The other day, a musician-friend of mine was praising on Facebook a recent performance by Yo-Yo Ma. He wrote, “You all know how great Yo-Yo is. But what totally blew my mind away last Sunday was how he can pick up a completely foreign instrument and make it sound like he’s been playing it all his life & know everything about it!!”
And I replied, “Impressive indeed! And this, my friend, is what pianists have to do for every concert!”
And then a bass player chimed in with “Yeah, but you don’t have to worry about intonation.”
Ah, the joys of social media.
This brief exchange got me thinking about the fact that even my musician colleagues are unaware of the challenges that every other instrumentalist faces. And so before I fell into the trap of starting an all-out war on the feed of a well-intentioned friend who gave a well-deserved compliment to one of the world’s greatest musicians, I simply wrote the following:
“While it’s true pianists don’t have to deal with intonation issues, we have to worry about countless other things, like balancing 3-4 different voices simultaneously (which means applying varying tone depth to each voice), reading 2-3 staves at the same time—WHILE getting acquainted with the instrument and adapting to its quirks or challenges. Just like every other instrument, no two pianos are equal.”
The bass player didn’t respond, and that’s okay.
As performing musicians, I think we all have some responsibility to understand the deficiencies and challenges of every instrument, particularly if we plan to engage with other musicians in the pursuit of chamber music, or especially, if we have aspirations to be a conductor.
Because pianos are pretty easy to stumble upon, many people have difficulty walking past one without playing a couple notes on it. And why is that? Well, assuming that the piano has been cared for and recently tuned, with little effort, almost anyone over the age of 3 can produce an attractive tone on the piano. And from what I can tell, this is hardly the case with ANY other instrument.
Hand me a violin, an oboe, or a French horn, and I can pretty much guarantee that any sound I manage to get from the instrument will not be something that you’d want to hear ever again.
Tone production is part of any musician’s training, and depending on the instrument, it can consume the majority of a lesson. To use an extreme example, I should like to mention one of the most complex and beautiful instruments of all: the human voice. Though I love opera and art song, I never much enjoyed playing for voice lessons, because the entire hour was usually devoted to vocal technique and tone production, and the singer rarely got beyond bar 6 of the aria they were singing. Was my presence in those lessons really necessary? This held little interest to me at the time, as I was more interested in expanding my repertoire.
But let’s talk about the piano: it would be erroneous, and indeed, insulting to suggest that pianists don’t deal with tone production. I believe a non-musician would even hear a difference in tone production among three different pianists. The tone can vary from a warm, cushioned sound to a harsh and strident sound, and countless gradients in between. My primary teachers both studied with the legendary Russian pedagogue, Rosina Lhevinne, who fostered so many of the wonderful pianists of the 20th century. With them I spent a lot of time developing my technique as well as a varied “tonal palette” to serve whatever music I was playing.
We pianists often envy our “single-line” instrumentalist friends. How hard can it be to read or even sightread just a single line of music? By comparison, pianists have to manage multiple voices spread out over 2-3 staves of music, fast harmonic shifts involving successive multiple-note chords, counterpoint, contrasting articulations in each voice, and often different rhythms in each voice. Right now I am recalling a passage in the scherzo of the Brahms F-Major Sonata for Piano and Cello where the pianist is asked to play a “2 against 3” rhythm in a single hand. Thanks Johannes!
I think, for these reasons, it is difficult to argue that the actual learning process of any piece of music requires more preparation time for a pianist than for another instrumentalist. Not only do we have to decipher the multiple voices, but then we have to go through the painstaking process of deciding how to finger these passages. The nature of the music will create certain limitations and abbreviate the number of possible choices, but with ten fingers, it often takes a lot of “trial and error” to figure out what lies well under the hand. Pianists learn their scales from an early age, and our default setting is to utilize these fingerings whenever we can in our music. But even in the scalar music of Mozart or Beethoven, the music twists and turns in ways that create the necessity for us to abandon scale fingering altogether and come up with a solution that works. We have to consider where a phrase is coming from, and simultaneously, where it is headed.
