How to Play? It's all about ME!

Last time we met, I spent some time talking about playing in ensembles, both large and small. To recap, in ensemble playing, it’s always about blend, considering how one should sound in the group. The blend and the desired sound in chamber music, and especially string quartets, is a bit different than the blend in orchestral playing. But that’s a blog for another day, specifically, last week! Go back and check it out for all my thoughts on ensemble playing. Today though, let’s talk about being a soloist!

Solo playing isn’t just relegated to the tired old tradition of concerto performance; one can be a “soloist” and play recitals. These are two different types of playing that we’ll discuss at length, breaking in to two categories: soloing with orchestra and soloing in the recital hall (which itself will be broken in to unaccompanied recitals and those with piano).

Concerto playing: scratch your sound out!

The most famous type of classical musician is the concerto soloist. Let’s be honest with each other here: how many of you, dear readers, have heard of Nicholas Kitchen? No? Anyone? And how many of you have heard of Itzhak Perlman? Yeah, I thought so. What about Jules Eskin? Maybe? How about Yo Yo Ma? Uh huh, right, the guy from everything. Concerto soloists enjoy untold fame because we see them on the stage with big orchestras and we hear them play on Letterman. Of course there are many still young, fresh, and unheard of soloists as well as those who make their career doing many different things (from concertos, to piano trios, to teaching, to orchestral playing). No matter, the classical musicians every layman knows are concerto soloists.

But what are these types of soloists doing up there on stage? What does it take to play with an orchestra? I’ll be frank, I don’t like playing concertos. I often find them boring to learn (my biggest reason), overplayed (reason number two), and the opportunities to play them often just doesn’t exist (lower down the totem pole, but still a justification for my slight dislike of the genre). So putting aside my obvious bias, let’s talk about what it’s like to play a concerto with an orchestra. How to play?

I can’t heeeear you!

An obvious and unavoidable problem in concerto playing - especially playing the cello - lies in projection of sound. Remember that orchestral forte and orchestral piano we talked about in the last blog? No matter how tempered an orchestra’s dynamics, the single soloist will almost ALWAYS need to play significantly louder to be heard over the dozens of players that make up the orchestra. The concerto piano dynamic refers to one thing: PLAY LOUDER. Let’s take a look at one concerto that begins piano in both the orchestra and cello, the Concerto in A minor by Robert Schumann.

As you watch the opening of this piece, notice (the very young) Yo Yo Ma’s bow. It is practically on TOP of the bridge! Again, the dynamic is marked piano, SOFT, and only the string section is playing (and not much) when the cello enters! It’s so difficult for the soloist to project at any dynamic that they must constantly be playing forte, strong, just to be heard! Take a look (the playing begins at 00:53):

Mr. Schumann’s writing doesn’t bring the cello to a full dynamic until about 01:30 in the clip, but Mr. Ma doesn’t have the luxury of playing what is ACTUALLY on the page! He must play these dynamics relatively: if they dynamic piano is actually played forte, imagine what the forte dynamic is played at! LOOOUD!!

If you have the wonderful opportunity to hear a string player play a concerto with an orchestra, go! But do yourself a favor: don’t try to get that prime seat in the first row (or even the first twenty rows). If you’re that close to the soloist, you’ll have to enjoy the scratching of the bow against the string as the soloist works hard to pump up the volume to be heard over the massive orchestra behind him/her.

Recital soloists: I do what I want!

It’s my opinion that recital soloists and chamber musicians are the luckiest of the classical performers, and not only because I make my living doing those two things. These folks are privileged to both choose their repertory and where they play. They travel all over the world playing music that they love anywhere and anytime they can. There's no logistical work of scheduling rehearsals with orchestra nor much haggling back and forth about which pieces to play. They do what they want, as their own boss, and do it a lot! How awesome is that?! Let’s talk about playing recitals, breaking it up in to two categories: unaccompanied recitals and recitals with piano (a different kind of solo).

