Why Collaborate?

Extended version of an article commissioned by American Music Teacher (Journal of MTNA) on the benefits of collaborating as a pianist.


One of the great challenges that faces any instructor in recruiting young, significant pianistic talent into a Collaborative Piano program is the fact that many of the most serious players completing undergraduate studies are not yet contemplating the merits of a course that does not focus on solo repertoire.  Laced with the conception that “accompanying” is subservient, and therefore the domain of “lesser” pianists, collaborative piano is all too often perceived as a field of study beckoning those with inferior abilities and no prospects for success as soloists.  In fact, this very notion has been ingrained for so long there are still major music schools who refuse to establish collaborative piano programs under the misguided belief that doing so will undermine the pianistic reputation of their institutions.  However, “piano literature” should include all music written for the instrument, including the wealth of chamber music and vocal works.  It is valuable to examine the ways in which a serious study of the collaborative arts can, in fact, greatly enhance the artistic capabilities of those who still wish to embrace solo literature and performance. 

It is known that many of the world’s great pianists were very active, or at least knowledgeable, about music beyond the solo literature.  Murray Perahia, for example, devoted his early years almost exclusively to chamber music;  Sviatoslav Richter immersed himself in vocal music and opera throughout his life and even Horowitz had an impressive knowledge of chamber music and song. What these artists have in common is a broad musical base from which to approach solo literature, and a sensitivity to sound that is elusive to many who never venture outside the solo repertoire.

Collaborating with instrumentalists is the most accessible means of communal music making for pianists.  It is beneficial to pianists by requiring a sensitivity of touch, dynamic control and musical fluency easily neglected when playing alone.  Control of sound is important when realizing that the legato line of a clarinet, for example, is significantly different than that of a trumpet.  Attacks in a lower dynamic, for example, must be far more subtle for a clarinet (which has the ability to emerge virtually imperceptibly from “niente”) than with the trumpet, which has a distinct point at which the articulation must be controlled.  Likewise, the ability to control dynamics at the piano is significantly greater in chamber music because of the necessity to balance tastefully with other instruments.  The Brahms sonatas for clarinet or viola are examples of works that demand great energy from pianists, but require skill not to over power the other instrument in the process.  Being musically connected to rhythm, line and affect is also imperative when performing with other musicians since the success of the ensemble and overall musical performance rely upon it.  It is well known, to those with experience as collaborators, that the more solid the musicianship of the players, the less rehearsal time is required for the success of ‘playing together’.  If two musicians are in sync with each other, there is a certain inevitability to where notes are placed, how long pauses are, or how attacks and releases are accomplished.  Ensemble playing is a fantastic gauge for one’s musicianship in this regard, and can indicate to us how organic our musical ideas really are.  Only when we are feeling things in an unnatural way will the flow of the ensemble be problematic.

While instrumental collaboration is the easiest type of ensemble playing for pianists, it is the vocal literature that is most revelatory and beneficial.  As students, we have all heard that we should ‘sing’ on the piano, that music is “dramatic” and that all Mozart is “opera”, etc..  It is, however, only through a significant experience with vocal literature that we can truly comprehend the truth of such statements.  Working with singers is often a challenge for inexperienced pianists because the skill set required is very alien to those who have not been trained in language, styles, traditions and diction.  Obviously the more one knows, the more one will benefit, but a simple exposure to vocal idioms can have an enormous impact on a pianist’s playing. 

Stylistically, a familiarity with the traditions of bel canto opera are essential to any pianist studying Chopin.  Chopin did not invent a style and, in fact, was not even that innovative in his adaptation of it.  Chopin’s lyrical writing (most easily recognized in the Nocturnes) is a mere transplantation of bel canto idioms most readily encountered in the operas of Bellini (one of Chopin’s compositional heroes).  Any one versed in the traditions of bel canto rubato (including the prolongation of final beats of measures or phrases), will easily comprehend the musical lines of Chopin.  The melismatic figurations and embellishments in the bel canto literature are also borrowed by Chopin, often falling on those very places where the tradition says the tempo must be broadened.  It would also be negligent to fail to mention that, when viewed in the operatic contexts in which they were clearly intended, the two piano concerti are actually refined examples of orchestral writing and musical drama (but that is a topic for another essay!)

Working with vocal literature is the best way for any musician to understand the dramatic nature of music.  Unlike solo piano literature or instrumental music, vocal music has one great advantage in that the text tells us exactly what the music is about.  There is little that is abstract about opera or art song, and so working with these genres can teach us to recognize musical gestures that illustrate very specific actions, thoughts or feelings as revealed by the text.  It is impossible to adequately understand a Schubert sonata without having examined the ways in which he uses similar pianistic figurations or harmonies to paint the texts of his Lieder.  Likewise, an examination of Mozart’s operas, and the topoi he employs throughout, reveal the piano concerti to be elaborate character studies with direct correlations to characters and dramatic situations.

Finally, a true study of vocal accompanying can reveal what it truly means to “sing” at the piano.  When asked, most piano students will say that “to sing” a melody on the piano means to be expressive and play legato.  While this is true, the meaning of this directive goes well beyond playing smoothly.  To be expressive, when singing, requires more than legato.  To sing legato, a singer must smoothly connect vowel to vowel.  However, one cannot be expressive on a vowel; expression comes from the ways in which singers treat consonants (especially initial consonants).  As a result, there are very subtle manipulations of rhythm and dynamics that are used for maximum expression of the text being sung.  What many of the great pianists understood (including Horowitz, Rubenstein and Rachmaninoff), is that what makes a melody sound personal and expressive is not the legato, but the sense of implied diction – playing it in a way that sounds as though words were being sung with it.  When one has the language of Schubert Lieder or Debussy chansons in mind, and the way that language is used through expressive diction, the pianist will incorporate an exquisitely expressive element into his/her playing that otherwise will be lacking. 

These are but a few examples of the ways in which a study of the collaborative arts can nurture soloistic playing.  Any pianist should be a musician first, which requires an understanding of music and expression beyond the limited scope of a single genre of literature. The greatest service a pianist can do for his/her playing, is to explore as much of that literature as possible.