13 February 2019

Collaboration or Separation?

“When”, an American colleague whispered to me during a student recital, “did soloists stop standing in the crook of the piano?”  He went on to ask me whether it was the way things were done in Europe because, “It sure isn’t the way we do things in the States”!

I had no answer.  The practice of standing with your back to your accompanist is one that has seeped into collaborative music-making without my ever really noticing it before, but my colleague is quite right.  Sometime in the past few years the standard practice of an instrumental or vocal soloist standing in such a way as not only to have almost physical contact with the piano, but also obvious visual contact with the pianist, has gone out of the window.  And I can’t remember when it happened.  It might be a geographical thing – I really can’t recall where the soloists were placed in the few recitals I’ve attended recently outside south east Asia - I must make a point of seeing if it is widespread or merely a regional aberration.

What's that woman in black doing behind me?
At today’s recital three instrumental soloists – two of them violinists and one of them a cellist – placed themselves centre stage with their backs to the pianist and as far as possible (without it looking totally ridiculous) from the piano.  Rather than present themselves as an integral part of a duo, they stood out front with neither physical nor visual relationship with their collaborator.

I look back to some of the great recitals I’ve attended which are still fresh in my memory.  I recall a few stunning vocal recitals in which the singer not only stood in the crook of the piano, but sung with a hand - sometimes even a whole arm – embracing the edge of the piano and often focusing their visual attention as much with the pianist as with the audience.  I recall cellists sitting at 45 degrees to the audience so that the pianist was well within their range of vision, and I recall violinists, oboists, flautists and clarinettists often quite mobile on their feet, but keeping within that invisible area defined by imaginary lines drawn from the top of the keyboard to cross at 90 degrees one drawn along from the longest part of the piano case.  That interaction not only with the pianist but with the piano itself was often a major feature in making these historic recitals so enticing and enriching.
Physical and Visual collaboration

So why has the habit grown whereby the soloist not only physically distances themselves from the piano, but positions themselves so that they are, in effect, standing with their back to their musical partner.  How come back to back has taken the place of eye contact in what should be a collaborative relationship?

I can think of three possible reasons.  Firstly, they rehearse at home not with a live pianist but with a machine; and they do not think to adjust when the machine is replaced by a living, breathing human being (which is what collaborative pianists generally are).  Secondly, they are so focussed on their own instrument that they do not even notice the presence of a second one.  And thirdly (and here I feel I may be getting closer to the truth), they are so indoctrinated in their lessons towards competitions, that they believe an audience is only interested in watching and listening to them.  In a competition, the accompanist merely serves as a regulating backdrop to throw the spotlight on the competitor; the solo performer (who thinks of themselves as exactly that) sees no reason to involve the pianist when the focus of the adjudicator is 100% on them.

I can see you - you're all around me
Whatever the reason, now that it has been drawn to my attention I find it deeply disturbing.  Sadly, the third of our instrumental solos in today’s recital came after my colleague’s observation, and I was struck how often ensemble between pianist and soloist – both excellent players in their own right – fell short of perfection.  How can the pianist be there when the violinist ends a particularly flamboyant passage of display, if there is no visual contact?  To see the violinist, the pianist would have had to turn so far round on the stool that the hands would have been forced out of position. 

Diploma examiners were always instructed to take the accompanist into consideration when assessing recital diplomas.  We were told to comment on attire and stagecraft, and if there was no visual contact between the two, then criticism should be made and marks deducted.  Do we no longer worry about such matters?  Have we become so focussed on individual achievement that we have lost sight of the collaborative effort which is, in most cases, what the music was originally intended to provoke?

Whatever the reason, and why ever it’s done, I don’t think it is a good thing for the future of music, and I hope that we might soon revert to the logical and visually attractive habit of seeing musicians work in collaboration rather than in divorced isolation.


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