Saturday, April 09, 2011

Milestones and Timelines

When learning music as a soloist, it's always a good idea to learn the notes well ahead of time so that we can allow the music time to mature, for the delicate arts of interpretation to take shape over the course of weeks or months, so that our outlook of the piece can mature at the same pace as our bodies become more comfortable with the act of performing the work.

As collaborative pianists, we rarely have the luxury of time. We often have only days to prepare a work well enough to bring to the first rehearsal. Since we are constantly juggling projects with different completion dates, interpretive and ensemble choices need to be made  and remembered on a split second basis. Comfort with playing a work must be learned extremely quickly if we are to both survive and thrive in performance.

Nearly all collaborative pianists feel a disconnect between these to learning timelines. My advice for pianists learning how to cope with fast-approaching deadlines takes two forms, first a gentle approach, then a more direct one.

I'll take the gentle approach first. We need to honor these seemingly contradictory learning processes, building on the strngths of learning a work slowly and carefully over time while also learning the lessons of quicker prepararion. Fitting these two methods of preparation into our process will allow us to more fully experience the diversity of approach we can undertake as performers.

Next, some more direct advice:

Deal with it.

Pianists: how do you cope with the pressure of fast-approching deadlines and still maintain interpretive integrity?


  1. I rely heavily on my sight reading skills to get me from 0-90 in a really short time, then I remain as perceptive as possible at the first rehearsal. If I take good notes, I'll remember what my partner(s) was going for even if I didn't have it perfectly accurate on the first go-around. With fast-approaching deadlines, I think getting to a highly functional place as quickly as possible is key if you want to have any semblance of artistry or interpretation by the time the performance arrives.

  2. That's a great way of thinking about it, Jess. And while I'm glad to have developed great sight reading chops, I'm wary of relying on them TOO much...

  3. Anonymous2:31 PM

    I try to use some off -time in the summer to prepare my most important
    recitals for the coming year and I also have stopped saying yes to everything I am asked to do....I ask for a day to respond, or wait a day to respond.

  4. Anonymous11:12 AM

    Yes, take good notes! There is no way I would remember everything without writing it in the music.

  5. What gets kind of weird is when there are many different strata of different interpretations all written into one score. Sometimes I write a date on a marking so I won't confuse it with another conflicting one.

  6. Anonymous11:17 AM

    (This is moreso in reply to the Anon. posting about how they "have stopped saying yes to everything...")

    I agree. Not saying "yes" to everything that comes your way is a definite help. I remember being called four days before a saxophone audition, with music I have never seen before. CPs can attest to how scary that can be. About a day later, I promptly called the auditionee, suggesting that they should find someone who would do her music justice, despite their imploring, borderline harrassing me to take them on. It was a difficult ordeal to say "No", but it saved my sanity and perhaps their audition.

    I also find it important to increase the awareness for musicians, particularly young musicians, of being timely with hiring support staff for things even as simple, yet life changing, as auditions. Most of them are pretty good about it, but there are many others (spanning secondary, undergraduate, and sometimes even graduate level) who seem to not understand that their accompanist shouldn't be sight reading their audition/gig/recital, if they themselves aren't prepared to do the same.
    By saying "No", particularly for time-sensitive gigs, it's a reality check for them when it comes to collaborations. As much as I can most certainly "deal with it", my role as a good Samaritan stretches beyond desirable means as I deal with playing the notes on the page, plus the common stresses both as a support system AND the performer (for myself AND the soloist). Obviously, I didn't enter the profession for its inherent rules of fairness, but I would like to maintain the one goal that brought me here to begin with: to make good music.

    And to answer the original question: When there is time (or time made) in one's schedule, I often go through the same pieces I had to learn on a whim for a last minute gig, and slowly put the notes on the page together with my fingers once again. That way, I secure my kinesthetic knowledge of the piece, while preserving the state of panic I undergo when accompanying such work. Aside from this process, I also tend to take some time to figure out fingering. It's always scary to feel like you're running out of fingers in some of the trickier concerto reductions!

  7. As always, thought-provoking articles, Chris. Thank you!

    Like jess.modaff opined, I depend on my skills of sight-reading to bring me through the toughest gigs. Last week at the North American Brass Band Competitions, what was on my plate was 12 pieces for solo brass competitions, 8 of which were new to me. 'Luxury of time' was certainly not what I had.

    While sight-reading skills speed up the process of the initial learning process, one still needs to hone his/her own interpretive skills to add the needed dimension to the piece in question. While I might not be able to 'tweak' every part of the piece/movement to its musical potential, I find myself being as musical as I can in as MUCH of the piece as I can.

    Achieving 'interpretive integrity' doesn't need to be sacrificed just because one doesn't have the time. (Like you said: Deal With It!) As professional collaborative pianists, ours is to make masterpieces (as best we can) out of stick figures!

  8. Great comments, you guys.

  9. Anonymous10:45 PM

    This is such an interesting blog for me at this moment because I am learning two solo pieces to play on a concert in just over a month. Since I probably only play about 15 or 20 minutes of solo music in concert each year, I told myself that I had to have these pieces, both of which are new to me, learned and memorized a month ahead of time to let them settle and develop and so I would have no chance of freaking out about the memorization of them. I chose that timeline because that's what my undergraduate professors used to make us to before we played our solo recitals. With these pieces, I've really marveled at how luxurious it feels to be a month away from the concert and addressing little details of my playing of these pieces, finishing memorizing, perfecting-- very nice. And the work is so different from many recitals I play where I have less than a month's notice from learning about the gig to its completion.

    My method for dealing with the craziness of collaboration, especially at this time in the academic year, is that when I get a new piece, I just play it through immediately-- perhaps with a recording on my ipod so I can hear the other part against mine right away. This reading could go miserably or really well, but my goal is to go at every note and get a concept of the piece started... Playing something through for the first time is always the most daunting for me because it shows where a lot of time is needed and where only a little will be demanded, whether the difficulties will be technical in nature, decoding a crazy looking score, or more ensemble oriented. After I first play it, I identify the passages that need technical work and tackle them in the usual methods. Any strange rhythmic moments I either speak or conduct through until I can really feel them. If the score has accidentals on every note and will take forever to decode, I begin that process, slowly. I try not to let panic set in and want to practice calmly and efficiently for as long as possible.

    When I first meet with the singer or instrumentalist, my primary goal is to open my ears to hearing their part as soon as I can-- and usually I can catch a lot more on a second run of even a complex passage than I can on the first. As I get older, I also get faster at being available for my partners on the first and second time through a piece. That's really our biggest duty, right?

  10. Anonymous3:55 AM

    re preparing ahead of time....a cellist friend of mine played chamber music with Yefim Bronfman one summer. That summer he "played off" for his friends/chamber music partners a program that he would be performing in the great concert halls of the world a YEAR from then. Hearing that made me realize that excellence is not by chance or necessarily just a great gift....

  11. Yes, there's a lot of planning that goes into preparing well...