Unaccompanied Recitals: I can play softly! I can play loudly! I CAN DO IT ALL!

Remember where Yo Yo’s bow contact point was at the beginning of the Schumann Concerto? Practically on the bridge, with a need for a huge sound! Let’s compare apples to apples to oranges here with a (more recent) video of Yo Yo Ma in Harvard’s Sanders Theatre playing the Prelude from the Suite in G Major by Bach (check out that bow!):

So THIS time, the bow is practically on the fingerboard! Playing alone means you don’t have to force, you don’t have to use all the tricks in your bag just to play loudly all the time. It’s a wonderful feeling if one of your desires is to express a huge range of dynamic emotion!

That’s the thing about solo recitals that you just don’t get from a concerto performance. (or is it just me?) Dynamic contrast can be so powerful! Playing on the fingerboard at a barely audible volume can be equally - and possibly more - striking and awe inspiring as the amazing, loud conclusions to great concertos by Beethoven, Brahms, Dvorak, and others.

Soloing With Piano: A collaborative, soloistic experience

Certainly every classical musician has played a recital at some point in their educational lives. Many, if not most, educational recitals include works for instrument and piano. Too often I’ve heard students talk about their “accompanist” when rehearsing, discussing, or playing sonatas. There’s some truth to this title. A pianist is - at times - accompanying the solo instrument, but more often, sonatas are a collaboration between the pianist and the other instrumentalist. So, in a sense, playing sonatas is a solo experience for both parties, much like playing chamber music, with a strong collaborative element. That said, might I step atop my soapbox and say that sonatas are NOT concertos? They are chamber music works for two instruments. I strongly disagree with the school of performance that has the pianist reading from the score and the other instrumentalist performing from memory, far in front of the pianist, as though s/he is the show one really has come to see. It’s just wrong. The two instrumentalists are equals (with solo responsibilities in BOTH parts). /soapbox

Playing with piano is difficult for any number of reasons, the least of which is it’s massive range. Great string players, for one, play with a relative, pure intonation. The piano, on the other hand, is in equal temperament. That sucks. The piano is ALWAYS right when it comes to pitch (one of the many reasons piano trio playing is easier than string quartet playing). A string player must adjust their intonation to match the equal temperament of the piano so as not to sound horribly out of tune. 

Pianos also lack the ability to sustain. While we are blessed with the sustaining pedal, decay of the pitch happens immediately after the hammer strikes the note. A string player is wholly responsible for sustaining melodies, harmonies, and other notes because the pianist is unable to do help. As a cellist, I know all too well the issues of range in the piano. Many cello sonatas, especially those by classical and early romantic composers, place the cello squarely in the middle of the modern piano register, hands close together, right in the center of the keyboard. Because the register of the two instruments is so similar, only textural difference between the two can distinguish pitches - unless we resort to concerto techniques of playing as loud as we can...ew! - sustaining and bending of pitch (vibrato) being two of the options. Another way to deal with this issue is to treat a solo recital with piano as a collaborative effort (see soapbox above) and not as a soloist. Don’t sit/stand in the crook of the piano! Your sound will be swallowed.

Take a look here at Yo Yo, again this time with Emanuel Ax, playing a beautiful sonata by Beethoven:

Notice, the tone quality and execution are somewhere between what we heard in Ma’s concerto and his solo Bach. The sound is focused (as usual) but he’s able to weave that sound in and out of the piano part. At times he can be almost as soft as he would be were he playing alone while other times he must push (especially because he’s playing near the crook with the piano on full stick), pumping up the volume to be heard over the rumbling piano. Most important (returning to my soapbox) is the collaboration between these two soloists, creating a beautiful piece of chamber music!

All-in-all, solo playing is just as varied as ensemble playing. Sound is produced in a different way and the quality of the sound (and the volume, too!) depends on many factors. Performers should try out all types of playing - from chamber music, to unaccompanied works, to orchestras - and really take note of the different ways you must play in each situation!