Vivian Hornik Weilerstein: On Listening, Leading, and Learning How to Be More in Sync With Your Music-Making Partners.

In preparing for this week’s post, I conducted a very scientific poll to see if I could find out where the piano ranked in popularity relative to all other instruments (i.e. I asked Google, Siri, and Alexa “what is the most popular musical instrument?”).

For what it’s worth, Google said that it was the piano, Siri said it was guitar, and Alexa insisted (repeatedly) that “the biggest instrument in the world is the Boardwalk Hall Auditorium Organ.”

Whatever the results of my stupendously rigorous data collection process, it’s probably reasonable to assume that the piano is among the more popular instruments in the world. After all, you’d be hard pressed to find a musician who hasn’t themselves played the piano at some point, or doesn’t play with a pianist on at least an occasional basis.

And whether it’s you who is behind the keyboard, or someone else, I imagine you’ve had that curious experience of feeling a sort of musical “chemistry” with your collaborators. Where with some folks, everything just clicks. While with others, things feel a little more…effortful.

Have you ever wondered why that might be? And what you could do – either as the pianist in an ensemble or as the singers/instrumentalists in the ensemble – to feel more engaged and connected and in sync with your music-making partners? And experience more joy and flow when playing with other musicians, whether that natural chemistry is there or not?

Meet Vivian Hornik Weilerstein

Vivian Hornik Weilerstein has enjoyed an active and varied performance career, performing as soloist, collaborator, and chamber musician at venues and music festivals around the world. Vivian is also a sought-after coach and educator, and currently serves as director of the professional piano trio program at the New England Conservatory, where she is also on the piano, collaborative piano, and chamber music faculties.

In this episode we’ll explore…

  • 1:45 – How playing solo piano itself is kind of like playing chamber music (and can help cultivate better listening skills).
  • 5:12 – Vivian alludes to “emotional rhythm,” and I say “wha…??”, and she explains what that means.
  • 8:13 – There’s a saying in neuroscience that “neurons that fire together wire together.” I bring that up, because Vivian says something about what it takes to play together in an ensemble that totally reminded me of this.
  • 14:23 – Vivian suggests that pianists can gain a lot from interpreting articulations as bowings (and also explains what that means).
  • 21:01 – Vivian explains why she is not a fan of the term “score study.” She also explains why she would rather students not listen to so many recordings of the piece they’re working on, and what she would rather they listened to instead.
  • 27:56 – Why Vivian thinks we have become too preoccupied with “lined-up ensemble” at the expense of “emotional ensemble.”
  • 31:24 – A few tips on practicing sight-reading…
  • 39:39 – Why members of a chamber music group should step out of the group on occasion and listen to how the group sounds from the audience’s perspective.
  • 41:02 – How does one develop a keener sense of anticipation? Vivian says that it’s related to singing – but perhaps not in the way you might think!

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Vivian
I think, in so many ways, playing with people, whether you’re playing with a singer, whether you are playing a piano trio, whether you’re playing a sonata with a string player, or whether you’re playing a solo piece, much of everything is the same. You want to be committed to the score, you want to be emotionally connected to the music, you want to phrase, you want to listen. So listening, is, of course, one of the most important things that anybody thinks of when it comes to any kind of chamber music or collaboration. And if you are used to listening to yourself as a solo pianist, you’re listening to voicing you’re listening to inner voices, how do you want to balance the baseline with the top, what’s going on in the inner rhythm that is supporting or not supporting the main line, etc, etc. And so all of this just becomes transferred into a little bit more outside of yourself, on extending into what ever you’re listening to, whether it be a singer or a string, player, etc. And it becomes incredibly invigorating and exciting and stimulating, because then you also enter into the whole world of the back and forth, the rapport that you’re having with this other person or people, the give and take, the exchange, the sharing, and what you can do to each other, to help those things go along. How can you help your string player to phrase better? How can they help you? So it starts with the same basic things, but just gets so expanded in such an exciting way. I guess that would be a quick answer.

Noa 
I never really thought about that, to be honest. But it’s really cool when you describe it that way. Because it almost makes me think that in a lot of ways, because pianists are already playing multiple voices, multiple parts, that’s already kind of baked into their awareness, maybe from a much earlier point in their development.

