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Mendy Smith

Playing with a Pianist

January 3, 2008 at 6:24 AM

My first practice session with my pianist brought on many frustrations. Mostly this was due to two significant factors: it was the first time we ever played together, so there was a "getting to know you" phase to go through, the other was the different ways in which a piano is tuned to a stringed instrument.

With the advice of my teacher, I tuned my open strings to the piano. Before, there were a few spots with a sustained note on the lower strings that made both of us cringe (funny how something so little can throw you off so much!), but with the change of tuning, any "out of tuneness" with each other was less noticeable.

I did the "cerebral" thing and researched how much of a difference there was in the different tuning of a piano vs. my chosen instrument. Add to that my own intonation inaccuracies and the differences are even greater. I could get extremely cerebral and explain the root-mean-square method of calculating probable tolerances (and what those tolerances are), but that would lead to an extremely long discussion. ;-) Without going into advanced statistical methods, suffice it to say that removing most of the tuning differences by tuning my open strings to the piano made my D on the C string sound so much better with the piano, which in turn made for a happier practice session. (Sometimes I just LOVE being an engineer!)

My confidence level rose several notches tonight on other levels as well. We spent most of our hour tonight working a few tempo changes. The most significant "turning on the light-bulb" moment was how pianist do not need to take any time do a bow re-take; they can just plug right along happy as can be without needing any time to re-adjust in any way, shape or form.

We worked on the timing of a few of those spots. What a difference that made once we started penciling in and working those slight pauses! I didn't feel so rushed after we added those pauses so I could either reshape my hand or reposition my bow and be ready for what came next both mentally and physically. We also worked on how to queue to each other in certain areas. It was really exciting when we were able to "play off of each other" so to speak. It was like having a conversation with each other; but instead of words we used musical notes. How cool is that!

We have 2 more 1-hour practice sessions scheduled, including on the Saturday before the competition to work any remaining tidbits out. I am so excited! My nervousness playing with her dropped several notches tonight and it showed. Our final run-through got a WOW from her. As she says "we are going to blow their socks of with this piece!" I hope we do!

I have 3 spots that need some more technical work and confidence building so I don't trip-up under pressure: the 32nd note runs (2 out of 4), one 6-note run where my 4th finger just refuses to cooperate with my other fingers, and the final run of double-stops (in-tuneness is a 50-50% chance of happening at a +/- 10 cent tolerance at best). I need to start the piece a little more gracefully (I'm still attacking the first note too harshly and the following C needs a good dose of vibrato), and I have some questions on emphasizing notes on the 3rd page.

It has been many many years (OK, close to 30) since I've attempted to do anything like this (solo, pianist, competition/audition, etc..) It's a little nerve-wracking, even though my career does not depend on how this competition turns out. I want to do justice to all the time my teacher and I have spent on this piece and not end up feeling like a fool in front of my "musical peers" as they are. I just need to relax, go with the flow, and have fun.

I think I have a fighting chance of doing well at the competition. Such a beautiful piece! I just have to convey that beauty to the judges when the time comes....

Stay tuned for a recording of this piece with a piano accompaniment coming soon to a web-site near you!

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