Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Kill the Accompanist!

Last week I said that the most important thing about being an accompanist was being able to defer to an external source--for rhythm, for phrasing, and so on. Sure, you've got your internal metronome going, but the 2nd beat of the measure doesn't really come until the soloist, or the conductor, or your collaborator, or the orchestra, or the choir, says it does. You don't get to decide that. If you are trapped in your own little world, counting off in your head and not paying attention to the proceedings around you, you aren't going to be able to stay together even for a few measures. Anybody with any real musical sense is making constant adjustments to the way they feel the pulse, and the phrase, and you have to go with that.

The simplest apparent way of doing this is to look at your conductor or soloist for the visual cues they provide. But looking up every once in a while isn't nearly the half of it. In fact, it is considerably less than half. Most of it is listening.

There was a fellow in the Ken Burn's Baseball series who talked about umpiring. He mentioned that he never really thought of vision as the most important qualification for being an umpire. He went on to explain that a more accurate way to decide whether the base runner got to the bag first or the ball got to the first baseman's glove first was to listen to the distinctive percussive sounds each event made and determine which one came first. It made sense to me.

Nevertheless, most people would never have believed him--at least until he offered the explanation. What is the first thing people always yell at an umpire? "What are you, blind?!" Which is followed by the old classic, "Kill the ump!" We're a bloodthirsty species.

Several eons ago, when I was at the conservatory, someone noticed after a concert with my violinist partner and I that we never looked at each other. And yet we always managed to stay perfectly together. Odd, they thought.

I thought about it. The music was always in a different direction than the violinist, so I would have to swivel my head, and he would have to nearly turn around; nevertheless, that is how most duos keep ensemble. But I realized that I could hear the sound of his bow being raised, (and probably see it out of the corner of my eye, too, for that matter) and know just where the down-bow was going to come just by listening for it.

A few years later I was accompanying a church choir at the organ and the choir was between me and the conductor. I absolutely could not see the conductor's upbeat. And this was one of those anthems where the organ and choir begin exactly together. But we started just fine. How could I tell when to begin? I could hear the sound of two dozen people breathing in unison, taking their first breath a beat before the start. If that isn't enough, it takes a few fractions of a second for a choir to form their first consonant, which give you a little more time to be sure you have it right. By the time they've accelerated to the vowel, and the sound envelope of a group of singers has opened sufficiently, you've have at least a tenth of a second to think about it. That's enough time for a martini, practically.

I stress the importance of listening, and of knowing how to listen, even though it seems evident that music is all about sounds and listening to them. And yet, sight seems to be our primary sense and our first and sometimes only focus. I have never in my life heard anybody yell at an umpire, "What are you? deaf?" You expect, therefore, non-musicians to have a surprisingly unappreciative role for the ear in music, particularly if they haven't had much experience in using theirs. But musicians have the same difficulty. There's a world of breathing human beings out there rhythmically sucking in air, bows being drawn against strings, key actions making little clicking sounds, trucks driving by during recording sessions, conductors grunting, the sound of postures being reclaimed on hard-backed chairs, all of it leaving a signature. And cues. Listen for it.

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