Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Careers for Pianists, Part III: Oh, the Places You Can Go!

A previous blog named professional performing to be the 'least likely career path' - a hard fact facing the majority of classically trained pianists. Similar to the soprano and guitarist glut, the ratio of excellent pianists to performance opportunities is unfortunately lopsided. So those hell-bent on performing have to to think outside the box to get onstage. Here are several classical musicians who have come up with unique approaches to carving out their own opportunities.

Shaking up the Dead Composers (and a Few Live Ones)
Sarah Rothenberg, artistic director of Da Camera, has a series of chamber music and solo piano programs on fascinating subjects like the romantic spirit shared by Baudelaire and Chopin or the history and culture of St Petersburg. The Post-Classical Ensemble performs both new and old music, incorporating folk song, dance, film or commentary into their performances. Their recent festival, 'Interpreting Liszt' included an illustrated piano concert featuring Liszt piano solos, Petrarch and Dante poetry and art by Raphael and Michelangelo. The Ensemble for the Romantic Century, formed by pianist Eve Wolf, shows incredible creativity in its approach to giving chamber music concerts. Their website says it all, so I suggest perusing their archive of past programs.

Pour into a Mixer, Hit Blend
A lot of classical musicians have found a niche as contemporary music chamber artists. Excellent chamber groups like
eighth blackbird, NOW Ensemble, Opus 21, Ahn Trio and Alarm Will Sound are of a new breed, skipping formalities, embracing theatricality and spontaneity. They avoid anything elitist or formal, intent on keeping an audience comfortable and entertained. Further oddities - chamber music tossed into bars, clubs and galleries by groups like the Chiara String Quartet, who perform modern and classical 'chamber music in any chamber'. One of their present projects: performing "Beethoven in Bars" in clubs across the country, featuring Beethoven quartets as well as new works. The Firebird ensemble performs regularly at a BBQ joint, and show a remarkable flexibility in their performance repertoire, including new composers, Schoenberg, jazz, Metallica and Jimi Hendrix. The Bang on a Can All-Stars embrace pop and jazz as well as modern classical - they have collaborated with artists like Steve Reich, Philip Glass and Sonic Youth. All of these groups regularly commission and premiere compositions, undertake residencies at Universities and perform programs of astounding eclecticism.

Unconventional, yet extraordinary
Taking the multiculturalism angle is the
Silk Road Ensemble, presenting multimedia projects influenced by cultures from around the globe, and also including contemporary composers. They undertake residencies at Museums and Universities, hold workshops for students and teachers and hold cultural exchanges with musicians in areas like Baki, Azerbaijan. The eclectic group Time for Three - a self-described "classically trained garage band", is a violin-violin-bass trio that fuses bluegrass, classical, jazz and rock. And finally, check out classically trained players who have formed an electric cello band, Cello Chix, playing classic rock repertoire in bars (listen to them play Stevie Wonder on their website). Then there are the musicians who have jumped humanities' fence and joined the scientist's playground. They've combined classical or jazz repertoire with the sciences, taking their performance to the classroom, museum and concert hall.

Interdisciplinary, yet Extramusical
Biosphere 2 Institute fuses science with art and music with an Artist-In-Residence program. Present artist-pianist Simone Michado collaborates with ecologist Scott Saleska to present "
Survival of the Sphere", a program about the Amazon rain forest that uses narrative, photography and Brazilian music. Further use of science as a springboard to perform: complement a solar energy event with music performed on solar-powered electric instruments. Performing at both Biosphere 2's Earth Day Festival and the U.S. Department of Energy's Solar Decathlon, musicians Dr. Paula Fan on keyboards, Garrick Woods on cello and Michael Fan on violin (and composer) presented a "A Bright New World or Dr. Solera and the Fossil Fools", an educational musical 'solar fable' about the importance of solar energy. They also enlisted a jazz keyboardist to play thematically relevant tunes (Blue Skies, Here's that Rainy Day, etc) in between sets. Another successful venture is the ingenious alliance of scientist Harold Varmus and a jazz quintet, creating "Genes and Jazz" - a presentation relating the evolutions of the musical art form to genetic mutations, enhanced with computer imagery by Drew Barry. And finally, an interesting (but piano-free) music and science joint effort, Perpetual Motion: Revolutions in 17th Century. The performance combines period music sung by Galileo's Daughters and film with narratives on scientific and musical discoveries made in the 17th century.

Unprepared for Prepared Piano (or Shall we Juggle, as well?)
Performing avant-garde contemporary music, giving lecture recitals, dressing up music with eyecandy visuals or dragging a quartet into a bar may strike you as gimmicky. And you're probably right. But practically speaking - hey, they're employed. They are utilizing their years of training, engaging and retaining audiences, and performing repertoire that highlights their strengths. They've carved out their opportunities with talent, willpower, creativity and, of course, luck. So what do you think is your niche?

Next up: Careers for Pianists, Part IV: Living the Dream and Supporting it

Bonus info: more classically trained musicians,
thinking in the present: Great Noise Ensemble, Kronos Quartet, VERGE Ensemble, ECCO, Matt Haimovitz, Maya Beiser and Christopher O'Riley, newEAR contemporary chamber ensemble, Ljova, Prism Quartet, Ethel

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Dear 1999 . . .

This is my response to a group blogging event, written on the topic "If you could go back to 1999 and give yourself one piece of advice, what would it be?"

Dear 1999 self,

Right now you are 2.5 years into your undergrad collaborative piano program, and the skills you are gaining will mainly be useful for employment in academic circles. 'Great', you say, 'I want to stay in academia'. True for now, but in a few years you will realize that you have no interest in teaching, which in turn makes a professor position undesired, and a doctorate unnecessary. You will also realize that living in Nowhere, USA is the only way for you to occupy a full-time (yet untenured) Staff Accompanist position. Short answer to the above: no.

Now that I've wiped out your present career plans, here's the good news: opera, vocal and instrumental repertoire are only one aspect of an enormous range of possibilities in collaborative piano. Your future work ideal will be variety: variety in workplaces, in collaborative partners and in repertoire - so do yourself a favor and switch back to piano performance (or to the B of Arts track, if necessary). Continue to develop your solo classical chops, and also continue to work with classical singers and instrumentalists, but spend the rest of your time looking into these areas:

  • Go to the dance department: they have excellent pianists you can observe (study with them if you can) in the area of providing accompaniment for ballet and modern dance classes
  • Go to the musical theatre department: offer to be a substitute pianist for rehearsals, offer to turn pages for the audition pianists, learn the standard repertoire, listen to CDs of shows - get involved
  • Look into Community theater: offer to be a substitute pianist for rehearsals, for shows, etc - learn by doing
  • Sit in on vocal coachings of all kinds, write down their tricks, their warmups, try them out yourself
  • Learn Finale (or equivalent programs of the time) and transcribe things - look into arranging if possible
  • Study improvisation and/or jazz - get to where reading a chart is a simple exercise
  • Take voice lessons - singers will make a lot more sense when you do
  • Practice jazz scales in addition to your other warm-ups - it will set you up for the future in several ways (learning contemporary music, studying jazz in-depth, etc)
  • Finagle as much private study as possible with people who do things you wish you could do (look inside and outside the university)
  • Look for opportunities to perform, anywhere and everywhere

Doing any of this will expand the venues you (we) can work in the future, and will be more satisfying for you in the short run as well. Last tidbit - for gradschools, focus on teachers and performance opportunities within the school over the actual names of schools.