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I survived the St. Paul's Schools Holiday Concert....so, do I get a T-Shirt? 

One evening in the life of a pianist

from December, 2004

It is that most festive time of year again in North America, the season of lights, cookies, an excess of shopping, and naturally enough, school holiday concerts with enough beautiful music, overstressed educators, and cherubic children's faces to go around.  This year the St. Paul's schools choirs will be adorning the Old St. Paul's church in downtown Baltimore with their sprightly presence and a good time is sure to be had by all.

I've been involved in hundreds of concerts; some on my own, others with large groups. There was the New York debut, then there are the ones that the Times critic is certain not to attend, like the one described here. Since I've been trying to discuss the various skills necessary to playing music in public with my students, trying to prepare them for the onslaught of nerves that comes with recitaling, and just make more informed human beings out of them, I arrived at this concert in a different frame of mind than usual, and determined, mid-concert, to describe my experience from the "inside" the best way I could. Concert giving is about as unpredictable as life, and as full of strange challenges. It requires strategic planning, preparation, discipline, and a determination to be successful. Once you've done your best with what you can control, though, it is best to approach the stage with a little humor, since events will always be  tantalizingly out of our control. Some of these things I learned at the conservatory as part of my musical training. But at least as useful are the seat-of-the-pants skill set, which I learned the same way a young bird learns to fly--by getting kicked out of the nest and being determined not to hit the ground!

Before we get down to business, some real-life skills are necessary. There is no course at the conservatory dedicated to finding parking spaces at artistic venues, challenge though this sometimes is. I decide to park at the Peabody which is several blocks away and walk down to the church. The plan works since there are plenty of spots available on Monument Street when I come through, though I am later informed that there is a new parking garage connected to the church. If I had bothered to ask somebody I probably could have saved a walk. This is something that registered with me while I walked out the door but I figured it was too late to do anything about and I don't mind a little exercise.

I've managed to arrive a bit early--our mandatory arrival time is one half-hour before downbeat, which is a smart idea when there are about a hundred children involved. I find the piano, wedged between the front pew and the raised space for the altar and choir loft, rather quickly, and spend the next half-hour conversing with the page-turner.

The page-turner is there largely to prevent accidents, such as music falling completely off the music rack during my sometimes vigorous page turns when I am trying to assault the keyboard with two hands and don't happen to have a third free to turn the page. I have barely seen the music and despite being able to memorize pretty quickly wouldn't trust an hour's concert to such hasty preparation. I know what I can get away with these days, which is a useful skill, particularly during the holiday season. This I learned during my days at the conservatory, but it was an unintentional byproduct of the time there, not part of the teaching syllabus.

Page-turners are hard to find, since it helps if one has some music-reading ability so he can anticipate when a slight nod from the musician will come and he will quickly and efficiently turn the page so the musician's eye can seize upon the content of the next as seamlessly as possible. I have, during my career, occasionally crashed into my page turner, who was doing his best not to notice to which end of the piano I was devoting most of my activity, and once, because of a dangling suit jacket that obscured the keys, managed to play the right bass note through my assistant's jacket. It would be a relief if more persons were trained in the art of the page-turn, and I have suggested to persons at Peabody and elsewhere that a new major in page-turning at the university might not be out of place. Since it would naturally carry with it a page-turning requirement for graduation (a certain number of pages or number of concerts) pianists in situations where they were not required to memorize their music would be literally mobbed by prospective page-turners all trying to fulfill their requirement for graduation. I have taken my request all the way to the dean, but I am not aware that this policy has been instituted. If it becomes efficacious to hire a professor of page-turning, I'm your man.

While we wait for the concert to begin, I try to make small-talk with the page-turner, husband of one of the choir directors, and who is practically resident page-turner at St. Paul's. It turns out that he is also going to Greece in the spring with one of the choirs (possibly to wind up page-turning for me :-)!  so, in addition to the weather, we kick that subject around for a while. I also have an opportunity to stroll down memory lane, since the last time I was in this church for a concert, composer William Albright (now deceased) was in town, and some members of the Peabody faculty and students performed a program entirely of his works, which my friend and I opened playing a Sonata for Saxophone and piano. We were enthusiastically applauded on that occasion, and it so happened that the Dean and the head of the voice department both heard the performance and concocted a fellowship for me based on that unknowing audition, which enabled me, at that time a Master's student, to stick around for a Doctorate. So it was a rather pivotal evening. It is also fodder for some amusing speculation: the last time I was here I played an avant-garde* Saxophone Sonata, and this time I am accompanying a children's choir. Well, life shouldn't be all one or the other, do you think?