Vivian
Well, it’s so interesting, because ideally, yes, it should be baked into it, to quote you into the pianist awareness. And very often it is, but string players, I’ll focus on string players grow up in youth orchestras. They grow up knowing how to cue they grow up sensing other people playing with them, and many pianists, not all, but many pianists grow up isolated. And so when they first play with other people, it’s a huge adjustment. And it’s a different kind of listening because they have to get outside of themselves to listen. So in some ways, I think that in the beginning stages, it’s more natural for string players to actually know how to play chamber music. The whole idea of cueing is brand new to many pianists. So I think it really goes both ways. But ideally, yes, it should be that we as pianists are used to hearing so many things at once. And also, in most piano and string chamber music, this is a little bit of a generalization, well, it’s a real generalization, but it still has truth to it, pianist is often the rhythm section, in addition to a million other things, but supplying the rhythm and being sensitive to how you are leading rhythm with others, and how you are giving emotional rhythm to your partners is a huge topic and one that, again, is very exciting and fun to be creative with.

Noa 
Can you say more about emotional rhythm and what that looks like what that means?

Vivian
So let’s say, well, okay, let’s talk about the Spring Sonata, the violin, Beethoven Springs Sonata. So in the opening, when the violin has one of the most beautiful melodies in the world, the piano has eighth notes. And what is the feeling of the flow of those eighth notes? How are the eighth notes supporting the melody? And how does the melody reflect the inner rhythm of the eighth notes, but also the emotional part of it, I mean, it’s a flow. There are many images that you might think of, to describe the feeling of those eighth notes, that in another piece of music, it could be something very sparkling, the the inner rhythm could be sparkling, the inner rhythm could be very furioso or it could be very flowing. So in other words, the character of the inner rhythm is something that you want to be thinking about all the time. And, like I said, also reflecting it and whoever has the main line. Sometimes when I’m coaching chamber music, I see that a string player may have no idea that a pianist has just gone into triplets, you know, from eight notes into triples, what does that do to the music? How does that make it feel. And then if one’s awareness goes to that, and the string player reflects the triplets, it’s it’s just a whole another world of music making, and then leading the rhythm together. um, I learned this actually from Merry Peckham, who’s a mutual friend of ours. If you’re holding a bass note, whether you’re a cellist or a pianist, or whatever instrument, but if you’re holding a long sustained bass note, she uses this word, the bass note that that note, that’s maybe it’s a pedal point, maybe it’s going for a four bar phrase, an eight bar phrase, it can gather everything else that’s going on inside of it. And so just by the way, you hold that bass note, you are helping to make a long line or not helping. So that goes with what I was saying.

Noa 
It seems to be related to something that caught my ear from a few minutes ago, where you talked about helping string players or any musician for that matter to phrase better. I wondered if you could elaborate on that, because I totally, I think I know what you mean. But that’s such a cool thing.

Vivian
Well, the basic thing is to lead together. So it’s really hard to phrase together if you’re not leading together. So you want to lead together melodically and rhythmically and harmonically. So the harmonic progression, whatever the outline of the harmony is, which is very often in the piano part, feeling those two things together, and putting a character to it, you know, what kind of phrase is this? And how long is the phrase? How many measures is it going to be? All those things help the players to sound like one and be unified.

Noa 
Is this something that comes from just kind of playing through together and listening and being aware? Or is it that plus score study? Or?

Vivian
Well, I think it’s a lot of things, I think it is definitely score study, I mean, you have to know what’s going on. It’s important to sense it. You want to lead together not only through knowledge of where the phrase is going, and what’s going on with rhythm and harmony, but you also want to sense each other physically. And so the way that you lead with your body is also incredibly important. And something that I tell a lot of piano and strings, groups and sonata teams to work with is the feeling of vibrato and color of harmony, so that if a pianist can feel a string player’s vibrato going through his or her sound, and if the string player can feel surrounded by the harmony, nuance into the harmony of the piano, that also can create a fantastic blend. And as a result, a more beautiful phrasing up together, if that makes sense.

Noa 
Yeah, cuz I think everyone who’s ever played with anybody else, at some point experiences a mesh of personalities, or just kind of the same sense of rhythm or shaping or whatever that that leads to this feeling of better chemistry or less good chemistry. Is that a little bit what you’re talking about there? Or is that maybe a different thing altogether?

