On a recent Tuesday, The Hartt School had a makeup lesson day for voice students. The goal was to help everyone get what they needed after encountering two snow days earlier in the semester.
My colleagues and I were asked to be available during our regular Tuesday schedules. The voice teachers had different students at “our” times, but it all worked out. We juggled.
As it turned out, the other pianists and I saw each other in our “office” more than usual. We have no office, so we talk, look at music, make phone calls, have lunch, etc., in the hallway.
Sometime during the afternoon, Matthew, one of my colleagues, took a seat on a bench near me. He asked, “What are you doing on May 27th?” His question surprised me, because I live in MA, not CT.
I said, “Nothing,” without looking at my schedule. School would be over for the summer, so I was pretty sure. Then I inquired into why he was asking.
“I need a sub for a children’s choir dress rehearsal.” “I live in MA, you know.” He gets it. His sister just graduated from UMass. He has been here many times, and knows it involves time to commute.
“How much is your transportation?” So I told him.
“I’ll send you the music ahead of time, and pay your transportation plus the rehearsal fee.”
Of course I said “Yes!”
And that, my friends, is the way to hire a sub!
Thanks so much, Matt! I’m happy to help, and look forward to meeting a new conductor!
- New job! (gretchenspianos.com)
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.
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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On a pianists’ discussion site, someone recently asked how s/he should warm up.
The details of the question included 2 choices:
- Hanon exercises.
- Soaking the hands in hot water à la Glenn Gould.
Does that make you feel curious? Why would someone ask that question? Why would anyone need to?
Several thoughts came to mind:
- Does this person know when s/he feels warmed up?
- Does s/he want someone else to offer the perfect solution?
- How would it work for someone else to tell you? Every pianist is different.
- Finding several different ways to warm up would be a good idea. By polling other pianists, someone might find what works best for them. However, the question was not asked in that way.
- Reality check: I would be reluctant to rely on the hot water idea as my only warm up. There are so many churches, schools, and other venues where only cold water is available. You would have to travel with a device to heat your own water! Another option would be to ask your concert presenter, audition checkin person, stage manager, etc. to heat water for you. Does anyone think that would be a good idea?
Having a variety of ways to warm up is something we can count on when Plan A doesn’t work out.
- Sometimes gigs are early in the day. Warming up before leaving would wake up the neighbors.
- Sometimes transportation arrives late. Warming up in the car or on the train is sometimes the only option.
- Sometimes the stage hands will be making repairs, setting up on stage, etc., making a warmup on the concert instrument impossible. We won’t know until we arrive at the venue.
- Sometimes the keyboard setup crew is inexperienced. Adjusting the height of the keyboard and bench could take much longer than expected, encroaching upon warmup time.
- Sometimes other musicians need to talk to you, warm up themselves, run over their solos, etc. No keyboard warmup time is available when that happens.
There are many other possible scenarios. You get the idea.
Each person is unique! Each of us needs to know what we require. If someone else warms up differently, that doesn’t need to affect our confidence in what we do.
Now it’s your turn!
How do you warm up?
How did you find the warmup you use now?
Do you have more than one way to warm up?
Please share your thoughts in the comment section below!
Thoughts such as these need our attention from time to time.
Being clear about the reasons I accept each gig
Learning the music before the first rehearsal
Interest in the rehearsal, listening throughout
Listening to what’s out there, reading articles and reviews
Practicing to maintain an edge
I try! Doing a variety of things is important!
Have you thought about ideas that define you?
Please share your thoughts in the comment section below!
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At some point in life, you will find yourself repeating a performance or two.
Every performer I know, as well as some I’ve read about, has a unique way of dealing with repetition:
A costume designer who works on Broadway splits the difference between depending on the reliability of a long-term job and thriving on variety. She has a steady gig with one show and subs the rest of the time.
A former New York neighbor who plays 5 instruments had been playing classical music gigs after graduating from Juilliard. When he found that he needed to make more money, he switched to Broadway. He has yet to find a steady job with one show. He loves the variety that subbing brings, and practices all 5 instruments every day.
The actress Catherine Russell tells her story to The New York Times. She finds variety every night in a role she has performed for 25 years!* (She has also been listed in Guinness World Records!)
A character actor I know has been on Broadway for 40 years, mostly acting in various roles in the Fantasticks. He does other shows out of town for variety.
