Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The Proper Care and Feeding of a Pianist

I used to be a pianist-- I started college as a piano major.  I was never really good, though, and it soon became evident that I was really meant to be a singer.  Because I could truly grasp the work that it takes to be that accomplished, I put amazing pianists on a bit of a pedestal, I suppose.  Which makes it all the more surprising that when I switched to singing as my major, I began to take those same pianists a bit for granted as accompanists!    I felt giving them the music a week in advance was really quite adequate-- they were such advanced musicians capable of sight-reading feats I could only imagine in my soprano fantasies.  It was precisely because I felt they were so fantastic that I didn't think they needed a lot of time to prepare my music.  My abject pedestalization of these remarkable beings is what made me inconsiderate.  While I may need weeks of prep for that set of Schubert songs, they are far superior musicians, I reasoned, and will be fine with three days.  I was wrong.

I am married to one of those pianists I put on a pedestal!  And it's taught me a lot. You have a whole new perspective on their lives as collaborators.  And it is not just students making these mistakes.  You would be surprised how disrespectful even seasoned professionals can be about things like this!

Here's what I've learned:

1. If a pianist asks for your music right away, they mean right away.  
They are not kidding.  They mean no later than tomorrow.  If you've told them what you're singing and they say they need it right away, it's because they've never played it before, because they know it but consider it to be challenging, or because they have a crazy schedule of playing coming up and need time to look over it and prioritize their practice time.   They want to play well for you and for themselves, and if they have not already played your exact line-up of pieces ten times before (and I bet they haven't), they need time to work through your music.  There are lots of ways to make this happen, with the advent of technology.  I have downloaded my audition arias and recital music to my i-pad, and can send them to anyone who needs them.  Pianists are now even playing, rehearsing, performing using their i-pads instead of binders!  Most, still, I would wager, however, just want real paper copies.  Clear copies, nothing cut-off at the bottom, top or sides.  Organized, double-sided, with paper clips to separate each song, and notes about your tempi are very helpful.

2. If a pianist says they want your music two weeks before, they mean it.
Right about this time every year, my husband (and all the other pianists you know) has no free time.  None to practice the music that you gave him ten minutes ago for your rehearsal tomorrow.  He has a musical pedigree you wouldn't believe, and can trace his lineage through his teachers back to Beethoven, in case you care.  But he will not be able to support you the way he wants to and the way you want to be supported if he is sight-reading.  Bottom-line.

3. It is not fair to expect a pianist to drop everything to practice your music. 
And whether or not you know it, if you give the pianist your music after the deadline they gave you, that is literally what they will have to do.  Pianists who are also teachers and who perform themselves, or, pianists who are in school working on a degree live incredibly tightly- scheduled lives.  They have to work a lot to make enough money to live, and if they are in school, their practice and study time for their own music is precious.  If they are too nice a person to throw the music back in your face and tell you it's too late and that you missed the deadline, they will rearrange their lives to make time to practice your music.  After a long day of teaching or class, they will have to practice your music instead of what they had originally planned for that time so that the performance will be up to their high standards.  Do you really want to be the singer who does that?

4. But they sight-read my music in auditions! 
Now, we all go to opera auditions all the time where pianists sight-read our music with great success.  But please bear in mind they are often pianists who have degrees in collaborative playing, or play for singers exclusively, and have spent a good deal of time getting to know all the standard audition arias like the back of their hand.  This is a special subset of pianists we couldn't live without who, for the most part, have chosen to do this for their career.  They might even be coaches who work with singers all day every day.  I would wager that even these special people would probably want a little time to look at your entire recital of Hugo Wolf lieder, or your impossible to count aria from Postcards from Morocco before having to play it in front of an audience.

5. Gifts don't hurt if you screwed up.
If you're afraid you've already made one of these mistakes, and are working with a pianist who you may or may not have pissed off with your thoughtlessness, apologize, present them with a batch of freshly baked cookies, and then never do it again.  They'll forgive you.  I've found that gifts of coffee, Reese's Pieces/Peanut M&Ms, or Dunhill cigarettes also work wonders.  Just kidding about the cigarettes.  :)  

To summarize: 
I think at the end of the day, all of this is about being a considerate colleague.  Do not assume that just because they are amazing they will not want to play though your pieces.  Think about how you feel when you have to sight-read.  Even if you are good at it, you would admit you can't be at your very best while doing so.  If they are very good, they have very high standards, and will want to give a detailed performance with musicality and not just right notes.

When you are working with someone and they ask you to give them the tools they need to do a good job, you follow through with that.  Being a good colleague in this way makes you the kind of singer they will look forward to working with again.  Believe me, pianists remember people who take advantage of their good nature, and they also remember people who are respectful of their time.

We want people to smile when they think of us, not grind and gnash their teeth.

And my very best piece of married-to-a-pianist advice:

Just remember:  your pianist is the one person in the room who can save you if something goes wrong in the performance.  Make them want to save you.

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