? Why do Western orchestras play oboes and not duduks?)

In a way, it’s also like a spiral-bound amateur-published book printed in Arial versus hand-drawn and gilded calligraphy. I’d much rather have a cheapie, crappy-but-legible Xerox of a brilliant book, spiral-bound with a plastic cover, than the most perfectly calligraphed rendering of a so-so book. Sure, there is wondrous art in calligraphy; look at the Book of Kells. But if you actually read the thing … it’s just a bible, you know? I want and value the ideas more than the execution, because the beauty that a good idea will create in my mind will outstrip even the Book of Kells.

Now of course, it’s nice to have both, which is what I think an orchestra does. I love listening to the whole, but I wouldn’t want to participate in it myself. I don’t want to hold up one pixel of a giant image like the Rose Bowl halftime show, and in many instances, if the ideas are good enough, I don’t even want the book to be too fussily rendered because it’s distracting.

The piano was the instrument I fell in love with the most as a kid. I need to just admit that I found exactly the right fit for me very young. I don’t want to say that I play the X. I want to say that I play and write music, and the piano is perfection for that, in my mind. But I still remain fascinated by these people who play things that make one noise, and who sweat bullets over making that one noise sound exactly a certain way, since it seems to be a way of being a musician — or an instrumentalist, or a something — that I’m entirely disconnected from.

It’s also wonderful how music welcomes so many different kinds of minds: people like me whose brains want to live on the Perfect Plane, and people who find joy, pleasure, and satisfaction in the fine structure of one single note on one single device. People who render, people who write, people who solo, people who are happy accompanying from the background. No matter what your personality is or who you are, there is a way to excel in this and a way to find real joy. There is no “wrong sort of person” to do music.

I know I’ve said this before, but …

It’s bothering me that I keep coming back to one reason why the piano continually pulls me away from the viola:

I cannot fathom putting that much effort into something that only makes one note at a time. I’ve said this before, I know.

I love the sound of the thing. I can certainly get a 15″ instrument that would make my life easier, or a 14″ octave fiddle that would allow me to go deeper and yet play something smaller. And I adore the idea of playing something portable and more expressive.

But, there always seems to be a small part of my brain that does the doggy head-tilt when it regards these devices as simply oddball stochastically evolved machines for making one sound at a time of a particular, completely arbitrary character. And I can’t shake that conclusion, no matter how much I’d like to.

I wish I could find a full universe in a one-note-at-a-time instrument. They are smaller, lighter, and infinitely portable. They are buskable in a way that a piano isn’t — although the idea of buying a Yammie Portable Grand would make even taking a long weekend vacation infinitely more bearable for me. To be able to take a nice few days in a beach house without stewing and fidgeting for want of a piano would be glorious.

But at any rate, no matter how hard I want to shift it, that inevitable brick in the punch bowl* — that I can’t find enough interest in one note at a time — doesn’t seem to want to move. I seem to really love the abstract structure of what I’m creating almost more than the thing itself, more than the sounds. It’s more musical algebra than arithmetic, algebra being the underlying structure of arithmetic that’s left when the individual numbers are removed.

I think I’ve just got to let myself be a pianist.

I wonder what it is about single-note instruments that can attract so many people. My old viola teacher was one of those sorts — violin, viola, trumpet, saxophone, clarinet, and probably a few more I’m forgetting … and he was very, very good at all of them. Really good. Clearly, there was something there for him where he was able to find a universe of structure and detail in each individual note that satisfied him. I simply cannot do that. I can’t find enough interest in the character of the sound itself to sustain me. It’s multi-voice or nothing. (The only one-note-at-a-time instrument that I think I truly do love is the voice.)

I think of music as a sort of three-dimensional tinkertoy in space (hell, I think of everything like that: music, math, languages, everything). The tinkertoy shape itself is the abstract structure of the music, revealed by the notes placed at the vertices. Pianos, because they can create gobs of notes at once, can build awesomely complex structures, revealing them by placing the pretty but relatively uncomplex mass-produced notes at the points. Single-note instruments can only place one note at a time and are hence much more limited in the complexity of the structures they can build, but those notes are the most glittering, perfectly polished jewels you can imagine, sparkling away at the vertices of that tinkertoy. I guess it depends on what you find more beautiful, the shape of the tinkertoy or the gems stuck to its vertices. For me, it’s undoubtedly the shape. I don’t anticipate that other pianists will automatically agree with me; the instrument is huge, and has many facets that can appeal to many people for all kinds of reasons.

The longer I do this, especially writing, the more I seem to regard a piano as just a big typewriter. And the beauty of the ideas written in the pages of a book doesn’t depend on the beauty of the font. You want a book to be readable and minimally attractive, with a nice font well-suited not to tire the eye but beyond that, anything else isn’t overwhelmingly necessary. A good book can certainly be an artistic item in itself, but Edgar Allan Poe’s poems are just as beautiful even if you’re reading a cheap purple mimeograph from the 1970s.

I say this with some mourning.

And let’s face it, the piano also has the unparalleled advantage of not totally effing up your body six ways from Sunday while you play it. Ergonomically, it’s a dreamland compared to almost any other instrument. That’s also a big problem with me and that damned viola as well — wanting to just settle into the sound and play something a thousand times because let’s face it, I love falling into that sort of repetitive thing for relaxation — and being defeated by the fact that I simply cannot hold my arm in that position for long enough to let that happen. With the piano, I can just sit there and go over and over and over, trying things slightly differently each time, just letting myself relax with each repetition. Single-note instruments ask so much from the body, and for such a thin broth in return. Pianos ask comparatively little, and give back so much more.