All of this is to say that this trial and error takes time.. And then the brain needs additional time to absorb this data and develop any kind of physical memory. Much like trying to cram for a final the night before, one cannot learn a piece overnight. The brain needs more time for the music to “marinate” and absorb all the ingredients that go into the music. To give some examples, over the past couple years I have been tasked with learning and performing some lesser-known chamber works written in the romantic and post-romantic styles (19th and early 20th centuries), which implies that the piano writing is very thick and a driving force in these works. Depending on the complexity of the harmonic language, I am logging between 40-50 hours of preparation time before the first rehearsal.
For pianists, even in chamber music settings, most of the work is done prior to the first rehearsal. Because the pianist is blessed to play from a full score, we can anticipate and see what the other players will do, and therefore, the ensemble is typically not such a huge obstacle. There are some notable exceptions to this, like the Copland Sextet, or any Martinu Trio, which, because of the rhythmic complexities and polyrhythms, requires an inordinate amount of rehearsal time to put the piece together. But on the whole I often smile to myself when an audience member will ask me or one of my partners onstage, “How long have you been playing together?” or “How long did it take you to put this piece together?” They might be dumbfounded (or mortified) to learn that occasionally the answer is that we only started playing together two days earlier. One doesn’t necessarily consider that for me and likely all pianists, 85% of the learning process of a piece happens alone in the practice room.
I will not speak for my partners in the ensemble. However, I must tip my hat to them and acknowledge that because they don’t see anyone’s part but their own, what they absorb during these rehearsals is rather extraordinary to me. I would conjecture that a greater percentage of their learning occurs in the rehearsals, and that might explain why they often prefer more rehearsal time than I might seek myself.
When we meet for rehearsals at one of their homes, or when we sit down to do a soundcheck at the venue, all of us are bombarded by additional stimuli trying to process how the music fits together, and I quickly realize something else: I’ve never played this piano before! And so I am tasked with getting acquainted with the instrument AS we are rehearsing, and my brain is on overdrive firing neurons madly as I am trying to process the following:
Which keys among the 88 on the keyboard “jump out” or are strident? Which keys don’t sound and are voiced down too much? Is the keyboard evenly voiced or are there pockets of notes which sound louder or softer than those near them? Which keys have annoying action noises? Does the pedal squeak? Can I finesse it somehow to avoid the squeak? Does the una corda work properly? Does it shift too far? Are the keys sticky or slippery? Is the bass too boomy, and is it in danger of burying the cellist’s sound? Does the bass register have enough cushion and warmth to give a foundation to the violinist or flutist, or singer? Is it too light, or is it like hitting bricks? Is the action consistent? How does the instrument sound in this room acoustically? Do I need to play out more to make it speak, or do I need to barely breathe for fear of the balance? Are the acoustics boomy or dry? How does the piano sound to my partners onstage? Will they feel overwhelmed, or supported? And, God forbid, is one of them going to suggest I lower the piano lid, thinking that doing so will improve the balance?
All pianists have horror stories or “war stories” they like to share in the rare moments they are in the company of other pianists. Some are extraordinary stories. I could talk about jacks (parts of the action) failing on me DURING a performance of the Ravel Concerto, naturally in the very exposed opening of the 2nd movement. I can assure you that the “heavenly” experience quickly dissolved to one of sheer panic. There was no technician to fix it, and this performance doubled as an audition for the conductor, which ALSO meant that there were more musician colleagues at this performance than any other I have given. Or I could talk about braving the treacherous piece Scarbo, also by Ravel, on a piano whose black keys sink too low, causing my fingers to get stuck between the keys.
I often ponder what my performance life would feel like if I could always travel with my own instrument. What a beautiful thought!
So, yes, Mr. Bass Player, you make a good point: at least I don’t have to deal with intonation.
Photo Credit: Louis Kravitz