Vivian
Yeah, I think this is just sort of basic stuff that you would want to work on with your group. Which is not to say that one is always going for blend, sometimes the parts are very oppositional. And you want to feel opposition and conflict and resistance. And sometimes one part is interrupting the other. So of course, that’s incredibly important as well. And sometimes you need to anticipate your rhythmic gesture, so that maybe you want it to be sounding more interruptive and more conflicting. So I just think these are basic things that should be talked about in a group and that I certainly address in coaching. And so the whole thing becomes like a life within itself. I mean, it’s like, there’s a lot of vitality, a lot of rapport and a feeling of dynamism between players in the group when you think of it that way.

Noa 
This makes me think about what you had started talking about with pianists having to listen more externally at some point, as opposed to internally only and then leading with the body and being receptive to cues and so forth. I don’t know that there’s a step by step way of getting more comfortable with that, other than maybe just doing it, but yeah, like how, how does one help a piano start developing those sort of antenna or instincts?

Vivian
That’s a really good question. I do think, you know, maybe the most basic answer is by doing it. But certainly when I’m coaching a pianist, he may be very talented, but it’s not used to this. And as I said before, it’s string players are more likely to be used to it from all their orchestral experience, and growing up playing chamber music, etc. I definitely think a pianist can learn a lot from string player. So sometimes, I’ll have them watch how the string player cues. And then I work on cueing and leading from the body. So you’re right, it is like a technique that has to be learned. And some people really don’t know how to do it. So that’s a little hard to talk about without having the visual part of it. But sometimes I have them start by just sensing what their partners are doing. Feeling upbeats is a huge, huge part of cueing. And everybody needs to draw their attention to that. And not just the pianists but everybody. So even if you’re playing by yourself, and you’re starting in an upbeat, you want to feel that from your body, you want to feel the gestural aspect that goes into communicating the feeling of an upbeat, which is very different from a downbeat. Another thing that it’s it’s not directly related to your question, but partially, I try to really help pianist sense the bow. So the string attack, as you know, is somewhat of a slower attack, we have keys that can just go up and down if that’s all we’re doing. But we can adjust that tremendously, piano has much more possibility than many people think in terms of speed of attack, nuance, etc. And bringing a pianist’s awareness to the point at which you have the bow contact with between the the bow hair and string can change things immensely. That’s not directly related to your question about cueing, but it’s partially related. And many times people start without that awareness. So this is this is very helpful also indirectly related to your question is the whole idea of bowing. So we pianists grew up with we have articulation in our music. And honestly, there’s no specific way that we are taught to play a slur or to play a short note, there are certain technical approaches, maybe a million of them, but it’s not specific. It’s not like you string players growing up with bowings. Okay, so I find it tremendously helpful for pianists to learn from string players to interpret their articulation, as bowings. And when they do that, it also helps with the cueing and helps with sensing the bow. And it helps for that wonderful unification that can go on between piano and strings.

Noa 
I want to hear more about the feeling of upbeat thing, but before we go back there, I do want to hear more about the sensing the bow thing. Because as a string player, I can imagine what it might feel like to have bowings as part of phrasing as a pianist but if a pianist doesn’t have a concept of what an upbow feels like, versus what a downbow feels like, like, what does it feel like, to a pianists to think in terms of sensing the bow?

Vivian
Yeah. Well, these days, of course, most people I work with, do have experience and it comes pretty easily. So I’m trying to think, I think there’s, there’s a lot of a visual aspect to this, I might have the pianist step out of the group for a moment, watch the string players watch how they’re get a concept of what’s going on with a bow. And just try to do it instinctively. A lot of this, I don’t want it to be overly detailed. And I don’t want someone to have to think in a great amount of detail. But to relate what they think of is the feeling of the bow to something that’s gestural, that something is dancelike, it’s more like choreography, something that is very natural and part of the body. And feeling, go back to your question about queuing, I think a lot of that comes from how you feel flow going through your body as you play, which all of us need to do. And as soon as that starts happening, as soon as there’s an awareness of flow, the cueing becomes much more natural, and also the sensing of the bow, I don’t think it’s something that I would expect a student that has never felt that before to pick it up immediately. But it’s just amazing, just with the awareness how much that can how quickly that can happen over a few weeks. Because I think fundamentally, these are all very natural, just real physical things. You know, they’re very much a part of all have us.

