Wednesday, April 28, 2021

The Tambora Climate Disaster and How It Influenced the Development of Lieder in 1815-1816

John Constable, The Quarters Behind Alresford Hall, 1816

The light in this 1816 John Constable painting seems to be completely wrong. Why?

Over the years I've been fascinated with the second decade of the 19th century, and why musical output changed so much during this time. The list of active composers dropped to a trickle, almost no symphonies were written, just a handful of operas, but plenty of small works. What happened?

I finally figured it out, and my article for the May-June 2021 edition of the NATS Journal of Singing spells it out: in 1815 Mount Tambora erupted in the South Pacific, leading to a global climate catastrophe which seriously impacted the climate and economy of Europe. In the article I make the correlation between the onset of the catastrophe, its fallout across Europe and the development of lieder as a viable artistic genre, specifically in the music of Franz Schubert and Ludwig van Beethoven, living a few minutes away from each other in Vienna (although they almost certainly hadn't met yet). 

I would like to say a huge word of thanks to Margo Garrett for her constant encouragement, and who was instrumental in helping me bring this idea to fruition for her Collab Corner in the NATS Journal. Margo also was kind enough to send me some difficult-to-find German sources from her library that helped me to trace the exact locations of Beethoven in the spring of 1815. 

This Isn’t the First New Normal: Finding Correlations Between the Tambora Climate Disaster and the Development of Lieder in 1815-16 (direct pdf link)

Monday, April 26, 2021

Advice from Thelonious Monk

These words of advice from Thelonious Monk are taken from a list transcribed by saxophonist Steve Lacy, dated from 1960:

  • Just because you're not a drummer doesn't mean that you don't have to keep time. 
  • A note can be as small as a pin or as big as the world, it depends on your imagination.
  • Stay in shape! Sometimes a musician waits for a gig & when it comes he's out of shape and can't make it. 
  • Always leave them wanting more.
  • Don't sound anybody for a gig, just be on the scene.
  • These pieces were written so as to have something to play & to get cats interested enough to come to rehearsal. 
  • Whatever you think can't be done, somebody will come along & do it. A genius is the one most like himself. 

You can find the entire list here.

Some Monday morning music to start off your week - Evonce from Monk's October 15, 1947 Blue Note session. Personnel are Thelonious Monk on piano, Idrees Suleiman on trumpet, Ike Quebec on alto sax, Billy Smith on tenor sax, Gene Ramey on bass, and Art Blakey on drums:

Monday, April 05, 2021

Compensation Survey for Collaborative Pianists in Higher Education

Working at a university, conservator, or college is one of the most common ways to get employment as a collaborative pianist. However, many of these positions don't pay particularly well, offer limited or no benefits, and might not even be at a faculty level. Making things more challenging is that very little information is available about what types of position each university has and how much they pay; this information is traditionally locked down operational info. 

A new survey by Mary Trotter and John Gilmour aims to change that. About their survey and its aims:

Calling all collaborative pianists who work in university settings!

We have crafted a survey to gather data about how professional collaborative pianists are compensated at institutions of higher education in the United States. We hope to make this data available to all so that ALL of us can be paid what we're worth! Please take 5 minutes and fill it out! We hope to reach as many fellow pianists as possible, so please share with colleagues and friends! Contact us with any questions at accompanistsurvey [at] gmail dot com.

It is vitally important that collaborative pianists know the scope of what is available for them in the profession and how much these positions traditionally pay. Please fill out this survey if you have the time - note that this survey at present only includes pianists working at US institutions. Here's the link:

Compensation Survey for Collaborative Pianists in Higher Education 

(Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash)

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

Piercing the Singer/Pianist Dynamic

Robert Thies looks at the relationships between pianists, their collaborators, and concert presenters in Might We Accompany Each Other? How Audiences and Presenters Perceive the Singer/Pianist Dynamic in the March-April 2021 edition of the Journal of the New York Singing Teachers' Association. That this is intended as a primer for singers rather than just pianists is commendable, and Robert goes into depth about audience perception, how we refer to ourselves, the nature of the repertoire, and dealing with presenters, especially regarding fees. 

On whether to play at half or full stick:

There is a widespread misconception among instrumental and vocal teachers that a piano lid at half stick is softer in volume. Indeed, when standing or sitting in front of an open piano, the percussive quality of the hammers is pronounced and takes some getting used to. However, an interesting study by DMA candidate Paul Lee measured concert hall acoustics and piano lid height. He concluded that the decibel level between half stick and full stick is nearly imperceptible. “With the impression that the piano’s sound pressure level is less than what it is for the audience, the performer may actually create more issues of balance than trusting their collaborative partner and the response of the concert hall with the piano at full stick,” Lee writes.

I absolutely love this article. It has always been important for a pianist to help singers feel a grounded body of sound underneath them so that they can build their voice. Pianists who can inspire singers in the repertoire and its magnificent poetry are genuinely trusted partners that many people will want to work with. We also need all the tips we can get to achieve greater equity with regards to recital billing and pay.

My fear is that with pianists in collaborative situations relegated to producers of backing tracks during the pandemic, the visibility of pianists in recital situations has taken a major hit, especially with videos where only the soloist is in the frame, the pianist is invisible, and their volume level is largely edited out. 

So I'm concerned that when the pandemic is over, many people will be astonished that the piano in a live situation has a bit more volume than the toned-down backing tracks that everyone will be used to. I'm also concerned that much of the progress that we have seen in recent decades (it has been relatively small progress - the issues that Robert talks about here were serious issues 30 years ago) might be undone and we will once again have a lot of ground to cover. 

Tuesday, March 23, 2021

HBD!Project MARCH Celebrates Composers' Birthdays in (you guessed it) March

As classical musicians, we love to play their music religiously, but forget our favorite composer's big days year after year. HBD!Project aims to fix that, and is the brainchild of Toronto-based musicians Natalya Gennadi and Catherin Carew. This month's party features the music of Maurice Ravel, Diane Berry, J.S. Bach, and Murray Adaskin.

A big hand as well to the performers:

The very clever video production and animation is also by Natalya. I'm looking forward to what they come up with for the superstar lineup of May composer birthdays.

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Participate in a Research Study: Preparing Young Musicians for Performance


Charlene Ryan, Jessica Tsang, and Diana Dumlavwalla are spearheading a research study that will be looking at the habits and processes of music teachers in preparing students for performance. It takes around 20 minutes to complete, and involves reflection on a number of issues such as performance preparation, performance anxiety, teacher expectations, navigating online teaching. If you're currently teaching music, I recommend that you participate in this study - their aim is to receive input from at least 500 teachers from Canada and the United States. 

Preparing Young Musicians for Performance (Google Form)

Monday, March 15, 2021

Rachel Fuller on the Art of the Collaborative Pianist

Auckland-based pianist Rachel Fuller's conversation with David Moriss on New Zealand's RNZ is worth listening to in its entirely. The collaborative pianist vs. accompanist, entering the profession, learning the skillset, and the growing respect towards collaborative pianists are all discussed, and the recorded performances are fabulous. 

I love this quote:

This movement, a global movement, has come to reframe the work that we do. As pianists working in ensembles, working with singers and instrumentalists and chamber groups. Our skills have to be wider and more honed even than that of the solo pianist.