Wednesday, January 27, 2010

[Ask the Readers] How Do You Enable Collaborative Experiences for Young Pianists?

Earlier this morning, I received the following comment on The Young Collaborative Pianist Part II:
My daughter, 15, prefers playing in collaboration, dislikes much 19th century solo repertoire, and wants to work on piano with other musicians. Yet there are fewer and fewer opportunities to do so: the competition and honors recitals honor the kids who learn the solo stuff best, leaving my daughter trying to compete in piano skills she doesn't value. I see her losing piano interest weekly, as other opportunities for chamber at school and church present.
What should this parent do to find collaborative piano experiences for his/her daughter? What places or opportunities would you recommend?

As always, your comments are welcome, but this time the stakes are higher, as it may mean the difference between a young pianist continuing or quitting.


  1. I was very much the same way - ever since I reached my teens, I loathed having to memorize solo nonsense and only looked forward to playing with other people. I was also never much for competitions - I wouldn't look at them as part-and-parcel of the piano-playing experience. Please excuse the novel that is coming - I just really want your daughter to know that she is not alone! I very nearly gave up piano playing entirely, and was revived by collaborative work and ended up getting my Master's degree in it from Eastman!

    My collaborative piano experiences came in many forms - my father (an amateur violinist), church, my private piano teacher, regular high school, arts high school, and other outside activities that came from the rest of the playing I was doing.

    My church happened to have a very large youth group and so I was the pianist for their choir and sometimes played pieces with other musicians for services, including my father. I actually started playing piano in church, both solo and with choir, very very early on (age 7 or so). I would credit that experience with teaching me how to sightread.

    My father bailed me out when I was having difficulty filling the time for a scholarship recital (being so uninterested in memorizing solo music), thus giving me my first experience with a Beethoven violin sonata.

    At my regular high school, I both played and sang in one of the choirs, as well as played piano/keyboards whenever they needed one for the orchestra or band. I even ended up playing a movement of a Mozart concerto with the orchestra - an added bonus.

  2. Continued...

    I also had the opportunity to go to an arts high school my senior year of high school, which included four hand/two piano sightreading and performances along with chamber music (quintets, trios, duos, anything!). I made my way through a whole pile of rep that school year - bits of Trout and Dvorak quintets, Shostakovich and a Beethoven cello sonata, all kinds of concerti for the concerto competition (which I ended up co-winning, despite not having focused on my concerto at all - maybe they were honoring the fact that I accompanied everybody else's auditions!), and other smaller but interesting pieces that can really make the difference if one ends up a working collaborative pianist. I also was playing "supportive keyboard" (a.k.a. not enough musicians in the orchestra) for their production of the Magic Flute and ended up being the full-on rehearsal pianist for the entire thing. THAT was an experience, indeed!

    I had some outside (read: paid!) opportunities through high school and continue to do so now, and these all came and come from connections made by playing regularly and everywhere. For instance, after learning the ins and outs of part 1 of the Messiah at my regular high school, my choral conductor recommended me to play in rehearsal and performance at several area churches - can we say Christmas money? My father found, through another violin friend, an extracurricular student chamber orchestra, for which I served as a continuo player. The list goes on, but basically - once you get started, the ball really gets rolling.

    Finally, I have to say that my private piano teacher from middle and high school was really and truly fantastic in finding ways to allow every student to both learn how to play the piano and explore different aspects of piano performance. Rather than pushing everybody to compete in the same circles and having a yearly spring recital ordered by level of difficulty, she got creative. Things we did have to do: theory, aural skills, keyboard skills, and sightreading exams. Competitions, though, were generally voluntary. At any rate, we had an annual Beethoven birthday party, where everybody learned something Beethoven-related and also presented a piece completely prepared on his/her own. She paired everybody up with another pianist for four hand or even two piano works, to be performed between solo bits at the spring recital. She would also sometimes have a chamber music recital - some kids played other instruments with their peers at the piano, some played more advanced two piano rep (Rach suites). Finally, one year she did a themed spring recital - the Carnival of the Animals! Pairs switched on and off the stage to play the two pianos, some brought props, and even the 4 year old got to play the xylophone part at the top of one piano.