Noa 
The thing that comes to mind when you say that is one of my more self conscious inducing moments in a lesson with Don, where he had me conduct. And I didn’t know anything about three, four, one, you know, conducting three or anything like that. And so I felt really kind of silly as a 12 or 13 year old. But I wonder if it’s related in some way to just kind of physically, intuitively feeling something like that.

Vivian
I think it’s exactly related. And it’s funny. I actually don’t ask people to conduct for the reason that you just said that you were, you felt embarrassed. I feel like a lot of people do feel embarrassed. And I know that I would have. So I do it more with just the body flowing to the music. But I think they’re completely related. And some people really do like to conduct. So yeah, that’s great. And then a group conducting together is really fantastic. And there are quite a few of my colleagues who do expressive counting, which you’ve probably also heard of. And so another way, in other words to unify, how are you feeling the rhythm? Let’s count this out loud together expressively? How are we feeling it? That can be a fantastic unifier. And it’s also fun. Because I think that these discoveries should be should be so exciting. Yes, it’s hard work for anybody to sound good, and to rehearse and learn everything but but I really would hope that the feeling of excitement and discovery is always there.

Noa 
The thing that also came to mind related to this, and maybe it is or isn’t, but I wonder if breathing has some part of feeling upbeats and

Vivian
so much, so much breathing is so huge. And look, I myself and my, my older age, I’m still discovering how important breathing is. And it’s incredible how so many of us don’t even stop to take a breath, you know, so I’m working on that with all my students, my solo piano students very much so. So breathing, yeah, it’s, it’s incredibly important and breathing together has to do with all the things that we were just talking about. Yeah, it’s, it’s huge.

Noa 
Is it one of those awareness things? Or is it something even at certain moments, is worth choreographing to a degree?

Vivian
Well, I think it’s actually really useful to just stop, stop playing. And just breath to even, yeah, just what you said, even to just get the awareness. And sometimes what I feel when I do that is, oh, my God, I wasn’t breathing at all, you know, I’ll realize it. So I think just the awareness is huge. You know, a lot of these things that we’re talking about, like the cueing, the sensing the bow, leading together with your bodies, I think the reason that it’s not easy to learn, but natural to learn is because it feels so good, it feels so much more natural. And the nervous system likes to repeat things that are fulfilling, and that feel good. And so I think that once you discover these things, you want to return to them. They make you feel better, when you’re playing, they make you sound better, they make you enjoy playing with other people more. So it’s the same thing with breathing. Once you discover that you’ve been holding your breath, you’re more likely to just continue to breathe, you know.

Noa 
Something I forgot to follow up on a little bit ago. But this idea of leading together melodically, rhythmically, harmonically, that, to me sounds like there’s some maybe listening to recordings in advance, or at least looking at the score in advance just to have a clear concept of where some of those moments or some of the things might be, and, and I think it’s easy to get kind of sucked into a score and listening to a variety of recordings. And for a lot of time to end up getting devoted to that. Is there a basic set of things that if we’re trying to do some score study in advance of a rehearsal, and we don’t have a ton of time, that might be some of the fundamental things that we want to look for?

Vivian
Well, I would much rather that students do not listen to so many recordings. I mean, these days with YouTube, it’s the easiest thing in the whole world. And you can do like 15 different recordings and a few minutes of whatever piece, I really am against that incredibly against it. So score study, again, I don’t like to even use the word study so much. It shouldn’t be like homework. It should be more of a discovery. Oh, well, I’m playing the melody, the cellist is just holding a note and the pianist is playing triplets. You know, that kind of thing is=s what I would mean by score, study. Sure, listen to a recording to know how the piece sounds, how it goes, so to speak. And I wouldn’t in the early stage want my students to listen any more than that. Later on, once you’ve developed your own ideas, you’ve been coaching, you’re rehearsing, that’s a better time to listen. I think it’s really important not to fall into this trap of copying what other people are doing their certain performance practice. And so this brings me to something else. You might ask me well, how are students going to learn what Brahms is supposed to sound like? Well, so what I would advocate is if you’re working on a Brahms trio, piano trio right, listen to the Brahms string quartets. Listen to Brahms solo music, listen to the symphonies, there’s so much to listen to. And yes, everyone needs to have a background in the style of any composer that you are about to work on. But other than like I said, in initial listen, a quick listen, okay, this is how the piece sounds, I would really much rather my students listen to other pieces by that composer. And even if, let’s say later on in the process, and this Brahms trio is sounding fantastic, and blah, blah, blah, there’s no limit to how much one can learn from listening outside of your own genre. And I think that pianists need to know all the string quartets. And the string players need to know, the piano stuff. I mean, you would be amazed at how many string players do not know the solo Beethoven piano sonatas, and the reverse the pianists don’t know the string quartets. That’s, that’s really sad to me. And, again, I don’t even like to think of it as like, you should do it. It’s because it’s so wonderful. It’s because it’s so inspirational. And so exciting to hear this music on in all the different possible manifestations. You know.

