Tips for playing in a piano trio?

July 19, 2018, 10:44 AM · Hi All!

I was just asked by a pianist in my uni to play Mendelssohn's first piano trio in d minor with her; however, I never played in a trio at that level. My only previous piano trio experience was playing background music from an album of simplified pieces in the first position. Although I can pretty much play the violin part without much problem, I would still like to be cautious and ask the members of this forum for advices. Any tips or thoughts are much appriciated!

Replies (18)

Edited: July 19, 2018, 11:34 AM · This is very hard music. My suggestion is to try Mozart first.

The Mendelssohn d minor trio is a showcase for the pianist, maybe that's why your colleague is keen to play it. You will want to have an absolute cannon for a violin. :)

If you do work on it, I suggest you all agree to learn a very small amount of the first movement, say the first 125 measures. (Yes, that means stopping right before the gorgeous theme appears in the cello. Time-wise it's about 20% of the first movement.) But then you should get together and rehearse just that much because you will learn what kind of work lies ahead for you as players and as an ensemble.

Also do not wait until a week before the performance to hire professional coaching.

There is a nice youtube by the Beaux Arts Trio where you can hear the music while you watch the score.

July 19, 2018, 1:39 PM · Currently beyond your reach. At that level, explore Baroque trio sonata. They will bring more joy than all the sorows of Mendelssohn.
July 19, 2018, 2:39 PM · If you guys would like to try a few short straightforward "salon" pieces in a romantic style in order to get to know each other and come up to speed as a group, my kids have had a great time with the nine "miniatures" for piano trio by Frank Bridge, composed for sisters who were his students, https://imslp.org/wiki/Miniatures,_H.87-89_(Bridge,_Frank). They're fun and pretty decent music, not kids' pieces. They liked sets 2 and 3 the best.
July 19, 2018, 3:23 PM · Make sure you can play your part with a metronome.

I sometimes end up trying to play with a recording, if I'm having difficulty figuring out how my part fits in with other players. And it can be easier in some cases to read from a score rather than just your single part.

For chamber music, your part should feel comfortable enough that you can really focus on what the other players are doing.

But really, if I were working on things with other players for the first time, I agree with the suggestion of a Mozart trio.

Edited: July 19, 2018, 4:53 PM · It is such beautiful music. If you have not listened to it, do so to get some idea of the importance of the dynamic changes and of the emotional range of the movements. The string parts are really not hard so it should be lots of fun if the pianist can maintain tempos. If you can play the notes (in time) it should not be anything to fear. If this is just for the enjoyment of the players - then it should be no problem.

I think it's been about 45 years since I first played this with the piano trio I had back then. We used to play background music for the graduation reception dinner at the local community college every year and after playing some "garbaggge music" (we called it - the kind of stuff Yang referred to) once the background conversations got so loud we knew no one was listening to us, we would blast through the entire 1st Mendelssohn trio loud enough to hear ourselves. (Our pianist was Dean of students at that College.)

After about 20 years of that "annual ritual" we finally gave some recitals, one of which included the 1st Mendelssohn trio, the next included the 2nd Mendelssohn trio (a really profound work). We had to really work on those recitals to get over the habit of ignoring the dynamics.

My piano trio playing has gone through 3 evolutions (involving three different pianists) the first lasted 25 years, the 2nd, about 15 years and the 3rd only about 5 years. I played violin in the first and cello in the latter two. I really love playing piano trios - I have been so fortunate to have marvelous pianist partners.

Yeah - Stan -- the Bridge "Minatures" are delightful - we would sometimes rip through all 9 of them at the end of a session (in my last piano trio (that unfortunately ended almost a year ago, when the violinist lost what little was left of his sight).

July 20, 2018, 9:23 AM · If you can play the music, I think one of the biggest issues as a violinist in a piano is being heard. Especially on big piano works like Brahms.

A few years ago, professional piano trio came to the college I was then teaching at. The violinist had a lesser-known Galiagno, which had a pleasant sound dark, but she got totally drowned out most of the time.

July 20, 2018, 9:44 AM · I thought that was more a teenage thing with my kids Scott :-), I keep telling my son that fortississimo in a Rachmaninoff trio they're working on is only as loud as sounds good as a group, not the volume the piano is capable of :-).
July 20, 2018, 9:45 AM · Pianists need to keep the lid down!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

My last pianist not only kept the lid down but also had a heavy quilt over the top.

Edited: July 20, 2018, 10:01 AM · Andy, Brahms would not approve :-). Legend has it he would play as loudly as he liked regardless of the strings! https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cello_Sonata_No._1_(Brahms)#Background
July 20, 2018, 4:32 PM · The important question is: Play or perform? If the invitation is just to play that would be great for your development. Performance is a whole different subject and if you aren't sure then don't. Simply clarify exactly what the invitation is all about.
Edited: July 20, 2018, 8:15 PM · If you watch live performances of professional piano chamber groups, it's not so much about the pianist keeping it down overall (and they don't close the lid). It's about blending. The deep bass of the piano can be strong but not pounding, and the alto and tenor voices carefully integrated. This requires a very high level of pianistic technique.

