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Living Harmoniously with Piano by Yi-Fang Huang

The following post is by Yi-Fang Huang.

Not only do I collaborate with a lot of violists, I was once a violist myself. Although I had gone to viola juries, played in the orchestra, and even entered viola competitions, I knew that playing viola was not to be my primary voice.  I ultimately decided to pursue piano studies professionally but am grateful for the unique perspective my early years on viola gave me. The musical gestures a string instrument can do, such as making slides, drawing legato passages, sustaining after the initiation of sound, and the ability to increase and decrease the volume of a sustained note; those are things I miss in playing piano.

For the past 15 years, I’ve been working as a collaborative pianist at The Juilliard School and have been exposed to many different styles of playing, and many different approaches to viola pedagogy.  While I firmly believe there is not a “right” or “wrong” way to go in music performance, I have realized over the years there are some rather universal issues that come up in almost any collaboration between a violist and a pianist. As a pianist, I must approach collaboration with a violist differently than with violinist or cellist.  Likewise, I think there are several ways in which a violist can prepare him or herself in order to maximize the efficiency of a rehearsal with a pianist.  This is what I am hoping to discuss today.  I hope that by sharing some insights from my own experiences I will be able to offer helpful suggestions for productive – and FUN – viola/piano collaboration.

Viola and Piano Collaboration
The art of collaboration is not just about playing every note together. It is about a continuous give and take, a molding of two personalities into one.  It consists of serving the music humbly, but with a secure conviction. It lies in the ability to deeply feel each other’s intentions and artistry. Only such a unity can serve the work and bring out the music’s highest values. When this oneness is achieved, no words can describe the joy and the fulfillment.

Many people think a good collaborative pianist knows how to “follow”. But that’s exactly what should not happen.  If you let someone follow you, that means someone is behind you. We rehearse so the pianist is able to anticipate the timing. Don’t just let the pianist “follow”. Giving good indications of breathing and cues are important in the rehearsals.

What are the unique Challenges when playing with violists?

There are two major challenges for me when playing with violists: first, limited repertoire; second, balance problems.

Limited repertoire:  When collaborating with violists, the chance of playing the same works is much higher. I always keep these pieces fresh, while willing to accept different interpretations, and to play with total conviction even when I disagree with what I hear. This  requires intensive listening while enjoying every moment on the piano. When I first started to play with violists at the Juilliard School, I was confused when different teachers instructed me to do different things. I am sure all of us have experienced the similar situation. Now I have learned, with an open mind, that all the information becomes part of a valuable learning process. They do not conflict with each other; they simply are the results of looking at the same music from different angles. Studying the music is a long journey; if you allow the wave to take you wherever it wants to take you, you might discover a new world.

Balance Issues: Because of the darker sound quality of the viola, it can easily be drowned in a flood of piano tone. Violists always think the pianists are too loud.  Many of you probably have suffered from the domination of pianists in the performances.

You might want to ask: “why do pianists often overpower violists?” When we study the piano solo repertoire, we spend so much time on practicing getting louder and faster. Horowitz proudly claimed that he was the loudest and fastest pianist in the world. It took me many years to learn how to attune myself to a partner. When I play with violists, the standard of tone values must be re-adjusted; the most effort goes to playing less volume without losing the vitality and dynamic contrast. In other words, I had to learn how to play the “mf” volume, as what I would do in the solo repertoire, with the “ff” character.  I found I use less arm weight and more knuckles movement to produce a gentler sound to match the viola.

There are several ways violists can help the balance issues.

1) Sometimes when you try to be a good partner, your body turns in towards the piano. Instead, always make sure to turn out so the f hole is facing the audience.

2) When you see “p” or “pp”, don’t play too softly. Think of it as the character rather than the actual volume. Especially when you notice the piano is bright and the pianist is already making a lot of effort to play softly!

3) I have noticed, in slow movements, if violist plays perfectly in tune with the piano, the resonance of the overtone will help violist to carry out the sound.  You don’t even need to play louder.

What’s the right balance? Sometimes I’m told I am too soft, while others tell me I am too loud. There are many aspects to be taken into account when we deal with balance problems, such as the size and acoustics of the hall, the carrying power of a violist and the tone of the piano. I think it’s impossible to satisfy everyone in the audience because string players want to hear more strings, pianists want to hear more piano. A pianist friend once told me she only invites pianists to listen at dress rehearsals so she can play louder. So, for your benefit, don’t ask pianists to listen for balance.  (Just kidding!)

How to maximize limited rehearsal time

Aside from few of the lucky whose significant other is a pianist, usually you don’t have the luxury of rehearsing with pianists for an extended period of time; therefore, here are a few insights that will help both you and your pianist maximizing the limited rehearsal time.

 I cannot emphasize enough the importance of studying the score:

A quote from Schumann’s “ The musical rules of home and in life”, he said “You must not only know your pieces with your fingers, you must also be able to hum them away from the piano. Train you imagination so that you can remember not just the melody of a composition, but also the harmony that goes with it.”

So, after we train our imagination, we will be able to make all musical judgments including when there are discrepancies, based on the whole score, not just the viola part alone. Whenever I have a chance to work with young violists, I encourage them to study the entire score to find the hidden treasure which is not in the viola part.

Things that you can prepare before the first rehearsal:

Write down cues – very often, mistakes happen during the complicated rhythmic passage, rests or long notes. It’s a good thing to write down piano cues in those places in advance.

Listen to a recording with the score – I know some people strongly disagree with listening to recordings before they study the piece because they don’t want to be influenced by other interpretations before forming their own voices.  One way to avoid that is to avoid listening to only one recording. Another way is to listen with the score so we know clearly where the artist takes liberty on his own which is not indicated by the composer. For me, listening to the recordings not only helps me understand how two parts go together, but also helps to gain good knowledge of the music.

This is what I do: I listen to different recordings multiple times:

  1. The first time through I try to get a general idea.

  2. The second time: only follow the piano line

  3. Third time: only follow the viola line

  4. Fourth time: follow the piano line and visualize the viola line in my head. If there is any places I am not clear, I pause the recording to look at both line, then rewind and listen to that part again.

When you prepare well before the rehearsal, you can use the rehearsal time efficiently by getting down to the interpretation of the music – which for me is the most fun part!

Cueing

Like any form of the chamber music, when you rehearse with the pianist, the verbal, visual and sound communications are equally important. In order to establish good communication, it’s essential to give clear indications of breathing and cues. Music does not start with the first sound you make. It starts with setting the mood by breathing in the character of the music.

Listening

During the rehearsal, if you pay more attention to the piano you may hear things differently and have the freedom of each time being different. From my experience, I find sometimes students can improve simply by listening to the piano part alone.


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