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. 

1 comment:

  1. Thank you so much Chris for your kind words and support of my efforts in writing this article. I'm very touched that you took the time to share it with your circle.

    In my first article "I am Not an Accompanist", I spent a lot of time talking about labels and how we use them subconsciously and habitually often to our own detriment. Above you raise the important point about the perception of pianists when they are not in the frame, and only "the soloist" is. Unless the singer is alone onstage (i.e.: solo) singing "a cappella" I would argue that the term "soloist" doesn't apply. Art song and chamber sonatas are chamber music too, and until pianists and singers see themselves to be equals, the performances and recordings will suffer.