    All in all, I think if your daughter already knows she wants to play in collaboration, there is definitely a way and even a demand. Find a friend who plays another instrument and read music together - maybe offer to be special music at a church service or a high school open house. Ask if local teachers of other instruments might let their own students learn how to play with a pianist and have her play with them, even if it's smaller pieces with smaller children. I've heard of private piano studios working with other private studios to have everybody learn about collaboration. See if the school choir might let her play for a choir concert - even if there is a paid or regular pianist, they are often open to it. Having been on both sides now, I have to say that I am both relieved and excited when a student plays a piece or two with the choir.

  3. Not sure if this is a taboo thing to say in this thread, but what about pop - learning how to work in a band, playing the musical theatre rep that so many of the other 15-yr-olds are into, learning to read chords, getting her hands on a good keyboard... this with full support from a piano teacher who has some skill in this area. Then, music making can be a truly social thing, like it is for the guitarists and drummers, who at that age are expected to actually get together just to have fun and play. That joy in connecting and having fun could transfer back someday into "chamber" rep... or maybe not, maybe it presents a risk that some might not want to take.

  4. Try and make a connection to local instrumental teachers. String teachers, for example, are often looking for young pianists to accompany group lessons (Suzuki, etc.). And if they demonstrate decent skills, they may often set the pianist up with one of their more advanced students to work together.

  5. Thanks for the comments, everyone. Becky, pop is by no means taboo - I have a teenage student who plays in a cover band and loves every minute of it.

  6. Samira Phillips11:54 AM

    All great suggestions! I would particularly second (third?) the idea of trying to find a private string teacher who needs a studio accompanist, especially if there are solid intermediate students in the studio. Though I'm an amateur adult player, not a high school student, I'm currently the accompanist for a private violin teacher's studio and in the past year, I've learned parts of Martinu's Five Madrigal Stanzas (originally written for Albert Einstein and Robert Casadesus--very challenging to put together for both instruments and a very substantial piano part, but lots of fun), a couple of Mozart violin/piano sonatas, several movements of Dvorak's Romantic Pieces (again, particularly challenging for the pianist), and several Kreisler pieces. A talented high school pianist would probably enjoy those pieces (the high school violinists sure do). I play the Suzuki Book 1-6 stuff for the studio as well but that is also fun and valuable experience.

    Also, it is worth looking for chamber music courses in pre-college programs. Peabody Preparatory in Baltimore has one for both the school year and in the summer, for example.

    There are also many summer chamber music camp programs out there for high school students. Search "summer chamber music high school" for example, and you'll get a whole bunch to start with.

  7. Anonymous1:42 PM

    Thank you for so much help! My daughter and I are in SW Pennsylvania, and she already plays piano and organ at church and oboe/english horn in an honors youth orchestra. Church and this orchestra give her so many options, though I do see piano getting squeezed out in the process (church likes to show her off on the organ, where she won an AGO scholarship for study, so piano gets pushed aside).

    I think I needed all of your pushes to get her teacher in piano more involved. My daughter graduated the suzuki curriculum and school where she began 11 years ago (!), and has lost a lot of opportunities there by moving to a "higher level" teacher. I think that might be one of the big differences right now, and I need to find ways to carefully broach this topic.

    BTW, the new teacher, thankfully, doesn't care too much about competitions and I think may believe they matter to us as they do to everyone else.

    I will travel anywhere for a good experience for my daughter, too, so I hope folks here know of some good summer camp ideas. Suggestions? (Pop is kinda out for her though, as she loves either modern or baroque repertoire {go figure!})

    Thank you for the many helpful posts!

