Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Choral Collaboration: Be Inspired to Inspire

Today's post is by Jaime Namminga, Assistant Professor and Coordinator of the Collaborative Piano Area at Susquehanna University in Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania. A few weeks ago, Jaime contacted me about the possibility of writing a short article about choral collaboration. 

Jaime and I acknowledge the very difficult time that those in the choral community are facing. Whether you're in a green zone where the COVID-19 virus is not prevalent or one of the most hard-hit places in the United States, the short-term future of choral singing will be very challenging indeed. No matter where the solution lies, now is the perfect time to learn the pianistic skills that will enable you to become a valued collaborator with any choir once the situation improves and we can once again sing together in harmony.


In reference to collaborative piano assignments, I have heard students say things like “this one is JUST a choral piece…easy stuff.” If pianists consider musical collaborations as opportunities to both inspire and be inspired, as I do, a choral collaboration comprises a lot of people, which means a lot of inspiration and a large responsibility from all involved. How does a pianist approach the art of choral accompanying? Whether you are a veteran to choral accompanying and are looking for some new teaching tips or are a pianist new to the choral scene yourself, I invite you to consider my insight of the following choral accompanying components: working with a conductor, reading an open score, playing a choral score with piano writing, and playing an orchestral reduction.

Working with a Conductor
  • Establish a trusting relationship – you want them to know you are reliable to both be at rehearsal in a timely fashion and to be an asset at the piano.
  • Ask yourself, what logistical expectations does the conductor have of you? Will you play warm-ups? Lead sectionals? Is your vocal input welcomed? 
  • Be observant – get to know their conducting style very well and what they prioritize – high expectations? Immediate note and rhythm picker on the first couple read-throughs? Or are they going for a broad understanding according to the overall musical map? 
  • Become a mind-reader – predict and anticipate rehearsal spots by detecting errors. Then you are ready to give starting pitches before being told a page and measure number. It helps to be a step ahead whenever possible. 

Reading an Open Score 

  • Look at the overall map – what form is the piece? Is there repetition? 
  • You cannot play everything. “Fake it til you make it.” 
  • Know the bass!!! This is the harmonic foundation, and you playing out the bass line will encourage the basses to sing out, thus aiding the rest of the choir in their parts. 
  • Be a music theory nerd – according to the bass line, look at the chord progressions to see how vertically, the parts line up – even if you can’t play every note as written, you can at least help singers to hear how their note fits into the chord. 
  • Beyond the bass, recognize what parts need help. i.e. If sopranos are golden, no need to play every note of their part while the poor tenors are suffering (no offense to tenors, only an example 😉). 
  • Be prepared to play any combination of parts, but…recognize the relationship between parts. i.e. If there are sections where bass and alto are in unison and tenor and soprano are in unison, there is a high possibility the conductor will rehearse those parts together. 
  • The tenor part is in treble clef but down the octave. 
  • Give starting pitches mp – make sure you’re heard but no need to pound. 
  • Recognize who has the melody when. 
  • Use 2 hands to play parts, even if they are close in register – no need to come up with fancy fingerings when you have enough challenge before you playing the parts correctly. 
  • Play out – you are there to help singers learn their parts, so make sure everyone can hear you. Don’t be shy! 
  • Demonstrate the vocal phrasing that the conductor desires, in the way you play it. Singers look to both the conductor and the pianist for help with the musicality! 
  • Never stop – the singers will keep singing, so you must keep playing. There is no time to be a perfectionist in this situation. If you start to fumble, hold on to something and get back on. 

Playing a Choral Score With Piano Writing

  • Map out the music – what is the form? Strophic? Through-composed? 
  • Know the character of the piece. 
  • Focus practice time on the tricky spots – efficient practicing. 
  • Relationship between vocal and piano parts – may be motives to bring out. 
  • Breaths – how do these affect pacing of the phrases and how do you work with the conductor to set these up successfully? 
  • Intros, interludes, postludes, short piano solos within phrases – take every opportunity to be musical and inspiring! Singers should do what the conductor shows, but no amount of gesture will achieve the desired sound if the pianist is boring. 
  • When learning the score, sing the melody line while playing your own part to know the piece more intimately. 
  • Look for text painting opportunities. 
  • Have one eye in your music and the other eye on the conductor at all times – be ready for anything and assume nothing!! Ritardandos, Accelerandos, Decrescendos, Crescendos…..
  • Gauge your dynamics by an awareness of the choir’s size – may have to keep piano lid on half stick for sake of audience seeing the choir, so you adjust your volume accordingly. 
Playing an Orchestral Reduction 
  • This changes our physical approach to the keys, articulations, and pedaling. 
  • Where is your role more percussive and where is it more lyrical? 
  • Know what instruments you are imitating and do it to the best of your ability. 
  • You likely cannot play everything or do not want to, depending on how true the reduction is to the full score – what’s most important? 
    • Bass support and harmonic foundation are first and foremost – write in chord analysis.
    • Be very articulate so the pulse is clear and bring out the rhythms. 
    • Correct style according to the time period/composer, e.g. if you are playing a Mozart mass, you won’t be using blurry pedaling and rubato. The purpose of your pedal usage is to give depth of sound to the “double basses” and maybe some connectivity of line. 
    • If it causes the tempo to slow, leave it out! No one cares that you cleanly finished your Hanon exercise if you’re a mile behind. 
Have fun and show some pride – after all, you are one pianist representing an entire orchestra! 😊