The other half of the equation is whether the string players know how to generate sound.

If you have ever had the experience where your teacher takes your violin and plays a few bars of your piece, and their sound is just so much richer and more projecting then yours, even though they do not really seem to be trying, then you know what I mean. I suspect most of us intermediate players have this humbling experience relatively frequently. The gulf is even wider when you have a professional player who is playing a top-quality instrument.

For this reason I agree with Andrew that groups made up of intermediate amateurs should keep the piano lid closed, especially in trios where the piano is playing, at minimum, the same number of voices as the rest of the ensemble.

July 20, 2018, 11:15 PM · The piano lid discussion is an interesting one. I mostly agree wth Paul. I would generally advocate half-stick rather than closed, unless your string players have neither adequate instruments nor proper tone production technique. And fully open if you're performing, if possible.

When you get up to the size of a piano quintet (string quartet + piano), lid fully open is pretty much a necessity, I think.

I generally prefer, when I perform solo, for the pianist to have the lid fully open.

July 21, 2018, 8:06 AM · It's unfortunate to close the lid because you lose the crispness of the treble register of the piano. But, if you cannot hear the string players, that's just deal-breaking. I realize what follows may seem unconventional, but this is one advantage of a digital piano -- you just turn down the volume.
Edited: July 21, 2018, 8:30 AM · It's all about balance and no one on stage is in a position to judge that (even Brahms)!!!
Edited: July 24, 2018, 4:53 PM · That piece is special for me because I got to perform it at 16 or so with a really fine young pianist.

The Mendelssohn trios are basically piano concertos. The piano part is virtuosic but the violin and cello parts are well within the reach of good amateurs.

The scherzo is probably the hardest part for the violin.

For the violin I'd concentrate on a good sustained sound and long phrases. Everybody should observe dynamics carefully -- vary the intensity of sound and play gently when you can. Keep tempos steady especially if you're new to piano trios, you can develop phrasing down the line. And learn how to communicate with the other members of the trio.

The pianist really runs the show with these. And intonation for piano trios is straightforward -- just anchor to the piano because the piano can't anchor to you. For the violin and cello, the parts sound harder than they are -- the notes lie very well for both instruments.

Edited: July 24, 2018, 4:46 PM · For piano trios in general -

String rehearsals are a vital part of the mix, especially for violinists and cellists that haven't played together. I know we tend to overlook them because time always seems to be short, but I'd make time regardless.

1) Make sure your intonation is on the same page. As simple as it seems, your half steps and whole steps need to match 100%. Practice octave/unison passages slowly and carefully, fixing every single discrepancy. No mercy! There's nothing more tiring than listening to a chamber group that's slightly out of tune all night long. Many string players play leading tones at different heights, which can be ok for solo playing but not for chamber music. Match them, or the tonality of the piece will begin to pull apart.

2) Match vibrato as much as you can.

3) Match bow usage. When playing the same melody, either together or separately, make sure that you handle the bow in the same manner. Not only in regards to bowings, of course, but also in bow distribution. Make sure you're handling separately bowed notes in an agreed upon manner. I just heard a student group play a trio movement, and the cellist played separate eights on at the tip. the violinist played them off in the middle, and neither seemed to match the articulation the pianist was employing. It was cute; I had to smile.

With the exception of maybe the scherzo (played up to tempo) the violin part of the d minor trio is not that hard. I think it's a great piece to begin to explore the innermost workings or piano trios/ chamber music in general.

Since you don't have extensive chamber playing experience if I were you I'd would throw myself into the first movement initially and not overwhelm myself or the group by trying to learn all four simultaneously.


July 24, 2018, 5:04 PM · Agree a heavy piano will overwhelm the strings with music like this. Mendelssohn helps by writing a piano part that isn't overly heavy and lets the violin and cello have their turn.

Rehearsing with lid down is a nice idea, because the pianist really needs to hear the strings to pass phrases back and forth.

But it should also be pointed out that a big part of the challenge of virtuosic 19th century music is exactly this -- the pianist needs to play the passagework clearly and lightly at the same time, and create a smooth glassy tone with almost no pedal.

When we go to recitals at Curtis I'm invariably thrilled by the pianists' ability to play passagework without sounding labored.

If you want to see a supreme example of this, look up Yuja Wang's "Hammerklavier" on Youtube -- she plays it so fast, it seems to dance and she doesn't even break a sweat. Now project that kind of playing to this Mendelssohn Trio and you have what the pianist is trying to accomplish.

July 24, 2018, 9:09 PM · You have to be aware of the nature of the "pianofortes" that existed when this music was composed!!!!!!!!!

We can't all get to play with Yuja Wang or with a great piano.


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