Sunday, May 30, 2010

Dogs and Pastries

Switching between classical accompanying to MT and pop song accompanying is a skill that never ceases to amaze me in its complexity. It seems simple enough – both use pianistic chops, both have singers and little black dots on a page – they’re the same, right? Nope, that is like saying a great dane is the same as a great danish: they share similarities on paper, but not so much in actual life. In many ways, MT accompanying is as much a learned skill as classical, except that it isn’t really taught.

Classical collaborative pianists (or CCPs) and the military share a common belief: leave no man behind. Or in our case, leave no partner behind the barline. Our training is about being in sync with cohorts by watching for visual cues and listening for the placement of breaths, consonants and vowels. So when MT vocalists, say, ignore the written notes and rhythms of their melody line, a CCP (initially, at least) has several reactions, most of which need to be stifled. For example:
say the singer is all over the place with the placement of rhythms. Your instincts are screaming to speed up, slow down or jump to the beat where the singer ought to be*. Stifle. Or the eye is following notes that are not happening. The kneejerk reaction is to be uncomfortable, judge the singer as incapable of learning music and to try and 'follow' them using the written lyrics. Stifle. It turns out that ‘together’ has a totally different definition in MT land, so we need to play accordingly.

Backphrasing and frontphrasing doesn’t exist in classical music: its a style where the singer meanders freely around either side of the beat, and it messes with CCPs’ heads. CCPs usually pause for breaths, for consonant clusters to be spat out – we are very polite that way. But the proper way to deal with a lot of MT music is to 'keep a steady beat'. It’s a learned skill that largely involves keeping track of where the singer is within the melody while not changing the beat in any way. Its exactly like military movie scenes where the soldier says "Leave me, I will only slow you down" - if you attempt to stay with them, the song just gets slower and slower** (or faster and faster). If you don't soldier on, it can make for a really slow version of “The Impossible Dream”.

Another working pianist's blog commented on her experience (italics are mine):
Do I hear the drums in my head when I play? Good question. I hear the vocal. This is great for accompanying opera and art song repertoire, which is where my academic training lies. I was taught to listen for singer's initial consonants, in order to fall right on the beginning of the vowel; for the spin of a singer's voice on a held note, in order to shape the underlying instrumental phrase accordingly. A-ha! finally I understand why I have sometimes been able to groove on pop material with singers who generate their own time, but have completely shat myself playing the exact same material with singers who are less rhythmically-solid. Groove-based stuff just involves a different type of collaboration between pianist and singer: In classical rep, it's a 50-50 kind of deal - the singer and pianist take turns being in charge of the rhythm and phrasing. In groovin' music, the vocal line can have some ebb and flow, but the underlying pulse stays totally solid. I can't ignore the singer, but I can't be tethered to their every lyric, either. I must be strong, strong like ox, strong like drums. I must hear drums.

Essentially, for people trained as I was, actively viewing the placement of vowels, breaths and consonants as ‘informative-but-not-necessarily-pivotal-to-where-the-beat-lies’ takes some effort. As for listening to a singer's voice for shaping the phrase underneath - a MT singer sounds a lot different than a classical singer (duh) and they can fake you out in a number of ways.
Then there's the 'interpretation' side of MT playing, in which you pick and choose what to play and/or leave out of the accompaniment (like the singer's part - seriously, I wish they'd stop writing the vocal line in there). A good portion of the rep is an orchestral reduction which strongly resembles a conductor's score (i.e. everything, they put in everything). The skill of 'sightreading' this music is really the ability to immediately find the basic harmonic and rhythmic feel of the song - not necessarily reading the notes on the page. Sight-analyzing is probably a more appropriate name. Great stuff.

*Well, jump to where they should be according to the written music. Which they aren’t following anyway.
**This also happens to unaware church pianists, accompanying a congregation and attempting to 'follow' them. The pitfall in listening to the congregation is the hymns inevitably become dirge.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing your MT experience. It made me laugh, because it was exactly like how I experienced with my first MT accompanying last month. It was a middle/high school MT; the students learned their songs from the CD (=they did not care how the songs were actually written); and the accompaniment was written for 2-pianos. My husband and I do piano duo/duet (both classically-trained to begin with), so we agreed to do it as a team. Once the rehearsal started, we constantly argued because each of us thought "I am with her (the singer)" but we could not be together. Finally we decided that we, the 2-pianos stayed together no matter how the singers did, and it worked. And we were thanked for keeping the music going as it was supposed to be.

We did enjoyed the music of this different style, but it was really a new learning experience. Would I do it again, if there is another chance? Sure. Now I think I know how to handle it. And it is actually fun!

Billie Whittaker said...

Thanks for the comment!