Chih-Long Hu. We were setting tempi for a piece by Benjamin Britten that we’ll perform together next month. I’ve done the work numerous times, but it was new to him. Further, we’ve not worked together before. It was "my rehearsal" and the burden was on me to take the lead. Or so I thought.We’ve all heard the expression, "Lead, follow, or get out of the way." I got to thinking. Does that apply to music? And, if so, are those my only options? I pondered these questions in anticipation of an extremely important rehearsal I was preparing to have with a brilliant pianist,
I’m not great at setting tempi. (Well, actually, I’m great at "setting" them but when I start to play, all bets are off. The tempo I take generally has nothing to do with the tempo I’ve just set.) Anyway, I was determined to do my best. After all, this is a piece I know inside and out. I have an opinion about every bar of music. And sitting at the keyboard was a man who recently played the Goldberg Variations by memory. What could possibly go wrong?
Well, nothing, actually. And that’s because right before I launched into my tempo-setting tutorial, I had a strange thought. Perhaps Chih-Long had an idea about the piece. Perhaps he’d found something I’d missed in all my years of approaching it the same way. And, perhaps his interpretation was equally valid.
Let the Music Do the Talking
I set my lecture aside and decided to let the music do the talking. And what transpired was one of the most eye-opening musical experiences I’ve ever had. But before I get into the specifics, let me digress a moment about the term "collaborative pianist." I’ve only recently realized that this moniker has replaced the term "accompanist." On first hearing, I found it truly cringe-inducing. It reeked of political correctness… a label designed to make accompanists feel better about their lot. What’s next? "Second violinist" becomes "the musician with the violin sitting to my left who plays equally as well, yet generally lower?" (And I say that as a true second violinist.)
After working with Chih-Long in this particular rehearsal, however, I began to understand what "collaborative pianist" actually means. It was quite a revelation to me. One I was hard-pressed to put into words. Then I happened upon a YouTube clip of famed mezzo-soprano Dame Janet Baker discussing Benjamin Britten and his finesse at the keyboard. She articulated the experience beautifully. "He didn’t push you or lead you. He anticipated what you were going to do. That was accompaniment of the highest order."
That summed up perfectly what Chih-Long had done. He anticipated what I was going to do. I could simply release the music. It was no longer about an accelerando here or a decrescendo there. It was just about releasing the music. In essence, getting "out of the way" of the music and letting it find its own path. I stopped worrying about whether he would pick up on this or that musical "moment." He always did. And he found beauty in the piece that I had never noticed before.
The Art of Anticipation
So perhaps "anticipation" actually replaces leading or following. Maybe it is a form of "getting out of the way." Because if you’re leading or following, aren’t you, by definition, apart from the other guy? If you and I take a walk together and I’m leading, aren’t you a few steps behind? Aren’t I pulling you along with me? Aren’t you struggling to keep up with me? Is there not some level of tension as we strive to walk together, while one of us takes the lead and one follows?
Imagine instead we’re walking side by side, but at times I anticipate your pace and you anticipate where I might slow down for a turn. We find ourselves wonderfully in sync and much more attuned to each other’s inner rhythm and breathing. I know when you need a little room and am happy to accommodate. You sense when I need to pick up the pace, and you’re right there with me.
The same is true in a musical stroll. It’s not my walk. It’s not my pace. It’s ours. What we create is honest, collaborative, and, getting back to music, truly respectful of the composer. And maybe, just maybe, as we round the bend you reach out gently and take my hand.Tweet
This article has been archived and is no longer accepting comments.
Violinist.com is made possible by...
Discover the best of Violinist.com in these collections of editor Laurie Niles' exclusive interviews.