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10 Essential Tips for Working with a Live Pianist

In this post, I’ll give you my 10 essential tips for working with a live pianist, inspired by my years of experience in the ballet studio.

  1. Tell the pianist what music you like – I think the best way to start off a good working relationship with a live musician is to tell them what sort of music inspires and moves you – the teacher.  You’ll be the one setting the exercises, and it’s important that the music enhances you work, rather than annoying or distracting you.  I do think it’s important to focus on the positive though: don’t tell them what music you really can’t stand to listen to – tell them what you love, and they should make an effort to at least incorporate it some of the time.
  2. Talk in counts, not bars – This can be a confusing issue for both teachers and musicians – not to mention students!  However, I strongly suggest that you talk in terms of counts, not bars.  Bars are really only a way of organising the notes on a page, within the context of the time signature.  It is counts that dictate the feel and form of a piece and it’s relationship to the exercise.  Any good musician will quickly adapt to thinking in terms of counts, and it will eliminate endless frustration and misunderstanding.
  3. Don’t be afraid to sing – There is no method more fool proof for getting your musical requirements for an exercise across than singing.  It allows you to stress the accents you want, give the phrasing you want and convey the musical style you want.  You can either have a mental catalogue of suitable tunes, or if you are comfortable, just make it up as you go along.  The melody you sing really isn’t important – it’s the rhythm and phrasing.  You don’t have to sing either – you can hum or whistle if you prefer!
  4. Find out what your pianist’s musical interests are – If you know what sort of music a pianist likes to play, it can give you an idea of what they are probably best at.  If you can find space in your class for them to play at least some music that they like themselves, you’ll often find that they open up to new ideas, play in a more engaged and expressive manner and become generally more invested in the events that take place in the studio.
  5. Practice with a CD – If you are really not confident with working with a live musician, you can always practice beforehand with a CD.  Set an exercise to a track on the CD, and then practice setting and marking it, going through the verbal and physical prompts needed to convey the tempo, feel and style of that track.  You aim is that if you were to then set the exercise in that way for an experienced accompanist, they would play something similar in style, feel and tempo to the track on the CD that you practiced with.
  6. Don’t always be counting/talking – It’s important that you try to let the music speak too.  Obviously you need to give prompts and corrections throughout an exercise, or verbally reinforce the tempo, but there can be a tendency to end up doing this constantly.  By being quiet sometimes, and giving the music a chance to speak, the students get a chance to work on their own sense of musicality.  Remember, in performance there is nobody giving them verbal instructions, and if they don’t get a chance to develop musicality in the studio, they will lack it on stage.  An added benefit of doing this is that it saves your voice, and helps the musician to feel as though they have artistic value in this endeavour as well.
  7. Set an accurate tempo – This one is fairly straightforward, but it’s surprising how many teachers will set an exercise, giving no indication of the actual tempo they desire, and then act surprised when the pianist plays at the wrong speed.  Make sure you set at least some of the exercise at the tempo you actually want it to be done at, and if you are then speeding up for the purpose of setting it in a shorter space of time, let the pianist know.  You don’t want your music to suddenly double in tempo because they took your directions literally!
  8. Check the pianist is ready – While you are giving corrections and setting exercises, the pianist may be attending to a number of their own tasks.  They may be thinking of what to play, trying to remember a piece from memory, looking through sheet music or mentally running through the exercise at their own pace.  Be sure to give them a little warning, even if it’s just eye contact, or a quick “ok?”.  Just shouting “and!” with no warning is a sure fire way to get a startled and unprepared introduction.  These days, don’t be offended if a pianist seems to be using a phone or tablet on the music stand – it’s very likely they are using it to look up chord progressions, or pdf files of sheet music.
  9. Be consistent with your introductions – Try to be consistent with the length of your introductions.  Don’t keep jumping between 4 and 2 counts in, unless you have good reason, as this is confusing when there is so much else to think about.  This will also benefit the students as well, as it becomes one less place for confusion and misunderstanding to spoil the start of an exercise.  The same goes for having 4 counts between groups or not, and having a cadence at the end of an exercise or not.
  10. Don’t get too hung up on ‘musical forms’ – While it is useful to have some understanding of musical forms, they can also get in the way of conveying what you actually want.  It might sound good for you to ask for a Czardas or a Polka or a Mazurka, but do you really want something in that strict musical style, or do you really just want the strength of a Czardas, the lively energy of a polka, or the strong accents of a mazurka?  Mentioning a specific musical genre narrows your options, whereas simply singing or humming what you want conveys exactly which stylistic elements you want the music to contain.

I hope this information will be of some use to teachers who are both experienced with working with live musicians, and those for whom it is an anxious proposition.  With just a little thought and preparation, you can vastly improve your working relationship, and by doing so, greatly improve your own studio experience and that of your students.

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