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Terence Dawson: Collaborative Piano and the developing Musician

In the context of piano study, the term collaborative pianist could imply that a pianist who plays chamber music avoids discussing or even performing the solo repertoire, thereby delegating them to a secondary role.

Most certainly, the study of all genres of music is necessary to avoid gaps in a student’s musical development.  Specifically, the body of work we consider to be chamber music truly is part of the great breadth and depth of the repertoire pianists need to experience.

I see the opportunity, by exploring the specific skill sets of a collaborative artist, to deepen a pianist’s musical and technical foundations.  If we are to inspire vital performances, chamber music, including song repertoire, can be used to cultivate curious and probing interpretations with fellow musicians. Potentially, this results in the development of more intense listening skills. In essence, we want to “move our ears to a place where they do not normally live”, to quote my colleague Dr. Laura Loewen of The University of Manitoba.

Our goal?  Students will make performance decisions based on what they discover through hyper-active listening.  In turn, they can use these same skills to be even stronger solo artists, with foundations built on the firm grounds of musical intuition alongside a solid technical approach.

A pedagogical technique for teaching listening skills to members of an ensemble involves fostering an awareness of two specific types of roles they assume:  those who lead and those who support. Students learn the necessary ingredient of technical security in order not only to maintain the unity of the ensemble, but also to enable themselves to switch back and forth easily in these two roles.  Joan Last, in her book The Young Pianist (Oxford University Press, 1972), speaks of the importance of teaching the concepts of balance and ensemble to even the youngest students. These concepts are integral in this role assignment.

Yet often, we falsely assume the need to abandon our sense of self when playing with others.  As an “accompanist” we no longer feel an equal contributor, but a conformist. We acquiesce to the group or the soloist. The question follows: “How can we be aware of others, and yet assert our intentions simultaneously?”

Many years ago, I came across an article in Harper’s Magazine by John Fowles entitled “Seeing Nature Whole”. Fowles states:

“What is irreplaceable in any object of art is never, in the final analysis, its techniques or craft, but the personality of the artist, the expression of his or her unique and individual feeling.” 

 

To adopt this thought, we cannot abandon our sense of self even when we appear in a performance with other musicians. But is it possible to retain our sense of personality and a sense of individuality as a chamber musician? I would emphatically answer, “Yes. Not only is it possible, it is necessary!”

For instance, the hierarchy of dynamics can take on a whole new meaning within an ensemble.  A true pianissimo dynamic is not produced simply by exercising the option of lowering the lid to half-stick, nor by riding the una corda pedal.  Additionally, we can solve certain balance problems through an awareness of the music in a textural way.  A chord can be voiced with a myriad of possibilities and, as such, we can finesse its character and clarity in many ways.

Score study often reveals technical issues which are questioned such as fingerings and articulations.  As we observe our own parts relative to those of our partners, we are also forced to react to unanticipated musical events within the ensemble with immediacy. These reactions demand creativity, and the response time depends once more on reliable technical skills.

Let’s face it: Pianists are often told that the mere act of producing sound on a piano is “too easy”!  It is certainly true that pianists do not have to be concerned with breathing or intonation. However, much effort is directed towards becoming physically involved with sound production.  Pianists often include these aspects when discussing music. Technique study for pianists involves intense listening to enable a singing line that includes breaths in appropriate places.  It includes hearing harmonies, voicing, and discriminatory listening for tone and timbre. We speak of linking notes with the fingers for the development of a seamless, supported legato.  In short, we strive to hear our repertoire in a symphonic sense, borrowing generously from the language used by our fellow instrumentalists and singers.

Margo Garrett, the great teacher/pianist of the Julliard School of Music, says that although the piano is the great tool she uses, people are her first love. I have found that some of my most memorable revelations have come from musicians who, on a first reading of a work, revealed significantly different interpretations. Working through some of these ideas opened the doors to discussion, and effected change within the ensemble.

I leave you with writer Brenda Ueland’s encouraging words – that “everyone is talented because everybody who is human has something to express”.

(If You Want To Write, Graywolf  Press, 1938)  In my view, the collaborative process brings us together through common ground, and results in the heightened performances we seek within ourselves, and our students.

 

Dr. Terence Dawson is the Chair of the Keyboard Division at The University of British Columbia School of Music in Vancouver, Canada. He is a core faculty member of the Vancouver International Song Institute, and an active solo pianist and collaborative artist.

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