Friday, June 12, 2020

Upcoming CollabFest 2020 Events

Today's post is from Elvia Puccinelli, artistic director of CollabFest, with news on their change of plans for a socially distanced collaborative piano conference this coming October, as well as upcoming events that are happening today and continuing through the summer. 

I hope this letter finds you and yours well in these unsettling and disturbing times where there is so much for us to consider and reconsider.

In a spirit of hopefulness, I am happy to share that CollabFest 2020  - “The State of the Collaborative Arts” will take place October 15-17 as scheduled, but now in a virtual format chosen for us by the pandemic. We are eager to take full advantage of the possibilities this format offers. Please visit later this month for updates regarding the call for your presentations/performances, for registration information, and for more about the International Keyboard Collaborative Arts Society, which will begin its inaugural season in conjunction with our October conference.

I want to personally invite you to join us for CollabFest, and I hope that you will also join us for a new initiative, Collaborators in the Time of Corona: free and interactive zoom sessions for collaborators on topics participants will help us curate. Master teachers and guests will join for these weekly sessions, currently planned to run through the summer. Our goal with this initiative is to both foster personal interaction and wellness within the collaborative community and to support professional exchange in an interactive forum that offers encouragement and opportunities for growth during this time of Physically Distanced Collaboration.

Collaborators in the Time of Corona (CTC) is currently scheduled to have its first session on Friday, June 12, 12-1:15 CST, via zoom with sessions following weekly. It will be recorded and posted (all or in part) online, so if the time doesn’t work for your schedule, the content will still be available when it’s right for you.

There is no cost to participate in CTC, and you can join at any time for as many sessions as suits your needs. CTC is open to any interested pianist, so we would appreciate you spreading the word and forwarding this to those who might want (or need) to connect with their “tribe” of collabs at this time.

Collaborators often have the important role of supporting those they work with, and not just musically. CollabFest is here to support YOU in any way we can!

Your comments, questions and requests for topics are welcome, and they drive the content of our programming, so please let us know what you need.

To register, or to send any comments, please email collabfest [at] (Please contact us by 4p on Thursday to be sure to receive the zoom link in time for Friday’s meeting.)

Wishing you well, and looking forward to connecting soon,

Elvia Puccinelli, Artistic Director, and the CollabFest Team

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

We Can't Pay You What You're Worth

Myron Silberstein's Paying the Piper: A New Model for Employment in Storefront Theatre follows a music directing engagement he accepted in 2010, and how an $800 stipend ended up becoming a dangerously low wage when calculated per hour:
How naïve, exactly, had I been? I still have the production schedule, filed among my mementos (after all, this production was my first entry into Chicago’s theatre scene). From first rehearsal to final performance, I worked a total of 88 hours. This amounted to an hourly rate of $9.09, barely more than Chicago’s minimum wage at the time, and well below it now. Inasmuch as my stipend was compensation for the totality of my work and was not divided between its various phases, this is the “official” hourly rate for my work on the production.
Myron goes on to look the entire system of honoraria for small theatres, and how they are failing in their responsibility to the theatre community by producing shows that they simply cannot pay for:
If an employer does not have the budget to hire staff at market rate, that employer quite simply does not have the budget to hire staff. Period. But if a collective of like-minded individuals collaborates on a venture—on all aspects of a venture, including its administration and fundraising—then the venture is collectively owned, and financial arrangements can be determined by mutual agreement.

