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Look MA! 4 Hands ~ Image via Flickr

Please don’t try this at home!

Last weekend, every musical situation in which I found myself required instant changes.  I felt like I was on hyper-alert like an E.R. doc the whole time.

Coaching a singer

Due to the singer’s work schedule and my warmup and concert, we decided to carve out what time we could by using a practice room.  We ended up with 20 minutes in a small, soundproof room.

Singers enjoy larger spaces, and soundproofing is the worst.

We used the time well, making sure not to push.  The phrasing in one Brahms song will need to be revisited when we add time next weekend in our usual larger space.  The end of every phrase sounded chopped off, but we knew the room had a lot to do with that.

With less experience, we might have tried to fix the phrasing problems.  But that would have been pointless.

Chorus warmup and concert

The Hampshire College Chorus is too large for everyone to perform, with audience, in its rehearsal space.  So… we moved to a lecture hall.  No stage, no piano, no stage lighting.

When I walked into the hall 5 minutes after the coaching session, the keyboard was set up.  So I tried it out.  WAY too high.

The student who set it up was hanging around, so I asked him to lower it one notch.  I based my guess on a different keyboard I had played in another rehearsal.  He took it down a notch… no more time to make further adjustments, as the chorus needed rehearsal time.  The keyboard was still too high.

The light was awful… generally OK, but nothing special aimed toward the music.  There was just as much light on the audience as everywhere else.

There was a big black orchestra music stand for me to use, which was too far back.  I guess the keyboard’s music rack was either lost or no one knows it exists.

The pedal, tethered to the keyboard and nothing else, was also in the wrong place.  Because of the big base on the music stand, it was impossible to get the pedal into a comfortable spot.

During rehearsal, the conductor took a much faster tempo in a Mozart piece than we had rehearsed.  The piano reduction appears to be easy, but definitely is not.  Both hands are required to change range with no time to do so, and continue playing subtly.  That is completely different from jumping fast to land on a big chord at full volume.  I did not play the Mozart well in rehearsal.

After that, the conductor said that when the soloist was singing alone, the keyboard was too loud.  Could I turn it down and then turn it up when the chorus came in?  Well, no… both hands were busy.  Leaving something out would have meant leaving a hole in the music.  The volume dial was a ways away, forward and to the left.  The dial had to be turned.  You couldn’t just hit it quickly and go back to playing.

So a chorus alto came over, wedge herself into a very small space while being careful not to trip over cables, and operate the volume dial.  Immediately after the volume change, she sprinted over to the opposite side of the keyboard to turn pages!

The concert, fortunately, went very well.

Church service

During the church service on Sunday there were lots of last-minute changes.

A member of the congregation had sent me 3 hymns she wanted to add to the opening of the service.  I alerted the choir to the plan.

The choir insisted on singing through at least one verse of each hymn.  I understand where they’re coming from… they are in front of the congregation, so the perception is that they are leading the hymns.

It turned out that looking at all the hymns was necessary.

  • One hymn had a descant, which required a decision about whether to add it or not.
  • Another had 2 possible paths from beginning to end.  One involved a brief modulation in the keyboard part.  It’s important to know that some of the singers know what to do in that case.
  • The third hymn was easily navigated until the last line, an “optional choral ending.”  With no rehearsal, the singers would arrive at that point and not know whether to try it or not.

The choir had other music to rehearse as well:

  • 3 hymns for the main portion of the service; and
  • 4 anthems (for that day and the next 3 weeks).

So we had to rehearse 10 pieces of music in 30 min.  I think this needs further discussion!

After that, the service proceeded smoothly… until just after the sermon.  As I was sprinting from the front pew back to the organ to play the last hymn, the minister decided to switch to a different hymn.  Why would that be a problem?

Well, I’m glad it was something I knew.  I don’t sight-read pedal parts.

In order to facilitate turning pages and changing locations (organ, piano, front pew), I take the hymns for the day out of the unwieldy binders (the ones with the accompaniment, which are different from the congregational hymnals).  A small binder is much easier to handle.  Turning pages is easy, and carrying a small binder from place to place is so much better than hefting two oversized ones.

I leave the large binders on the floor, which is raised, just behind the organ bench.  Ministers change their minds.  I’m used to it.

Since the pages in the large binders are so difficult to turn, they have to be handled a few at a time.  Turning 40 pages at once, say, doesn’t work.  So finding a page quickly takes a little time.

The minister waited a few seconds, then asked the congregation to begin singing with him, no organ.

The hymn was several verses long, so I made the decision to join in at the beginning of the refrain.  Wrong key, of course.  I don’t have perfect pitch.

Had I been playing the piano at that point, it would have been easy to find the key by testing notes softly.  Not so easy on the organ!

Oh well, stuff happens.  Hopefully next weekend will be more normal.

Please share your thoughts in the comment section below!


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Review by pianist Robert W. Oliver

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