Playing Piano in a Large Ensemble

Over the years, I’ve heard various comments about pianists and their connection to conductors. One person told me that, as a pianist, she was required to make percussion her instrument in college as a music education major because “pianists do not make good conductors.” I have heard other people who belong to orchestras complain about the pianists who come in to play in just a piece or two, “they make up their own tempo and don’t follow the conductor!” I once heard a professional orchestra perform a piece using a piano as part of the ensemble (not a soloist.) During the piece there was a long accelerando, and the pianist was in his own world. Half the group was trying to stay with the pianist, and the other half was trying to stay with the conductor.  It almost fell apart. I told someone I knew in the group that I laid the blame completely at the feet of the pianist. He wasn’t watching.

In some ways, this is completely understandable. Pianos, unlike most instruments, are their own ensemble providing melody, harmony, and multiple voices at the same time. Pianists are self-accompanying and we don’t need another musician to play with. Other instruments do have solo works, but they are rare. For pianists, solo works are the norm. Even when pianists play with other instruments, it is often in a chamber group that doesn’t have a conductor. To have experience in a large ensemble, pianists usually must  learn another instrument or sing in a chorus. This is the only way most will get the experience of working under a conductor.

I have been playing piano since the age of three, but when I was eight I wanted to join the school band, so I began learning clarinet. Although I am a primarily a pianist, my musical background includes a significant amount of large ensemble experience. I have played in multiple bands and wind ensembles and have sung in multiple choruses. Because of this, following a conductor is second nature.

Still, most of my large ensemble work as a pianist has been of just one kind – working with choral groups. In that work, I am the lead instrument and I am always playing. So, when I began playing  piano with the Rhode Island Wind Ensemble for an upcoming performance, I found myself in a completely different situation.

Instead of being a lead instrument, I am only adding color and depth in places. I have gone from playing almost every single measure to having to count for fifty-plus measures of rest. It’s not as easy as it sounds, especially when my part doesn’t clearly mark the ritardandos and fermatas that the rest of the ensemble has at one point or another, and the music is full of constantly-changing time signatures. I have found myself having to ask numerous questions about what is supposed to be happening in a certain measure so I can better keep track of where I am in the music. Another problem is that, because my part is more about sound effect than pianistic technique, the notes are not always close by and “under the fingers” as my composition teacher would say. I might have only a few notes at a time, but sometimes I have to jump octaves between them pretty quickly. Looking down at the keyboard to ensure I play the right notes and looking up at the conductor at the same time is hard to do! I have found myself developing a little compassion for the pianist who botched that orchestral performance.

The piano has a different feel in an ensemble like this. Normally when I let a chord ring while holding down the pedal, I know when the sound ends and I can lift my foot. Now, though, my foot feels vibrations through the pedal long after my note ends, resonating with the low brass.  The conductor and the other musicians in the group are pleased with how the piano sounds, and I am glad to have this new musical opportunity. It has broadened my understanding both as a player and a composer.

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