Music-making is typically a joyous experience for me, and events like last Sunday’s Mendelssohn concert or the recital of a beloved student are happy occasions in every way. But from time to time I find myself making music through gritted teeth and with astonishing dark thoughts rumbling through my head. . . and that’s how yesterday evening ended. I was barricaded in our studio, rehearsing for a special recital which is happening in Madison this afternoon. It’s under the auspices of NATS- the National Association of Teachers of Singing, of which I am a member. Part of our spring meeting is a recital featuring the winning singers from our fall competition- the winning freshman man, winning freshman woman, etc. Actually, the invitation is extended to all of the winners, but usually not all of them are able to come, although most of them do. As a service to our NATS chapter, since I don’t have the time to be otherwise very helpful or active, I volunteered to be the fill-in piano accompanist for any of the performers whose regular accompanist from back home would be unable to come with them. It seemed like a win-win at the time that I made the offer; it meant that I got to meet and work with some of the very very best young singers in the state of Wisconsin, and I would be helping them out of jam while also saving the NATS chapter some money. (I offered to do this for free.) I’ve done this for several years running now and it has been fun . . . BUT . . . each year it seems like I’m playing for more of the performers, and with each passing year the music seems to get more difficult. It’s not that I’m chicken- and I’m mighty good, if I do say so myself, at faking myself through incredibly difficult scores and managing to stay with the singer.
But there is a limit to my time and my abilities- plus a recital of award-winners like this one really shouldn’t be encumbered with a lot of faking. So this year I asked the coordinator of the recital, Kathy Otterson, to include in her letter of invitation for the recital a few words about how rehearsal time with me is severely limited and singers would be wise to choose their repertoire accordingly. (Typically, each of them sings two pieces.) She did so – and the result? I have never been given harder pieces to play ! ! ! I have five different 20th century songs to play where there is a blizzard of notes to decipher and (somehow) play- and some earlier pieces are quite a handful as well . . . plus one piece is in a figured bass score, which means that the only part I’m given is a simple bass line plus numeral indications of what the chord should be, and I have to fill in those chords myself. As I sat at our piano last night, looking through these songs and practicing them, I found myself going progressively more “Postal” – and my fingers were striking the keys with a vigor born not of joy but of frustration. Part of what makes it a tough situation is that ten singers will perform today, and I am playing for nine of them ! Of course, each respective voice teacher has no way of knowing just how extensive my responsibilities for the recital were going to be, but still . . . the teachers who blithely chose songs that have seven flats or multiple meters or which otherwise pose gigantic demands and difficulties deserve some sort of punishment. If I could, I would lock them in a room and make them listen to Brittany Spears recordings at ear-splitting volume. . . or sit them down at the piano and make them try to play these accompaniments and crack a ruler over their knuckles with each wrong note . . . or something so unspeakable that I shouldn’t be blogging about it.
But I strongly suspect that by the time I get to Madison today and sit down to rehearse with these young singers, this will all feel very different. I will be reminded of why I do this – willingly – each spring. It is because I love music and especially love making music with great musicians. And by the end of the afternoon, I suspect that I will have let go of these darker thoughts and will be feeling better about all this. But last night, sitting at the piano. . . Those are feelings I do not want to revisit any time soon.
pictured above: a portion of a song by Poulenc which I am playing today. . . and it’s not even the hardest one.