Monday, September 28, 2009

Piano to the Fifth Power

I wasn’t sure what to think when my wife handed me music for two pieces a couple of months ago and announced that she had signed me up with my two sons to be part of a piano quintet that would compete at the end of September. I sing and I play several instruments with varying degrees of expertise. But I think I was 17 the last time I actually competed.

My sons were nonplussed, but I began practicing. Eventually, the son that is still taking lessons was required by his teacher to begin practicing. His older brother finally started practicing under duress. The younger boy soon learned to really enjoy playing his part of John Philip Sousa’s Semper Fidelis. He wasn’t as thrilled about Edvard Grieg’s Morning Mood, but I convinced him that it was part of his Norwegian heritage.

Practicing for a piano team is different than practicing for a solo or a duet. You have to imagine what the other parts sound like. There are precious few venues where you can actually practice with five pianos. We have an upright piano and a good keyboard that has weighted keys, so two of us were able to practice together. We had all five parts together for the first time about two weeks ago and we only had four combined practices. (It is difficult to manage people’s schedules too.)

This particular competition was held at Baldassin Pianos in Salt Lake City. The store is filled with magnificent pianos, many of them world class. Each has been expertly voiced by Rick Baldassin. It is a pleasure for a pianist to play a high quality instrument. (Some of the pianos in the store cost more than all of my vehicles put together.) Baldassin Pianos has a small concert hall that is designed for great sound.

The other members of our team were a mother and son that live near us. I was very pleased with our team’s performances. Our team was among those that won highest honors for outstanding performance. It ended up being a lot of fun. Some of the teams had less experienced players. I really enjoyed one team’s performance of In the Hall of the Mountain King.

A special pleasure was hearing five of the piano instructors play two numbers. I was enthralled by their rendition of Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s Dance of The Tumblers. The complexity of this piece and its active upbeat theme make it a thrill to hear.

When the instructors played Franz Schubert’s Serenade, my Mom’s heart just melted. This piece has long been one of her favorite pieces of classical music. She tells me that it is the only piece of music to which she ever prevailed on my Dad to dance with her. That occurred during a trip to Germany many years ago. As the instructors performed, Mom said she felt as if Dad were sitting next to her.

Attending the competition required a big commitment. Not only did it require a lot of practice and coordination, but it consumed most of a Saturday. But I’m very grateful to my wife for insisting that we compete. Perhaps this will be a memorable experience for my sons.


Bradley Ross said...

Wow! It would be cool to hear those arrangements for five pianos! Was each part simpler because there where so many hands? I think the most I've seen before was two pianos, eight hands.

Scott Hinrichs said...

Various of my children (and me) have done duets on one piano, and quartets on two pianos a number of times. Five pianos is different.

When two players are on one piano, there is a constant choreography of the interplay between the upper player's left hand and the lower player's right hand.

When each player in a piano team is on his/her own piano, each player has command of the full keyboard. My parts on the two pieces we played spanned most of the keyboard rather than being contained to a 2½-octave range, which is the common range for a duet. But I didn't have to worry about tangling hands with another player.

Still, my part on each piece was less difficult than a solo of the same pieces would have been.

But playing on the team was more challenging than, say, playing in a high school band, because we had no conductor to keep us together. We had to carefully listen to and watch each other. We worked out some visual cues and put different people in charge of signaling timing on different parts of the music.

So, while each individual part on a piano team is easier than a solo, other complexities are involved that require additional skills that are not employed by a soloist.