Noa 
Maybe there’s not a way of doing this, but there’s some pieces I think that we’ve, over the years just heard so many times even before we’ve gotten to play them, and reminds me of a masterclass where Fleisher said that he didn’t say it’s a little bit like the telephone game, where one person says a thing and another person does. But you know, one person plays, and there’s this epic recording of it from years back, and then a whole generation of people grew up listening to that. And that just is now stuck in their head as this is how the Tchaikovsky concerto sounds or something. Any suggestions on how to approach the score as if you’ve never heard the recording and to try to really get a sense of what the original intent from the score might be?

Vivian
Well, that’s a good question. I mean, it’s funny, I don’t know if you experienced this. But when I get my hands, my own hands on the music and question, I, because you’re not looking just at a score, and you’re not listening to recording, you are trying to interpret the music and you’re touching your instrument. There’s a huge physical aspect that’s related to hearing and feeling music. And for me, that changes everything. I’m trying to figure out what I’m trying to talk about. Music is is live. Music is about the moment. Yes, you have to know what you’re doing, of course, you can’t play randomly. But if you have tried to educate yourself, ultimately, it should be a spontaneous experience. So the word experience like you, one needs to experience the music as you’re playing, by listening to what’s going on, by feeling it in your body, by feeling it in your hands and fingertips. And even your own, I was talking before about how chamber music is so exciting because you have the back and forth between yourself and the other people you’re playing with. But you also have a back and forth between yourself and the instrument, the instrument becomes alive. At that moment. This is a brand new moment, it has never happened before in this particular way between that particular person and their instrument. And so that aliveness to me makes it possible to have a completely new take on the score.

Noa 
This may or may not be what you’re alluding to, or talking about, but I think most of us have had some situation where teachers encouraged us to you just play a piece as if you’re composing it and I wonder if that’s something along the lines of what you’re describing in, in how, because that, you know, it’s one thing to do that as a solo pianist, and that’s another one, now there’s a second person or third or fourth or fifth. Are there ways of doing this in rehearsal, or does this happen, because there’s a certain range I imagine of spontaneity possible before it throws other people off.