  8. I love this question :) Most of the bases have already been covered with previous comments, but here are some other ideas for collaborating as a young musician:
    • community theatre can give invaluable experience in performing, sightreading and collaborating with multiple personalities in a receptive environment
    • non-arts high school bands and orchestras will usually be involved with district 'Solo and ensemble' competitions, and there are opportunities there to collaborate
    • Find serious young musicians to collaborate with through local youth orchestras and choirs
    • Look into collaborative/chamber music summer festivals such as WNO Opera Institue, NYU solo and collaboratie piano, Interlochen High school summer program - it may open up a whole new reason for her to practice

  9. Thanks Helen, Becky, Samira, Beach Bum, and Billie. Keep those comments coming!

  10. Wow, some great comments already. Like the first commenter I started my 'collaborative piano' career in the bosom of my family. My dad, an amateur trombonist, had enough rudimentary piano skills to play easy easy duets with me from almost day one of my lessons. I accompanied him and both sibs all through school, and continued into college, playing for voice classes, instrumentalists of all kinds, and paying tons of chamber music. The school I attended, Humboldt State University in northern California, had and has a fantastic chamber music program. I think I attended or played in some kind of chamber music or piano ensemble concert most weekends while I was there. They have an incredible summer chamber music camp -- three, really -- which I would urge you to look into. The Sequoia CMW is for kids, and there is a brass workshop and one for strings, winds & piano as well. Both of the 'adult' workshops also accept mature and skilled older students as well. Chico State U, also in California has a similar CM workshop that branched off from the one at HSU many years ago.

    If she is aiming at a higher level, then obviously places like Interlochen should be in her sights, and a high profile music school like Eastman, Julliard, or the like.

    I have to say this subject is near and dear to my heart, as I feel the same way as your daughter. Making music with others is the funnest thing going, no kidding. Take any and all opportunities to play with others: musical theatre, rock band, choral accompanying, Suzuki, the kid saxophonist next door, a fellow piano student ...... it's all good training and eye-opening. And even if she does a lot of organ playing now, keyboard skills are keyboard skills and she will keep her chops. Realistically, piano is much more versatile as a lifelong skill, so if I were her I would keep that going if at all possible, unless she has a passion for organ specifically.

    There are also chamber music camps in Maine (Summer Keys, one I hope to attend someday) and I believe a good one for students in Colorado.

    There is also an amateur CM network (I forget the name) where you can sign up to play with visiting or local amateur CM players -- somebody here will know it. You never know who you might meet in a setup like this.

    Keep playing, keep looking for musical buddies, and know that you have a lifelong joy-making tool in your hands and heart.

  11. Gamaliel12:29 PM

    Honestly, I find it frustrating sometimes that almost all of my students ONLY want to play pop. There are some great pop songs out there, but they are missing so much by not enjoying classical repertoire! I'm young, but I grew up listening to classical music and most of my students aren't, so it can be frustrating.

    I've pushed a couple of students pretty hard toward sightreading so they can learn to accompany other groups. Community can be pretty hard to find for a pianist sometimes, but there are more options out there than just playing three chords in a rock band. Depending on where you live, you can almost always find someone or some group who needs an accompanist. I've gotten a chance to accompany choirs before, but it can be lower pressure and more fun to work with one other instrument, such as a clarinet or violin or vocalist. I wish I knew better how to connect my students with players of other instruments in the area.

  12. Monica12:35 PM

    I think it's natural for students to lose interest in the "boring" "classical" literature. That's the way I felt when I was her age. As of present, I'm kicking myself for not trying harder to practice when I was in high school.

    I think the best way to encourage someone to keep trying the solo literature is to present them with opportunities to perform collaboratively, as well as performing solo. I have a twin sister who's also musically active, so it was easy to do both, and it was a great way to bond in that sense.

    If a student isn't blessed with a music family, have them join music groups at school where they can find friends who can all collaborate together.