* This is a Robin Williams metaphor. Almost. Be glad I bowdlerized it. He didn’t say “brick.”

Why pianos are the best instrument IMO

1) Pianos were made from the ground up to be idiot-proof at a beginner level. This hasn’t lowered the standard for the instrument; instead, it seems to have raised it. Since it’s fairly easy to use at low levels, one must play it particularly well to garner any attention. Contrast that with Ruggiero Ricci’s statement that even playing a violin in tune with good tone and timing is high-level playing. Like xkcd says, our brains have one scale, and we resize our experiences to fit (mouseover to see this comment). Move the bar for acceptable beginner play down, and it just makes the bar for virtuoso play that much higher.

2) This beginner-friendliness has made the piano welcoming to all forms of music, secular and popular as well as classical and liturgical. They have been designed for tone and massiveness of sound, but also for home and apartment convenience as well (making them more available to people without much money, which is the biggest driver in my mind for digital pianos). Thanks to this, taverns, juke joints, speakeasies, and private homes were the bailiwick of the piano as well as the concert hall. The piano was the Victorian/Edwardian jukebox and home stereo, and as such it welcomed pop songs, drinking songs, patriotic songs, and prohibition songs, blues, jazz, and any other genre, equally. Sixty years after Jerry Lee Lewis was pounding pianos into splinters, people are stunned to hear 2Cellos play Michael Jackson covers. Classically trained pianists who played pop and rock have been around since the days of Neal Sedaka and Billy Joel.

The beginner-friendliness has also made it possible for valuable things at all ability levels to be communicated through the piano. I’m a strong believer that there are things of value to say at all ability levels, and that includes beginners. The piano, more than any other instrument, allows these things to be said. A beginner pianist may be someone with far more life experience than someone of much greater ability. How nice that a piano can allow both to say something.

3) Pianos are children of the industrial revolution, and aware of it. They were perfected by mass production, with many tiny moving parts. The deBeers-commercial-like romance of the individually crafted artisanal device does not exist for the piano, although there’s money snobbery, and gawd knows Steinway tries hard to inflate it. (Before the advent of steam and then electrical power and mass production, they sounded like crap. Strings broke. Keys broke. Franz Liszt may have smashed up old-timers, but even he wouldn’t make a dent in a modern concert grand.) Consequently, we do not try to hide the fact that we are machine operators and must empty our souls into the devices in order to play rather than to mysticize the devices themselves as having souls. Furthermore, robots have been playing them in the form of player pianos for roughly a century. Meanwhile, Yamaha’s violin- and trumpet-playing robots have caused minor conniptions and defensiveness among violinists and trumpeters.

Honestly, from the point of view of a pianist, the way that string players treat their instruments like stone idols seems strange. The mysticism strikes me as not entirely healthy, and the way that the good instruments are priced so astronomically out of reach of the best players is horrifying to me. It’s counterproductive to force communicative artists into a position of subservience to someone of great wealth and power, as the painful example of Dylana Jensen shows. No one can pull that kind of bullshit with a pianist, thankfully.

4) Pianos are fungible. Some are well-regulated, well-voiced, and properly tuned, and many are not. But to be perfectly honest, any well-regulated, well-voiced, well-tuned piano is pretty much serviceable for anything. Sure, a virtuoso with good ears can prefer one sound over another, or consider one sound more suitable for a certain type of music, but in general … a piano is a piano is a piano after a certain standard of operability is reached.

I often bitch about the fact that a pianist has to be very careful to put life into a piano in order to not come off as a corpse puppeteer or machine operator. But to be honest, there’s a lot of good to be said about an instrument that was designed to be kind(er) to the body, kind to beginners, unashamedly mechanical, and welcoming to all forms of music.

I’ve carefully not gone into the way that pianos can carry enormous abstract complexity; I’ve talked about that before.

Monophonic versus polyphonic instruments

I really need to just admit that I prefer multi-voice instruments to single-voice instruments, even when they are played in a multi-voice style.

There’s just a difference between an instrument that is meant to be multi-voice, built for it from the ground up, versus one that can only be pushed into that if you have been playing it for twenty years starting at the age of three. It says a lot that, in order to force a violin to do what a keyboard can do without breaking a sweat, you have to be Hilary Hahn.

It always feels as if a string instrument is out of its proper tessitura in a way, its home court, when things like this are done on it. They are at their best when they imitate a voice; this is not the sound of a voice. It’s impressive that one can be made to carry a polyphonic structure, and it’s impressive to see it done, but … it’s awfully mechanical. A string instrument is just at its best when it does what a piano can’t, not what a piano can do better.

I guess I’m just conflicted about strings. Maybe that’s the best thing about a viola. They are so hard to get around on in general ergonomically that you are forced to use it the way a string instrument is meant to be used: one voice, at a reasonable pace sustainable by a good opera singer, with lots of color and expression. Well, meant by me, anyway. I don’t see the point of taking an instrument that can imitate a voice and shoving it well outside of that wonderful place into a place where it just doesn’t sound its best.

I think that’s also part of why I like Keating so much. With the looping technology she’s applied to the cello, she’s enabled it to sustain large-scale multi-voice structures, but without losing that sublime human sound of the thing. There are limitations to live looping in that you have to set the loops up linearly, but there are always limitations to music of one kind or another. All instruments and genres have their obstacles and baggage.

At bottom, I guess I want the portability of a monophonic instrument and the scale of a polyphonic one. Yeah, while I’m dreaming, I want a million dollars and a pony, too …