Collaborating with children’s voices is something that requires listening and imagination. The first thought many pianists have is, “I can’t play too loud. I’ll cover them up!”
Unfortunately, the thinking process sometimes stops there.
Are there other options?
When the only goal is to stay out of the way, is that enough? How can we not be too loud and still be expressive?
In a recent performance with children’s choir, the program included “The Birds’ Lullaby” by Marilyn Broughton. I’ll refer to her beautiful composition in the following examples.
The first step in finding expression, for me, is to find workable dynamics. My goals are to:
- express the text;
- support the singers; and
- make the piano solos interesting while enhancing the entire piece.
In the introduction, the indicated dynamics were helpful. Piano and mezzo-piano needed to be there, and the crescendo to a level above mp needed to be practiced. I looked through the piece to determine how far that could go. I wanted to reach the loudest dynamic level on the downbeat of bar 7, then diminuendo into the choir’s mp entrance (but not below).
Accompanying the singers
At the singers’ entrance, the pianist’s role changes. S/he must listen in a different way. How can s/he be supportive without getting in the way? Where does the pianist’s expression come from?
To be supportive of the singers, simply disappearing from the fabric of sound is not an option. The choir’s pitch and rhythm could lose their integrity.
In this piece, the bass line can certainly match the singers’ sound. It does not need to be softer! Since the bass is in a different range from the voices, it will not be covering the voices.
As for the right hand when the singers enter and beyond, the top line can be more prominent. When played with a focused sound, it will be heard as a counter-melody.
On the second page, the short piano interlude begins on the word “through,” with a crescendo into the next chorus entrance. With a little advance planning and practice, this moving line can be interesting. In fact, it propels the piece while the singers hold a long note. They also need to breathe! The pianist’s crescendo to mf encourages them to sing their next entrance at that dynamic level without even thinking.
In scores where dynamics are indicated only in the voice part(s) or the piano part, both singers and pianists can benefit by looking at the markings in the other parts. What if the dynamics apply to both? (Why wouldn’t they?)
This piece has three verses, with the voice parts expertly arranged differently for each (i.e. canon at the measure, canon at 2 measures, and crossing voices). The two piano interludes are nearly identical. Our job is to make them interesting! I wanted to find a way for the interludes to sound different from each other while matching the singers’ volume at the end of their verse and meeting them at their new volume at the start of the next.
The first interlude worked well with a simple arc, soft to louder, then diminuendo into the second verse, which was softer than the first. The dynamic scheme I used was mp to mf, then dim. to p.
Finding a compelling way to play the second interlude was a little harder. After trying two or three different ideas, I noticed that the third verse was marked with a louder dynamic. I wanted to crescendo into the singers’ entrance.
So I found a way to start the interlude piano, then play a dynamic arc (cresc. and dim.) earlier than in the first interlude. Following the diminuendo, I could then crescendo from piano to mezzo-forte. This time, I played from p to mp to p, then cresc. to mf.
Problem solved? Not entirely.
The right hand of the piano part was in the same range as the singers’ entrance. My right hand melody continued past the singers’ entrance. So I needed a way to crescendo without covering them up.
It took a little longer to realize that the right hand could diminuendo while the left hand, which had moving notes, could crescendo at the same time. It worked like a charm. The interlude was compelling, it supported the singers, and nothing interfered with the children’s voices.
If playing a simultaneous dim. and cresc. seems like a juggling act, it might help to think about it in a different way. Try thinking about your feet. When we walk, we transfer weight from one foot to the other. One foot has more weight on it than the other. They feel different.
Another instance would be like driving a stick shift. One foot depresses the accelerator while the other releases the clutch. Now get the same feeling in your hands that you have in your feet. Problem solved!
In listening to pianists, my impression is that many people cresc. and dim. with both hands doing the same thing at the same time. However, playing fugues requires voicing separate parts, even when two or more parts are in the same hand. That requires using different amounts of weight on separate fingers. So why not apply this to other music? Why not use each hand differently when playing with hands together?
The lullaby ended softly. The short postlude needed some shape, so I decided to begin mp, then diminuendo, with focused, high bell tones at the end.
You may be wondering how I know that my ideas were effective. You are absolutely correct that a performer’s assessment of her/his own performance might be inaccurate.
And here’s my reason: Immediately after the concert, several audience members approached me to say how much they had enjoyed what they had heard!
Look for my next post: “PianoAnd: The lid. Full stick, 1/2 stick, or none at all?”
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