Rather than existing separately from artists that it attempts to hire at less-than-minimum wage, a storefront theatre company could solicit artists whose passions align with its own and form a stable, consistent theatre ensemble. If a theatre company is unable to attract such an ensemble, it needs to query whether it is indeed relevant to Chicago’s arts community. Likewise, if a theatre company is unable to find a core group of artists willing to forego financial gain to fulfill the theatre’s mission, it most certainly should not ask strangers to do so. In much the same way, if I cannot find a neighbor willing to water my plants as a favor, I certainly would not expect a housesitting service to forego its fee out of an assumed passion for plants.
Myron's article raises a lot of questions and I like his solutions at the end of the article. I've been asked to do many engagements for shamefully low amounts, and have (usually) turned them down. Presenters must create financially viable engagements and positions in order that our entire profession remains (becomes?) financially viable. Otherwise it's all built on air.

Monday, February 24, 2020

Dreaming Big

This article is reprinted from the Foley Music and Arts Newsletter, a (usually) weekly review of the activities that I've been up to, and links to the most recent articles from both the Collaborative Piano and Foley Music and Arts blogs. You can subscribe to the newsletter here

For the last few days, I joined over 50 pianists for the inaugural Dream Big conference at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg. Together we laughed, we cried, we experienced the potential of artistic collaboration and the power of communication in performance. Musical collaboration and its purpose in the life of the individual, society, and the cosmos was the centrepiece for these days. The goal of the conference was to dream big and we most certainly did that.

Jean Barr and Margo Garrett are two women who have been foundational in the development of the collaborative piano profession, and this was the first chance that the two of them have had the chance to work together in a master class setting. The level of performance and discourse was exceptionally high, and the lessons learned from their teaching will resonate with me for a very long time.

One of the most meaningful parts of the conference was our trip to the Human Rights Museum. The experience of this unique museum helped to frame our musical activities within the much larger world of the rights of the individual, how its transgressions have shaped human history, and why we must keep these ideals at the forefront of our vision in order to survive as a species.

The conference also laid the groundwork for a collaborative piano association with an international reach. In our final session, we arrived at a list of next steps for working together to create an international association in only 25 minutes. I joked afterwards that this was the fastest that I had ever seen a group of musicians arrive at consensus, but it was no joke that we were able to work together so quickly and cohesively without the usual gridlock that characterizes many meetings of this sort.

None of this would have been possible without countless hours put in by University of Manitoba faculty members Laura Loewen and Judy Kehler Siebert. These two women moved mountains to create a truly unique conference with lofty goals and then make it happen, all with limited time and resources.

My heart is full. The experiences of this conference will resonate with me for a long time, and those of us who were there will not forget the personal bonds, artistic experience, and promise of how we can solve seemingly intractable problems within a short span of time, given a willingness to listen and openness to the possibility of what we can accomplish together.

Friday, February 07, 2020

Dream Big: An Interview with Laura Loewen and Judy Kehler Siebert

The Dream Big conference at the University of Manitoba is less than two weeks away, and I recently had a chance to ask Drs. Laura Loewen and Judy Kehler Siebert a few questions a few questions via email about the conference and its aspirations.

If you're able to get out to Winnipeg on February 20-22 and are interested in attending, you can register here. I look forward to meeting all of you there and talking about the future of our magnificent profession.

CF: Dream Big is not the first collaborative piano conference, but its aims are much broader than others in the past. Could you elaborate on your vision?

LL/JKS: Collaborative piano is an inspiring field with limitless repertoire and with vast possibilities for partnerships. We think that the only things that limit us are our imaginations and desire. It makes sense to us to hold a conference that is ambitious, looks at big issues, and dreams about the future of collaboration – this scale of conference and thinking fits the nature of our art form. This is the first Canadian collaborative piano conference that we know of, and we feel a responsibility to really honour the art form and set a template for future events. Collaborative pianists so often meet on the sidelines of other conferences or events, and it’s important for us to meet to talk about art and its place in society from our point of view. We believe that we will discover commonalities through our discussions, but we hope we also discover differences that will challenge and expand our ideas of what we can become.

There is an extraordinary group of musicians coming together for this conference; our registrants represent students, free-lance performers, private music teachers, and university professors. It’s really important to us that we create the space and atmosphere to build a community during these three days, so in true Winnipeg fashion, we have built in many opportunities to eat together, at lunches, dinners, and post-concert receptions. Also in true Winnipeg fashion, we have done everything we can to keep the conference affordable – check out our website for rates for the full conference and also for individual events.

We are so excited to welcome people to Winnipeg in a few weeks! Winnipeg in winter is an amazing place. The city really celebrates the season, and you will be able to experience the beauty of how this prairie city faces the elements. And we are even more excited to welcome you to the Desautels Faculty of Music. Three years ago, we moved into a beautiful Music facility, full of light and space – very much like our city. This is the first big conference to be held in the building, and we are so glad that it is our community that is creating this first event.