Vivian
Well, That’s a great question, I really think that you can have that spontaneity in a group. I think that, you know, if you have worked on some of the things that we’ve been talking about and leading together, feeling, the inner rhythm reflecting it, the harmony, the color, coloring the sound together, that just gives you more and more tools so that you can be spontaneous, and the element of trust. So if you’re in a group where you’re basically feeling good, and people are listening, and you’re doing all these things that we keep talking about, that’s the time to take off and be spontaneous. And I think for me, that’s the ultimate goal. And that’s what all this rehearsing should lead to. Of course, that’s in the ideal, you don’t want to play carefully. But if you’re really tuned into each other, you will pick up with the other person does. And also, the other aspect of chamber music that we all know is so wonderful is that it might not be yourself that’s being spontaneous, it might be somebody else, and oh, my God, my violinists just did something so incredible, and you’re not really thinking about it, you’re feeling it as you play, and you instantly react to that, which just makes it so much more exciting and so much more creative. So the idea of spontaneity is, is just, it’s a necessity, for music to sound alive. And I think that the other yeah, another thing I want to bring up in relation to that is, if it means that somebody is not perfectly together for a moment, or maybe somebody misses dares to miss a note for a moment, that’s fine, that’s worth it. There’s this whole idea that unfortunately, our people in our time have about perfection of ensemble, like, I call it lined up ensemble, rather than emotional ensemble. If you listen to the recordings, you can hear Bartok and Szigeti from the 1930s, you tons of recordings like that, where the ensemble is not lined up exactly, but it’s an emotional ensemble, the things that I was talking about, feeling the phrasing together, feeling the harmony together, the character of the music, the emotional aspect of the rhythm, but it might not be perfectly together. And so that’s, unfortunately, it’s an inhibiting aspect to current day players that you think well, if I dare to be spontaneous, I might miss something. But that’s really sad to me. I’ll tell you a funny story. I teach at New England Conservatory, but in the past, as you know, I taught at CIM when you were there. And I was working on the Kreutzer Sonata with a violinist and pianist, very talented people. And I asked them to listen to Bartok and Szigeti’s recording. And they came back the next week. I said, oh, so how was it? And they said, well, they weren’t really together. I think it’s it’s the famous recording, it’s on YouTube, I think it’s a 1940 live recording. It is live. And yeah, so that’s, that makes me sad. And I think some of our priorities and education are wrong. And it’s not just that we should blame ourselves. But it’s also the technical aspect of recording being so available and CDs being so perfect, and all of that. And so I think it’s our duty to try to let students know, you know, these, that’s not real life. So okay, not to be completely exactly together.

Noa 
Reminds me a little bit of some of what I think we’re all reading now about Facebook and Instagram and our expectations and what it is we’re striving in and aiming for is maybe kind of off of perhaps what it is that, not even more realistic, but what is maybe a more worthy target.

Vivian
Exactly. And and yet the the level of young musicians just continues to get higher and higher. And so it becomes even more of a conflict, like, such highly developed technical levels, it becomes harder for people like that to accept not playing perfectly. It’s like the catch-22.

Noa 
This is maybe a more kind of practical question, that’s limited, perhaps just a pianist because there’s two lines and not just one that you need to be paying attention to. But my impression is that sight reading is an even more important skill for pianists than it might be for some other instrumentalists even and are there things that you’ve found over the years that are helpful for cultivating that skill? Because I know a lot of string players will just get together and read. And I don’t know if that’s as easy for pianists to do as it is for string players.

Vivian
So my experience is that there are handfuls of pianists that are amazingly good at it. And they can do what the string players do, which is so wonderful, get together and just have chamber music reading sessions. It’s so fantastic. And there are many pianists myself included who are not so good at it. And that is a struggle. So the advice that I would give to young pianists who may not find themselves with an automatic ability or talent is first of all, not to let that make them feel any less good. In some ways, it’s kind of a, it’s an it’s like a fluke, ability or talent, you know, but it can definitely be developed. So I just like everything else in life, it needs to be practiced. So I would recommend that pianists spend 10 minutes every day sight reading. And in the sight reading practice, the most important thing is to have your eyes look ahead of where you are, really great sight readers, it’s very helpful actually, to watch people that are really good at it. But the eyes move ahead of the hands. And you can, you know, you can make up ways of practicing that. And the other thing is to prioritize. So since we do have so many outs, you can’t be expected to play all of them at a first reading. And although there are some people who miraculously can, but for those of us who can’t, you want to outline and prioritize, so in your own sight reading practice, it’s very good to tell yourself, okay, I’m just going to try to keep the basic rhythm, I’m not going to care about how many notes I actually play. But I’m going to play in time, I’m going to try to go for the basic harmony. And that’s it, and I won’t stop. So there’s no stopping, that’s allowed. And the rhythm has to be there. So once you get more comfortable with that, you can add, you can fill in so to speak, you can fill in more voices, more notes. But if you can start out by just keeping a basic rhythm, and a harmonic outline, that will take you very far, it’s also incredibly useful for all of music, to be looking at outlines, basic harmonic progressions, outlines, prioritizing, so that will help you in your solo playing that will help you and your chamber music. It will help you with voicing, but listening with countless things. So it’s actually you’re you’re accomplishing a lot by practicing the sight reading, which should be very motivating. Oh, and then there’s one other thing, if you have a nice friend that would be patient with you, let’s say one of your best friends is a singer or a string player, be so nice, go through easier repertoire and say, can we just spend, you know, a little bit of time put up with me? And this would be a great thing. And I think most people do have a friend that they could do that with?