I am spending this time also in arranging the music, running mentally through the order of the program, and trying to make sure I have one last chance to mentally rehearse any tricky spots, and to warn my page-turner about places he will have to turn back a few pages for a repeat. There are several folders from the various choirs on the piano as well as the master program, and I organize a couple of "In" boxes and decide where the music for each choir will be so I don't get confused later. The "Out" box winds up being a pile on the floor beneath the piano which, due to the front pieces on each pew, nobody can see. It is going to be very cozy up here. Apparently the architects did not foresee trying to jam a hundred-voice children's choir, some bell-tables, and a piano into the altar area.

It is the nerves before a concert that are hardest to deal with. Once the concert begins, all one's energy is directed to the task at hand. As the concert approaches I can't help getting a little nervous, which is a good thing because it prepares the body for any number of adaptations that might be required in the hour ahead by giving it a little adrenaline. All the tempos of the pieces will seem to slow down so I have that much more time to think about what lies just ahead and can prepare my thoughts to handle the next hurdle just in time.  I've heard stage-nerves compared to the situation our ancestors faced when being charged upon by wild bears. Well, I'm not quite that nervous. I'm not the only one out here. The only pianist, true, so I suppose if I miss a few notes people will know who did it, but even so, as a vocal coach I once worked with said to her student "Don't worry. This isn't Carnegie Hall." And besides, we are all carrying this load together. There is, as we all know, safety in numbers.   The conductor enters, says a few words of greeting which were probably swallowed up by the massive space, indicates the tempo of the first piece with a few waves of his hand and we are off and running.

Playing the piano requires some serious multi-tasking. While my hand hand is trying to accomplish two things at once, courtesy of the melody and descant I'm required to play simultaneously in the treble register, my left hand is controlling the tenor and bass lines. My right foot is busy with the sustaining pedal which not only allows the notes to sound after my hand has left the keys, it also leaves the upper overtones to ring freely and thus provides a richer sound. But in a cathedral the acoustics are already pretty lively so any pedaling has to be kept to a minimum or else the whole thing sounds like vaguely musical fog. The pedal may seem like a user-friendly device  but several of my students this semester are finding it is harder to operate than it appears. Generally the foot goes up on the downbeat, clearing the sound from the previous measure, and down shortly after the beat, which is the complete opposite of what we'd like to do, which is to stamp the ground on the beat. While my right foot is behaving in this completely a-rhythmic manner, my left is making up for it by some musically extraneous beat-keeping which I can't help because I'm trying to stay in-sync with a 100 voice-choir, some of who members are about 40 feet away, and whose entrances are not always that easy to hear from this angle.

Uhoh...we weren't quite together on those two notes. Was that my fault? Did I rush a little bit in the excitement of the moment? Now my head jerks up and I look directly at the section of the choir that sang that short rhythmic gesture. I don't recall having a good explanation for why looking at people singing helps, unless you can really see their mouths move or they are breathing together; this isn't a row of violins whose bows are all poised to attack the string in unison. But the visual cues seem to have worked, or perhaps my concentration is more sharply tuned to that section for a moment. The next time the gesture comes around (in about 2 seconds) it is perfectly together. It probably wasn't the look that did it; it's hard to see anything the carefully in this light. I was looking with my ears. I know how I operate.

I once managed to begin a choir anthem together with the ensemble despite not being able to see the choir or its director by listening to them breathe in unison. That's something else they didn't teach at the conservatory. Come to think of it, what am I paying those folks for?

Anyhow, now I've got all my limbs engaged, including some acrobatic follow-throughs on some loud chords, which makes them sound energetic and probably gives the audience (those in the first few rows, at least) a show.

My page turner says I was having too much fun with the last piece. It was an upbeat spiritual, very rhythmic and full of energy. And I was trying to get the choir to notice that, hoping they'd sing with a little more crispness and enthusiasm if the accompaniment so moved them. That strategy only works so well with a young choir whose members are probably trying to ignore the other parts as much as sing with them. Singing in an ensemble requires multi-tasking too, and it is usually the case that when one of my piano students plays her first duet, she is confused by all the additional noises coming from the piano and finds it hard to concentrate on her own part. At first this is accomplished by ignoring the other part, but eventually, if you want to play together well, you have to take into account what is going on around you and adjust your own performance accordingly.

Speaking of adjustment...at the rehearsal one of the directors brings the choir in a measure early. There is an awkward chord at the moment of impact, but I realize in an instant what has happened and obligingly skip that measure. We go on together and there is little musical discomfort. I remember being quite impressed when Christoph von Dohnanyl was able to make the entire Cleveland orchestra skip a measure during a concert when the piano soloist, playing from memory, skipped ahead to the next passage a bit prematurely.  He did it so smoothly that I'll bet hardly anyone noticed. It isn't that professionals don't have accidents during performance, they just cover them up faster! I was also a bit jealous when, a month later, I played the same concerto with a smaller orchestra and the conductor didn't look at me to slow the tempo for a moment. I wanted to linger on a couple of chords toward the end of a beautiful slow movement, but when I saw that baton coming down I realized I'd better get to the other end of the piano in a hurry. Remember, the guy with the stick runs the show. But a little flexibility never hurts. Listening to the other members of the ensemble is a great life lesson and is also mandatory for good music making. And my first grade teacher thought I didn't "play well with others."  hmmph!

