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String_quartet

String quartet. Source: Wikimedia. Public domain.

What is collaboration?  What does the term imply?

I recently came across the book The Collaborative Pianist’s Guide to Practical Technique by Neil Stannard.*

*Thanks to Gail Fischler.

 The introduction states that:

Collaborative pianists need all the same technical skills required of soloists, and some would argue that they need to be able to play mezzo forte and under.

My immediate reaction was, “Wait a minute!” Let’s look more closely.

A Definition

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Collaboration

Collaboration is working with others to do a task and to achieve shared goals. It is a recursive[1] process where two or more people or organizations work together to realize shared goals, (this is more than the intersection of common goals seen in co-operative ventures, but a deep, collective determination to reach an identical objective[by whom?][original research?]) — for example, an endeavor[2][3] that is creative in nature[4]—by sharing knowledge, learning and building consensus. Most collaboration requires leadership, although the form of leadership can be social within a decentralized and egalitarian group.[5] In particular, teams that work collaboratively can obtain greater resources, recognition and reward when facing competition for finite resources.[6] Collaboration is also present in opposing goals exhibiting the notion of adversarial collaboration, though this is not a common case for using the word.

(Note:  color and bolding added by GS for emphasis.)

Breaking it down

This implies much more than the prevailing misconception, by now outdated, concerning collaborative piano playing. Even after more than 50 years of the progress begun by Gerald Moore and further championed by Gwendolyn Koldofsky and others, a significant number of pianists continue to subscribe to the habit of just showing up without practicing.

An additional component of this view seems to be a desire to stay out of the way!

I strongly disagree with this idea. If one’s sole interest is not to be heard, then why show up at all? (Gerald Moore’s humorous book, “Am I too Loud?” was first published in 1962!)

The author of the book quoted above says, “some would argue that they need to be able to play mezzo forte and under.” If one is to interpret this as a recommendation to play mf and under at all times, I have to ask, “Why?”

The music

The piano part/reduction is part of the total fabric of sound. It is crucial to have a point of view about the music which is expressed primarily by the manner in which one plays.

Even when playing for very young musicians, the bass line can be prominent. They need the support. An obligato line above or below the singers’ range should be heard. Introductions, interludes, and postludes are shaping the piece, not interfering. The rhythm should be clear and compelling, providing a foundation for inexperienced musicians. Why are we there? How are we supporting a young musician’s efforts if we may as well not be in the room at all? Do we not have a responsibility to be there?

In other situations, with more experienced singers and instrumentalists (who produce more sound), the solo line is not always the most interesting. Think of Beethoven’s “Spring” sonata (violin/piano), for example:

Spring Sonata excerpt

The violinist clearly has the theme throughout the opening statement. And then, in the 2nd system, 4th bar, the piano has thematic material, marked crescendo, proceeding without pause into a restatement of the same theme. Since the piano part is occupying a higher range at that point, it will be heard.

Note that the violin and piano parts are both marked piano, even though each plays thematic as well as non-thematic music. The equal dynamic markings would imply that both parts are to be heard. Why would the piano part be less important/played at a lower dynamic than the violin?

We have another example in Händel’s “Care selve” from Atalanta:

Handel Care selve

In this aria, the vocal and piano lines are beautifully interwoven. Listen to the incomparable Montserrat Caballé and her superb pianist, who should have been credited on YouTube! What do you hear? Is the pianist voicing his part? The bass line is always there, the melody is clear when echoing the singer, and the interludes fill the room.

A heads up: prepare to be floored!

Teatro Real de Madrid, 1979

When learning Handel’s “Sweet Bird,” I listened to several recordings so I could learn more about ornamentation. Roberta Peters’ performance with a flutist was stunning. They opted to do only the exposition (one page), then added two more pages of a duet. Their sounds blended perfectly, with the most amazing trills. I was in awe listening to the ensemble’s perfectly matched sound, ornaments rhythmically free (rather than using regular note values, the performers, who were often trilling in 3rds, used slower notes, then faster, then added a turn). I listened to the recording over and over, mesmerized.

Point of view

When I was a scholarship student at the Aspen Music Festival, the Juilliard String Quartet was in residence all summer. Their open rehearsals were attended by singers of all voice types and interests, and students who played a variety of instruments. Why were so many students attending, week in and week out? The quartet talked about the music. During one rehearsal, a disagreement continued for several minutes. The cross-rhythms in Brahms needed clarification among the players.

One instance in which cross-rhythms are found is in 6/8 time, when the notes can be divided into groups of 2 or 3. When there is one more than one part, both groupings can happen simultaneously.

In this memorable rehearsal, each player was staking a claim to the way he wanted to play a section containing cross-rhythms. The violist opted for one rhythmic grouping; the cellist another. When the 2nd violinist chose a larger note grouping, the 1st violinist decided, “I’ll just fit in.”

At that moment (it didn’t take long!), the other three players ganged up on him. “No! You have to make up your mind!”

The rehearsal had just become more… interesting, as the quartet’s cellist Joel Krosnick would say.

The decision was made, and the quartet tried it out. Each player was doing something different! It was wonderful.

What would have happened had everyone opted to “Just fit in?” How compelling can that be?

I submit that staying out of the way is not music, and it certainly is not collaboration. If you have nothing worth saying, why play at all?  If you can’t be heard, what’s the point? What contribution does that make?  How is that supportive?

Bottom line

In order to collaborate as pianists, we need to ask for the music in advance (and obtain it!), practice well, and have a point of view about the music. In rehearsals, our point of view may change. Collaboration means hearing what the other musicians have to say. An interpretation reached by sharing ideas is what collaboration aims to achieve.

To reiterate the definition provided above, when we collaborate, we:

…work together to realize shared goals [in] … a deep, collective determination to reach an identical objective…

What does “collaboration” mean to you? How did you arrive at your conclusions?

Comments welcome!

Check back for my next post, PianoAnd:  Children’s voices

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