Noa 
It seems like that would make it funner as well. Exactly

Vivian
Exactly, exactly. I think there’s the private practice in terms of training your eyes to move ahead of your hands, and to do what I was just talking about with the outlining and the prioritization. And then so much better than that, in addition would be to have this friend that would be patient with you. And then hopefully, you’re ready to get in there and do it.

Noa 
I know you mentioned at the very beginning, when we started talking that a lot of the skills really transfer across the different roles that a pianist might play, whether it’s solo playing or duo or trio or more. I wonder if there are any little tiny nuance differences, perhaps if a pianist is really focused on collaborative piano versus larger chamber music ensembles, or?

Vivian
Sure. Well, most of what I do in my life is play with string players. But when I play with singers, I just can’t believe how incredible it is, and how much I learn and how much it helps me as a musician. Also, it’s just pure, purely joyous. It’s just fantastic. But I think that has a lot to do with awareness of breath, which you were talking about before. And the same thing with a wind player. So I think one is maybe more tuned to breathing when one is with a singer and also, of course, the meaning of the text and how the text affects timing, how it affects everything. And that is huge, because when we are playing, let’s say a Brahms violin and piano sonata., how great is it to think of the German language? How great is it to imagine that there is a text that changes our articulation that changes our note spacing, it changes our sound. And so the best way to learn that is to work with a singer. So remind me the other part of the question?

Noa 
I was just wondering if there are any smaller nuances?

Vivian
Oh, yeah. Um, so for instance, if you’re playing a sonata with a violinist or with a cellist or with a violist, there are a lot of differences. So the way that a piano and cello can blend their bass there are so many examples of this where the that register becomes incredibly intertwined. Now all of these things are generalizations. There are many, many exceptions to everything. And I’m going to say right now, one of the most wonderful things about violin and piano is sometimes the actual spread of your registration where you have violin so high and incredible high overtones, with a baseline underneath it right in the piano. Again, this is very generalized, but one does balance. As a pianist, you need to know how to balance your sound with the violin versus the cello. And then there’s the viola, where you know that gorgeous depth of sonority that we can also do on the piano. But one has to reinterpret some of the dynamics, you cannot play a fortissimo with viola that you would with a violin. And one has to get sensitive to that. And honestly, the only way to do that is through experience. So it’s really, really good to play with all of those different voices, the instruments, to play with the singers to play with the winds, and I wouldn’t exclude anything, I would not say, oh, well, I like to play with the violin, I would play with everything. And then of course, when you get into chamber music, it’s a different way of balancing, let’s say in a piano quintet, there’s so much going on, right. But I don’t want this to sound like oh, my God, this is so complicated. I want to stress how much of this is instinctive, once you open up your ears, a lot of it, if you’re a sensitive musical person, a lot of this is obvious. So I just want to express it in a very positive way, not in a daunting way. And you know, no one expects you right off the bat to know all these things, this comes from years of experience. And everything feeds upon everything else. So there’s a wonderful kind of buildup of sensitivity. And speaking of sensitivity, it’s a real sensitivity to another person’s instrument, another person’s touch. The other thing that I’m going back to what we talked about before that I forgot to talk about, is matching the touch between the instruments, which is really necessary in terms of communicating a special character, if you want a very vulnerable piano dynamic. Well, the whole group has to touch their respective instruments in that kind of way. And you need to do it together.

Noa 
This is maybe just my never having played in an ensemble, sitting where the pianist is sitting. But is this sort of awareness of the levels of dynamics or articulation, or whatever it may be, in terms of matching with the other people’s ensemble. Is this something that you can hear from the piano? Or does it have to be something you hear out in the hall? Or?