CF: The two headline teachers for this conference are Jean Barr from the Eastman School and Margo Garrett from Juilliard. Why is their presence at the conference so critical at this point in time?

LL/JKS: Both of us, along with many other conference performers and presenters, understand that we were extremely fortunate to study with these extraordinary women. They are inspiring mentors who bring a wealth of passion, wisdom, and experience to our conference. It is such a privilege to be able to host them, and through the conference to welcome other people to get to know them. The insights that they bring from their lifetimes of collaborations will be the touchstone of the conference. We need to know where we have come from to know where we can go – Margo and Jean will be able to give us a sense of the history of the profession as we dream together of what it may become.

Through our open invitation in Fall 2019, we have chosen 8 masterclass duos to perform vocal and instrumental music at our masterclass series. These duos include a diverse spectrum of musicians from students to young professionals, and the masterclasses, on the afternoons of Feb. 20 and 21, will definitely be a conference highlight. The duos will also perform in a final afternoon recital on Saturday, Feb. 22. We are so excited for the masterclass participants, because we know how amazing their experience is going to be!

CF: All of the panel discussions are somehow related to the theme of the artist within community. Why is this so important for collaborative pianists?

LL/JKS: Our entire art form is about relationships – we think that people who are drawn to collaborative piano are naturally inclined to create community. And, the act of performing music with beautiful ensemble is a strong statement about the power of community. So, in this first Canadian Collaborative Piano conference, it makes sense to us that the artist within community is one of our strongest themes. We are fortunate that Winnipeg is the home of the beautiful and thought-provoking Canadian Museum of Human Rights, (CMHR) the only museum to grapple entirely with human rights. Inspired by the Museum and the nature of our work, we decided that all of the performances at our two evening concerts would be music that was written in response to war or other forms of trauma. This music runs the gamut from responses to war, personal trauma, digitalization, and the work towards redemption. The performers have chosen music that they are passionate about, and their perspectives will be an important voice at the concert.

We have organized a curated tour of the CMHR on Friday Feb. 21, visiting exhibits that will give us a deeper understanding of the background for the music performed at the Dream Big concerts.

We are really fortunate to present our conference panelists. The extraordinary pianist Rena Sharon will talk about Chamber Music and mediation and share her research and insights. Naomi Woo, collaborative pianist, assistant conductor of the WSO, and Music Director of Sistema Winnipeg, will speak about her experiences with Sistema. Naomi joined our faculty in September and her presence has already been transformative. Christopher Foley will lead all of our discussions about the possibility of creating a Collaborative Piano Society. He has deep knowledge of the current state of our profession, and his insights gained from the Collaborative Piano Blog will inform us throughout our three days together.

And, of course, there will be beautiful music at every conference session. The evening concerts on Feb. 20 and 21, where we will weave performances and conversations together, will be fascinating and thought-provoking. On Feb. 20, Margo Garrett and Jean Barr will speak about their lives as collaborative pianists. On Feb. 21, we have a wonderful panel of Collaborative pianists, including Audrey Axinn, Daniel Fung, Christopher Kayler, and Lisa Rumpel, who will all share their experiences and vision for the future.

The performers include: Singers Ben Butterfield, Mel Braun, Tracy Dahl, Martha Guth, and Monica Huisman; Instrumentalists Minna Chung, Kerry DuWors, Allen Harrington, and Oleg Pokhanovski; and Pianists Jocelyn Dueck, Valerie Dueck, Judith Kehler-Siebert, Alexandra Nguyen, Futaba Niekawa, Laura Loewen, Steven Philcox, and Erika Switzer.

CF: What are some of your ideas and objectives for how a potential collaborative piano society could operate?

Through our conversations and round-tables, we are looking forward to conversations where we will work together to develop a collective vision of this Society. Both of us envision an organization that supports and encourages collaborative pianists at all levels. We hope to continue to hold collaborative piano conferences on a regular basis and to seek joint projects with other Collaborative Piano groups such as CollabFest in Denton Texas, which is directed by Elvia Puccinelli and Steven Harlos. Those are our first ideas – we will see how much these ideas grow over the course of Dream Big!

LL/JKS: The conference also includes a bespoke curated tour of the Canadian Museum of Human Rights. Could you talk a bit more about this activity and how it fits into the conference?