A singing actor I’ve worked with loves variety. His “money gig” is being Santa Claus in a Radio City show out of town. He will likely be the next actor in the role at Radio City when it becomes available.
A musician I dated had just returned from 6 months in Korea with a show when we met. He played 2 shows almost every day. With 4 hours between shows, he made a project of learning about Korean food, going to as many restaurants as he could.
In the old days, travel was by train, meaning that there was much more time between gigs in distant cities (and no jet lag). The members of the Budapest String Quartet would race each other during long trips to see who could memorize a quartet the fastest. The faster you were, the more time you had to read your book! They would arrive in the new city, go to the venue, and perform the just-memorized quartet from memory.
The Norman Luboff Choir toured with enough music for at least 3 programs. But the programs were never printed as such ~ the tour repertoire was. Norman would choose each concert’s program backstage a few minutes before the downbeat. The music was familiar, yes, but there was no complacency.
When the Juilliard String Quartet breaks in a new member, everything they play is rehearsed from scratch. That approach gives full participation to the new member, and keeps everyone else alert as well. In addition, they are always playing contemporary music along with the standard repertoire.
My job at the moment is to prepare for the 3rd concert of 3 with similar programs. In this group of concerts, I know the venues and the types of audiences who are likely to attend each one. I change the order while practicing and in the concerts themselves. During this week, I am practicing with the venue’s piano in mind.
The concert is in 3 days. Today I practiced the program in order, repeating spots that needed attention before going to the next piece.
Tomorrow, 2 days before, I’m planning to “perform” the program. If I need to go back to practice something, that will be after running the whole show.
On the day before, I have learned to expect mistakes. And during the warmup on the day of, forget it. That is totally unreliable. So on Saturday and Sunday, my focus will be on warming up very well and on being focused. I like to start and end each piece in program order, but not spend much time on the rest.
*Many thanks to C.I. for alerting me to this article!
- Concert countdown on mostly unfamiliar music (gretchenspianos.wordpress.com)
Where is your comfort zone with regard to security and variety? Please share your thoughts in the comment section below!
Looking for practice inspiration? “Goal-oriented Practice: How to Avoid Traps and Become a Confident Performer” will give you a fresh perspective!
All of us have received last-minute phone calls from people who sound absolutely desperate. We need you! The earth will stop turning if you don’t play!
So you drop everything, cancel appointments and dinner/movie arrangements, get ahold of the music somehow (usually by calling every other accompanist you know ~ the call came so late, the library and all the stores are closed), and meet at a traffic median 1/2 way between your apartments. You stay up late to look at the music (away from the piano ~ it’s too late to practice).
The next day you practice up until the last minute, all the while wondering whether the music you’re ignoring will be OK tomorrow, your friendships will be intact, and hoping your canceled appointments won’t result in added fees.
And then you play whatever it is ~ rehearsal, audition, master class ~ hopefully not a performance! Afterwards, you may have to wait for a check or do laps around the building looking for the person who hired you.
And then you go home.
That’s sometimes the reality of being an accompanist. That’s why I prefer a variety of playing situations ~ accompanying, chamber music, and solo recitals.
Sometimes I feel like a…
- Emergency room doctor
- Clean-up crew
What makes it fun
- Advance notice ~ not the night before!
- Having the music in plenty of time. (No, accompanying is not sight-reading at all times. That should be the exception.)
- Working with people who learn their parts. (Just sitting there plunking out notes for people is not why I was hired.)
- Participating in the forward movement of the project. (Cleaning up someone else’s mess ~ again, not why I was hired.)
- Being respected as a musician, not a robot who bangs out notes on cue or someone who shows up for emergencies to fix the mess.
What do you encounter that you’d rather live without? Please share your thoughts in the comment section below!
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Freelancing can be described from many different points of view.
My goal here is to sketch out two viewpoints which are polar opposites. (The “pros” are in red, “cons” in green.) If you are considering being a freelancer, look at this as a reality check before you give up your day job. If after reading this you’re still saying “Yes” enthusiastically, then go for it!
Freedom! You don’t have to be at work at the same old time every day, eat lunch at the same time, or take the same route to work and back.
Having an unpredictable schedule. Sometimes you will be working in the morning; at other times, late at night.
Being in control of what and where you play. You can find a concert schedule you are comfortable with, for example.
Always looking for work. When one gig is over, what will you be doing next?
Getting off the treadmill. Heaven.