Speaking of life lessons, it is never a bad idea to plan ahead. I have a gut feeling that this page turner is about to fail to notice the repeat sign at the bottom of the page and turn on to the next one anyway while we are repeating the same page. And there he goes! Good thing I sort of memorized the contents of the page on my way by the first time! I may be paraphrasing a little, but everything goes well enough that danger is averted once again. I guess if us pianist types didn't cover it up so well our profession would get more notice. People have to realize how dangerous it is! Then they would make a reality show about it. But if I don't want my piano plastered with corporate logos maybe I'll just leave things as they are.

There are a couple of times that the page doesn't get turned quite soon enough and we are on the next page already. I should probably insert at this point that the most important ingredient for success is preparedness, which is the one thing I was a little short on, since I was nearly sight-reading some of the music and had had only a couple of rehearsals on any of it. But it was just enough to be able to guess at what was likely to be on the next page since these pieces are generally pretty repetitive. Reading music isn't merely about identifying the notes; just as with reading in English, being able to recognize whole phrases instantly and understand what you are reading so you could paraphrase it if you had to gives you time to concentrate on everything else that needs to be attended to. I probably spend a fraction of a second taking in the contents of a line, and then, like a printer buffer, store the information in my mind while spooling it out on the piano for the next five seconds. During that time I can look at the director to make sure our tempos match, at the choir members to pick up entrance cues from them, and--as a last resort--see if there is anything amusing going on in the audience. It's a Christmas concert, after all.

Sometimes I just can't see the notes. It is a dimly lit cathedral, remember. This is where a good knowledge of harmony comes in handy. If you recognize the first few notes in the measure as belonging to say, an arpeggiated E-flat chord (and you thought those were extinct) you can basically guess at the notes you can't see, or the ones the composer has written so high in the stratosphere that he needs several extra (ledger) lines to get to them. If you don't have time to count all those lines, or just can't tell how many there are, a good harmonic guess is in order because there is no time to spend figuring them out. The notes go by when they go by and your time to play them is very short! If it sounds like it belongs there, the audience won't know. I will apologize to Vivaldi when I get home. The others should know better than to use so many ledger lines!

Also on my pet peeve list are the publishers who think it is a good idea to indicate a repeat one measure after a page turn. This means you turn the page only to have to flip it back several pages a second later to where the repeated section began. Anybody who has to actually play these pieces in a performance finds this sort of practice highly annoying. There is no reason in this highly accomplished day and age that the music can't be fit onto the same page, or stretched into two, or in some way modified so that a section ends before a page turn and doesn't just barely bleed onto the next. As with everything in life, there are some who pay attention to things like this and some who are amazingly oblivious.

One tries, during such a concert, to have a chance to simply absorb the atmosphere and enjoy the music and the fact that it is Christmastime once again and here we all are in our festive finery having a good time. As a performer this enjoyment often has to be experienced out of the corner of one's mind, but sometimes one's tasks are simple enough that it isn't hard to just feel like one of the audience just listening to the music and not the scrolling list of what to worry about next. Children's voices have a special quality you don't get anywhere else. There is a clarity to the sound which is often compared to angels regardless of how those angels behave in real life, and for the moment there is a peace and order the angel's parents aren't likely to get later, so they must be enjoying it immensely. Despite not always being in tune, and with smaller lungs that mean breaths that sometimes compromise the musical phrase, you need to hear a children's choir once in a while or you are missing something.

There are also on this occasion hand bells, which are always pleasant in small doses, and this is certainly the place for them. Hand bells are a real exercise in ensemble and teamwork because each person is only in charge of a couple of notes and his buddies had better ring the rest for him right it time. This makes the playing of a simple melody the equivalent of a three-legged race. It doesn't always work, partly because, as usual, there is a difference in the amount of attention each boy is paying to the proceedings, but despite a couple of minor train-wrecks the director is able to get them back on track with vigorous gestures. That's all you can hope for in life or in music.

Some of the girls were worried at the rehearsal that the tempos to a couple of pieces were too fast. The conductor told them that it might happen that way at the concert and that they would have to deal with it if it did, which is good advice. At the concert, in the glare of the spotlight, you never know. I think we got the tempos slowed down though. The accompanist had seen the music once already and had more time to worry about the conductor! But the piano still didn't sound like the one at home  :-)     (that was for my students)

After the concert I must also remember to gather my music which is strewn about the floor under the piano; it is my discard pile, where nobody could see it during the concert because of the frontpiece on the row of wooden pews. I tell all of the music teachers that they can collapse now, job well done. And I turn off the organ which was used in the final Christmas carol. Don't want to leave that running all night. Remember, it is important as a musician to remember to put away your toys when you are done with them.


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