Some Thoughts for the Bigoted Solo Pianist
Operagasm’s Best of 2011 continues with this contribution featured during our focus on collaboration! Check out this ‘bigoted’ perspective from Patrick Merrill!
by Patrick Merrill
When Melissa Wimbish first approached me about contributing an article on collaborative piano playing to Operagasm, I felt as touched as I did intimidated. I’m touched because I have a tremendous amount of respect for Melissa and the work she’s done with this awesome blog. Admittedly, though, my lack of experience as a collaborative pianist left me feeling a bit unqualified to write on the subject. As a matter of fact, my interest in collaborative piano only germinated last fall, upon taking Eileen Cornett’s class for undergraduate accompanying. I write, then, not from a perspective of authority, but as a pianist who is newly – and eagerly – discovering and further pursuing the art of vocal accompanying. Accordingly, I thought I would try to demonstrate how I became more involved in collaborative playing, as well as why I have come to believe that is not just important, but vital for pianists to play with singers.
Early on in my musical studies, collaborative piano playing was of very little interest. Like so many others, as I kid I was captivated by the romantic spectacle of the solo pianist, and piano literature remained my only course of focus for several years. Of course, for anyone who is remotely serious about becoming an artist, such bigotry dissolves over time. For me, it started to break down during my third or fourth year of high school, when I began exploring chamber music. But even then, I did not spare a thought to vocal accompanying.
Unfortunately, I can’t blame this indifference on a lack of exposure. I had played with singers, but never felt the sensation that we had effectively, as a team, delivered a truly moving performance. As a result, I was left feeling horribly unsatisfied by the experience. Certainly, I had always liked the idea of playing with singers. Who, after all, is not captivated by a masterfully refined human voice, the only musical instrument that is truly alive? There are few sounds more pleasing to the ear! In short, I found that my dissatisfaction stemmed from a misunderstanding of the disjuncture between solo playing and collaborative playing. Like so many other students in my position, it took me a long time to realize that collaborative playing is far more unlike solo playing and far more difficult than I first gave it credit for.
Being an inexperienced vocal accompanist, my first big mistake was to underestimate the inherent antagonism, from the standpoint of sound production, between the piano and voice. As complex as the mechanical action of a modern piano is, it is exceedingly primitive when compared with the highly evolved sound production system contained within our own bodies. It is far too easy to forget, after all, that the true task of the accompanist is to complement the natural beauty of the human voice by beating a box of steel strings with felt-covered wooden hammers! Gaining a fuller recognition of this intrinsic acoustic battle made it easier for me to start using my imagination to design a sound that better supported the voice.
Equally as important to be aware of is the fundamental divergence of approach between vocal music and instrumental music. After all, when playing instrumental music, the only elements that we can use to construct our interpretation are the actual pitches and rhythms, the written performance indications, and our research of the style. In the particular case of piano music, we typically derive the momentum of the piece from our understanding of the harmony, perhaps later enriching it by adding our own rhetorical significance. Vocal music must be looked at backwards; that is, the harmony is secondary, and only exists to supplement the narrative of the text. In his 1899 volume, Music and Musicians, music theorist Albert Lavignac suggests that “the great superiority of the voice over all the instruments that human ingenuity has constructed lies in this, that to it is added language, whereby it expresses with precision the sentiments to which it is giving musical utterance, and fully explains their nature.” Though this distinction may seem all too apparent, it underscores the nature of the collaborative pianist’s approach to interpreting music, which is to mirror that of the singer.
This manner of looking at music – that is, building everything from the text – is quite foreign to the solo pianist. Indeed, it constitutes not just a different method of piano playing, but an entirely separate art form – one that every pianist should study. The ability to integrate a literary narrative into one’s playing, which one does continuously as a collaborative pianist, is a skill that proves absolutely indispensable when playing solo piano literature. After all, our goal as instrumental musicians is to deliver as precise an interpretation as we can through an innately abstract medium. I think it is also pertinent to remember that European music was virtually inseparable from text until the late Middle Ages, and that tonality, the system of pitch organization that governed Western music for over 300 years (including those years that produced the most-played piano literature) is, itself, modeled after human speech, during an age when rhetoric was among the most treasured skills. Thus, I have come to insist that learning to effectively accompany vocal music is not a mere supplemental skill, but an essential part of musicianship that serves to enrich the pianist’s outlook on his or her own solo literature.
Baltimore native Patrick Merrill (b. 1992) began studying piano at the age of seven. At age eleven, he began studying under Dr. Duke Thompson, founder and director of the Maryland Conservatory of Music. In 2005, Mr. Merrill began attending the Baltimore School for the Arts. There he continued studying under Dr. Thompson until 2008, when he was accepted into the private studio of Ms. Yong Hi Moon. Mr. Merrill has attended the Brevard Music Center and the Bowdoin Music Festival, and he has been invited to perform for various showcase events for both the Maryland Conservatory of Music and Baltimore School for the Arts. In 2008 he was given first prize at the Marian Garcia Piano Competition. A recipient of the Rildia Bee O’Bryan Cliburn Memorial Scholarship, Mr. Merrill is currently continuing his studies under Ms. Moon in pursuit of his Bachelor of Music degree at the Peabody Institute.