Going from gig to gig takes up more time than working an 8-hour shift.
Being able to go outside in the daytime. I don’t know about you, but I consider that to be a major perk.
Working early and late. Daytime isn’t the only time you’ll be going outside….
Constant variety. It’s fun to play opera, art songs, solo rep, choral music, coach singers, rehearse with an instrumentalist, and teach lessons all in one day.
The need to switch gears instantly. The more you do this, the easier it becomes.
Meeting people. Even in a large city, the music business is a small town. Everyone knows everyone else.
Collaborating with someone you may not like. Or you may not like their playing. Keep in mind that this is like temping. Find a way to get along or find a compromise in playing styles for one audition, or a few rehearsals and a concert, then go on to the next gig with different people.
Travel. Being a musician is a great way to get out of town.
Never having enough time to see everything you want in a new location. Schlepping more stuff, putting up with inconvenience. Meals at odd hours. Too little sleep.
The shortest interview in recent history
I remember reading an interview that derailed almost immediately due to touring musicians’ punchiness.
Emanuel Ax and Yo-Yo Ma play frequent concerts together. In addition, they do concerts apart from each other, such as solo concertos with orchestra. You can imagine what their travel schedules are like.
Because they are so busy, they often miss flights. Sometimes they travel together, but there are other scenarios as well. They might meet in the city where their concert is. Or they might take a separate flight or two each, then meet for the last leg of the trip.
Since they miss flights so often, they have found a way to deal with that. Getting angry is counterproductive ~ they don’t get to their destination any sooner… so they crack jokes instead!
One day, a reporter was waiting at LAX to interview them upon arrival. They had each missed a flight en route, and were tired from an extended period of constant travel.
They said hello to the reporter… so far, so good. And then they started cracking each other up. They proceeded to give the reporter the other guy’s name!
So the reporter became confused and freaked out. No interview. Feeling upset, she called her editor, who then called Ax and Ma’s management in New York!
The manager told them they had to reschedule the interview. And so it goes. It happens. 😉
What are your views on freelancing? Please share in the comment section below!
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…to play the same music over and over!
Thanks to my best buddy Louise for the blog post idea! She wonders how musicians manage to do this several times a day for weeks at a time. Good question!
The easy solution would be to “phone it in.” I’ve made a personal resolution never to do that. Too risky (for missing cues, notes, etc.), not to mention boring.
How can we avoid zoning out?
A few ideas:
Always find a way to “reinvent” the music, as tired as that term may be.
Practice the program every day, whether you know it in your sleep or not. Be engaged.
A musician who lived in my building in New York made a good living as a sub in Broadway pit orchestras. He played 5 instruments, and practiced every one of them every day. That’s what it takes.
Practice the program out of order. Switch it up. Keep your brain working.
Change something about your practice environment, such as the temperature, lighting, or chair height. This also keeps you alert, as well as preparing you for day-to-day changes at the venue. The pianist Ruth Slenczynska uses this approach.
Practice at different tempi. This provides the opportunity to hear everything differently. Who knows? You could change your interpretation partway through the season!
Vary the dynamics. You don’t have to play exactly the same way every time, in most cases.
Take breaks in different places (not always after the same piece).
In a church situation, you could harmonize hymns in a variety of ways, add a descant, improvise between verses, or even stop playing.
With anthems, the added instruments could change from time to time.
The choir and soloists could sing from different places in the room.
You could switch up the solos.
What was probably the most effective trick was suggested by a friend. The Fantasticks, for which I played the harp part on a keyboard, had a run of 36 shows last Spring at the Majestic Theater in West Springfield, MA. Imagining one person in the audience who had never seen the show made a big difference to me. Then I had all the incentive I needed to be involved, to communicate the music like it was new every time. Thank you! You know who you are… : )
I also enjoyed watching a veteran actor every night. He has been in theater for over 40 years! His ability to “read” the audience in each show, changing his performance to match, fascinated me. Thanks, J.T., for the inspiration! I learned so much from you.
How do you manage to perform the same music throughout an entire season? Please share your ideas in the comment section below!
- Pothole Insurance! (gretchenspianos.wordpress.com)
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Is there such a thing?
While living in New York City, I worked in law firms for awhile (backup jobs). All employees were provided with a car service home after a certain time at night (I think it was after 8:30, required by Federal law).