Vivian
That’s such a good question. So I think if you’re super experienced, you really do hear it from let’s say, I’ll speak from the pianos point of view, yes, you’re at your bench, and you’re at your spot, and you’re so used to it, and your ear automatically makes the adjustment. But even for an experienced person, but very much for maybe a less experienced person, I often have people stand outside of the group. So let’s say I’m working with a piano trio, I’ll have the pianist come to where I’m sitting. And just listen to the string players like, remember, we were just working on this phrase, come out and listen to it from the outside. I know they can’t hear the piano because pianist’s not playing. But at least you get to hear the string players from the back of the room, right? I’ll do the same thing with string players, I’ll have them step out. It gives a totally different perspective. And very, very often, I have seen somebody completely adjust their sound just from having stepped out of the group. That’s a rehearsal technique, then anybody can do it any moment. Like, oh, let me see what that let me see how you guys sound? You know, I’m not sure if I’m balancing you, well, I’m not sure if I’m supporting you well, but I to really know what I want to do, I just want to check if I’m hearing you the way I’m hearing you from the bench. I hope that makes sense what I’m saying?

Noa 
No, absolutely. Cuz even just in terms of the way the instruments are pointed, and so forth, I imagine that it would sound different. The other thing that I’m curious about, that you might already have addressed and spoken to is this idea of anticipation. Because there’s like a different feeling that I remember having with every pianists that I played with, sometimes a more positive feeling, sometimes less and what’s always the most awesome for me is when the pianist seems to know where I’m going to be before I even get there. It’s completely my fault, because I totally misled them and that’s why they’re not where I think they’re going to be but how does one cultivate that ability to predict, yeah.

Vivian
That’s such a great, great question and comment. Well, I always tell my students the greatest most wonderful part of playing chamber music is when you truly can feel what your partner or partners are going to do. It’s like the coolest feeling. It’s so great. So you’re asking how to get there? Right? Well, you know, singing in advance your own part, let’s say you’re practicing your own part. I’m just going to make this up right now, in your own private practice, it’s really helpful to hear what you want in advance of where you’re playing it, and you use the word anticipate. It’s like you, you sing just a tiny bit ahead of where you are, in your mind, you can sing out loud if you want, but I was really thinking about singing in your mind. So you’re getting first of all, it’s good, whether you’re playing with people or not, but at the same time, it’s building your awareness of listening ahead, in a kind of real way, and in a kind of philosophical way. And if you are all doing that, as a group, if you’re all like, you have your feelers out, you have the antenna out, you know, where the phrase is going, again, building and all the things we’ve already discussed, feeling the harmony together, sensing the bow, sensing each other’s bodies, right? There’s so many visual cues going on, there’s so many vibrational, dynamic things going on between the human beings in this group, if you have built upon the things that we have discussed, then with the ear, imagining, imagining in advance, you’re imagining based on what you are currently hearing. So that is, like a very good instinct, right? So an a way that I say to my students is be inside someone else’s playing. So let’s say I’m playing with you, I would want to put myself into your ear into your mind. It’s very, very imaginary. There’s a lot of use of imagination. And it’s amazing how far that can take you. It’s really amazing. I mean, it sounds maybe a little out there. But it really works, especially if you’ve built up to it. It I don’t think it can, sometimes you find a partner where you do that just without any rehearsal at all. Just happens. And sometimes you have to build to get there. And it’s amazing. It’s sort of like having relationship with a person, right? Sometimes you hit it off right away, like, unexplainable. Sometimes you have to build on it. And wow, it really happens.

Noa 
It sounds a lot like instead of reacting to what you hear, you’re already hearing what’s going to happen, what is happening and what just has happened. And sometimes, yes, the violinist like myself can mess that up by not doing what it is that I made you think I was going to do, but generally speaking,

Vivian
Yeah. The Imagination is amazing. And one’s whole nervous system, you know, everything is in action when you’re playing and you’re using every sense that you have, and that can take you very, very, very far, especially if you are passionately connected to the music that you’re playing. That would be a necessity.

Notes

More thoughts from Vivian

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Comments

One Response

  1. Isn´t this about synchronization? “The noble art of learning how to sense and read the other one´s body language”? And the very special ability we have when it comes to completing a phrase, musical or verbal….Daniel Stern has written about this. Everytime I have the opportunity to play along with a pro player I can notice how my own playing reaches a higher level!
    And then we have the mystery of reading the conductor´s intentions – via his body language (from toes to nose..).
    All this is enhanced and facilitated by us entering an altered state of consciousness (ASC) – made possible if we are good enough sightreaders thus able to concentrate on the experience
    In such a state you become acutely aware of what is “incoming” through your senses; furthermore this is made possible by the Mirror Neuron System!

    Thanks again Noa for your indefatigable efforts to open up new horizons in music!

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