We have asked the guides at the CMHR to design a tour that parallels the music of our conference. If you haven’t yet visited the museum, prepare yourself for a powerful and thought-provoking experience. Located at The Forks where two rivers meet, the architecture is stirring, and the exhibits powerful and educational. The visit to the museum will give us insights into the music we will hear each evening at the conference.

CF: Dream Big is only a few weeks away! How can people still attend and participate?

LL/JKS: See our web site and let us know you want to take part in this new exciting adventure!

Friday, October 18, 2019

Dream Big Conference: Registration Info for Participants and Performers

I'm thrilled to announce that the Dream Big conference website is now live, and here is the University of Manitoba's press release officially announcing the upcoming conference:

The University of Manitoba’s Desautels Faculty of Music is delighted to host Dream Big: Music Out of Bounds, a three-day conference to be held on February 20-22, 2020. Dream Big: Music Out of Bounds is dedicated to celebrating the contributions, creativity, and innovation that collaborative pianists bring to music performance and pedagogy, with keynote presentations and masterclasses from renowned collaborative pianists Jean Barr and Margo Garrett
The theme for Dream Big: Music Out of Bounds’ inaugural conference draws its inspiration from the Canadian Museum of Human Rights (CMHR), focusing on challenging, thoughtful, and empowering music created in response to times of conflict.

Through the conference’s presentations, panel discussions, public masterclasses, student and professional performances, and guided tour of the CMHR curated especially for our participants, we will examine the role of musical creation and collaboration in healing and regaining our humanity.

Eight performing groups, representing professional and student duos and chamber ensembles, will be selected to participate in masterclasses and a final performance.

We also look forward to using this conference to start dreaming of a Canadian-based Society of Collaborative Pianists; a community that supports creativity and commissions new works.

For more information, to register, or to apply for masterclasses, please visit:

Those of you on the mailing list will be receiving the official invitation shortly. If you're not yet on the mailing list but would like to be included on future mailings, feel free to contact me so I can add you.

Here are some more links for those interested in attending:

Sunday, August 25, 2019

Save the Date: Dream Big Collaborative Piano Conference on February 20-22, 2020 at the University of Manitoba

I'm absolutely thrilled to be a part of the upcoming Dream Big Collaborative Piano Conference at the University of Manitoba on February 20-22! Hosted by Drs. Laura Loewen and Judy Kehler Siebert, this conference will be hosting a variety of master classes, recitals, panel discussions, as well as a curated exhibition at the Museum of Human Rights in Winnipeg. Here's the official press release:
We are really excited about this upcoming conference, and hope that you can join us!

Dream Big: Music Out of Bounds is a Collaborative Piano Conference at the University of Manitoba, Feb. 20-22, 2020. This three-day conference is dedicated to celebrating the contributions, creativity, and innovation that collaborative pianists bring to music performance and pedagogy.

Led by Dr. Jean Barr (Eastman School of Music) and Margo Garrett (Juilliard School), two of the most influential performer-teachers of Collaborative Piano in North America, the conference will feature keynote addresses, presentations, panel discussions, public masterclasses, and student and professional performances.

The repertoire to be performed and studied at the conference will be music that has been a response to times of war, or personal tragedy. Included in the conference will be a guided tour of the Canadian Museum of Human Rights specifically designed for our participants. We will visit the Museum exhibits which highlight the themes and events that were the impetus for the music we are studying.

Gathering together in Winnipeg, the centre of the country and the home of this museum, gives us an opportunity to examine our place and influence in the musical world and in the larger society.

Eight performing groups will be chosen to participate in the masterclasses, and the conference will culminate in a final performance by these groups. Calls for applications will go out in September 2019.

We also look forward to using this conference to launch a Canadian-based Society of Collaborative Pianists; a community that will support creativity and commissions new works. The conference will provide time to dream about ways we can work together to create this society. Dr. Christopher Foley, the founder of the Collaborative Piano Blog, will facilitate these conversations.

We have worked hard to make sure that the conference is as affordable as it is inspirational.

Conference fees are: 
$300.00/ participant 
$150.00/ student participant
We believe that community building is essential and that time over meals and receptions is a big part of creating community. To support this, the conference fee will include the majority of meals during your time in Winnipeg.

We hope that you will be able to join us! More detailed information will be coming throughout Fall 2019.

Laura and Judy

Laura Loewen, DMA
Associate Professor of Collaborative Piano/Vocal Coach
Desautels Faculty of Music, University of Manitoba

Judy Kehler Siebert, DMA
Professor of Piano, Collaborative Piano, Chamber Music
Desautels Faculty of Music, University of Manitoba

(Photo by Renee Fisher on Unsplash)