One night, en route from Wall St. to the West Side Highway, my driver was winding around the one-way streets as usual. When he rounded the 4th or 5th corner, we encountered ~ what else? ~ Con Ed! Their truck, tents, and mountains of miscellaneous stuff took up the whole street, curb to curb (their specialty).
Just as I was about to voice my exasperation, the driver turned to me and said, “You know what they’re doing, don’t you? They’re installing potholes! They only come out at night.”
Best laugh I’d had for months, all the way to the Upper West Side.
What about the potholes we all encounter in performances? Something new and unexpected happens every time!
During college, memorable snags during performances, juries, and other people’s juries (I collaborated with almost everybody) included:
- playing a solo jury with the piano next to a huge soundproofing panel hung on the adjacent wall
- another solo jury with one juror wearing red, another swinging his foot ~ out of rhythm
- a particularly gifted cellist’s jury ~ she was a freshman, nervous, resulting in her playing a Popper etude and launching, without a break, in the Brahms E minor Cello Sonata. I wasn’t ready for “no break,” but fortunately the piano’s first entrance is after the cello’s first note. Whew! Made it! Won’t happen again!
Some of the highlights in performances after college were:
- trying to ignore a phone (land line) ringing loudly 12 times(!) in the middle of a Beethoven trio performance ~ no answering machine, no human picking up
- freezing in a January orchestra gig at St. John the Divine ~ they said to wear long underwear! The cathedral is old, enormous, unheated, and windy.
- having sweaty hands in a choral performance at NYU in May, on a hot day with the building’s heat still on ~ my hands slipped (often) for the 1st and only time
- playing a concert on Luboff tour where the piano was on a high platform (i.e. unmovable), 1/2 an auditorium away from the stage
- having sight lines obscured between me and the soloist ~ at a singer’s City Opera audition ~ I was able to read cues from the back of her dress
- due to space limitations in a church concert series, relying on the back of the violinist’s head and the tip of her bow
What can we do? How can we “deal?”
The pianist Ruth Slenczynska, in an event at SIU, talked about the way she practices during the two weeks preceding a concert. She intentionally creates uncomfortable conditions for herself! One day she’ll practice in bad light, the next in a cold room, then with the bench at an uncomfortable height, etc.
Pianist Peggy Lazarus, who lives near Boston, prepares her students for performances by making noise during their lessons.
As she said in a recent email:
“we practice with distractions…..my students play and I bang on drums, wail like a baby and blow a train whistle! Usually we all end up laughing…”
During college, my fellow music building inhabitants and I would go into each others’ practice rooms to make noise, take the music away, and dance around.
One more situation comes to mind. On occasion a concert venue will be highly reverberant. If a performer arrives just before the concert to warm up at the hall, that can change everything.
Do you practice with slower tempi from time to time? Playing slower in reverberant halls will sound clearer to the audience. Unless the reverberation is out of control, that is.
Putting more distance between the piano and another instrument can result in a separation of sounds, which ensures more clarity.
Producing shorter sounds makes a difference in live rooms. As a pianist, I also use less pedal (more in a dry acoustic).
Sometimes it’s difficult to hear yourself and other performers on stage. You have to do the best you can. Just try to play like you rehearsed. And watch your collaborators like a hawk! You’ll be relying on sight cues rather than sound.
I wouldn’t want my students to feel jumpy due to anticipated distractions when they go into a performance. But making them aware of how important it is to focus and to expect things to happen can be very helpful. Think of all the cell phones out there.
Learning the music in a variety of ways is good insurance. That way, when distractions happen, the performer can say the names of the notes, say the fingerings, focus on the chord structure, etc. Silently, of course.
In the midst of an oratorio performance last year at Smith College, a small dog found his way onto the stage via an open door. The soprano soloist nonchalantly picked him up and handed him to an orchestra member. (I don’t remember what happened after that.)
The conductor said he had been expecting a cell phone to ring, but a dog? And he didn’t miss a thing. The singer scored attention in the review for her dog catching skills in addition to her expressive singing.
With that said, being able to “deal” comes with experience. I wanted to write about it in the event that someone else might navigate a little easier.
Do you prepare yourself and your students for the unusual things that happen? How do you go about that?
What have you encountered in performances? What were the results?
Please share your thoughts and experiences in the comment section below!
And be sure to check out the book sale! Special prices on “Goal-oriented Practice” are effective through midnight on Thursday, November 18! Both the E-book and print versions are available at bargain discount rates. Don’t miss out!