While the study of two musical instruments is time-consuming, it can reap benefits in widening a student’s horizons.
If a pupil plays only piano for years on end he may deny himself the rich experience of participating in an orchestra or small ensemble. And while it’s true that some pianists manage to grab a score in Junior High with a token part in the midst of blaring brass, or heaving saxophones, it’s not enough. Keeping rhythm but being muted into the background does not equal a thoughtful interaction of voices in a group music setting.
Too often, piano players are in a slush pile of extras, waiting for a chorus line call that never comes.
Where a pianist can be on a more equal footing in a jazz combo, or as a vital part of a classical trio or quartet, then the work required will be more substantial and the sense of balancing one part against another comes into play as a growth experience.
There is, however, always a chance that a pianist could be utilized as accompanist or collaborator with any number of solo instrumentalists, but these opportunities may be infrequent, and if they pop up, many pianists tend to sadly shy away from them.
So an alternative is to join in the fun and study a string, woodwind, brass or percussion instrument while still tickling the ivories.
I was lucky to have started my violin lessons at age 11, about 5 years into my piano study, and within 18 months, I had worked so assiduously that I found myself as the first chair leader of the Manhattan Borough-wide Orchestra. Not to say that I deserved to be concert master at that moment in time, but just the same, the chance to be part of a symphony, opened my eyes and ears to a universe of voices that came in different shades and colors. The brass, woodwinds, violas, string basses, etc. all had lines that would sometimes be fleshed out by the conductor, while first violins were subdued. We had to learn to surrender our starring roles as treble melody bearers, and sometimes fill a layer of blended color as directed.
The observance of voicing and dynamic changes that played out in the group musical setting spilled over to the piano with its vast orchestral resource, making me more responsive to the fabric of music from various historical periods.
Studying the violin and piano brought the following adventures: two music camp summers with solo opportunities, orchestra membership and chamber music experience.
A 13-year old camper in Merrywood in Lenox, Massachusetts, I was the second violin in a String Quartet with more advanced players. Naturally, I had to invest significant practice time to be ready for the final recital of Mozart’s String Quartet in G Major, K.387.
(The photo below, old and damaged, has a sad tear through its center)
Eugene Lehner, the man pictured beside me was our chamber music coach. Simultaneously he was principal viola of the Boston Symphony and a member of the Boston Fine Arts Quartet. Lehner, a demonstrative coach, danced around us, cajoled, conducted, smiled and grimaced at points in the music. His teaching was so imbued with passion, pulsation, and musical sensitivity that it easily seeped into our veins.
By coincidence, Lehner had met up with harpsichordist, Elaine Comparone years later in a chamber music class at Brandeis, making our connection even closer than had been thought. In the music world six degrees of separation could easily shrink to three.
Comparone’s bio gives testimony to the value of exposure to more than one instrument.
Here’s a snatch that caught my eye.
“Born into a family of musicians, Elaine Comparone began piano studies at age four with her mother.
“As a child she played violin, flute (with her father as teacher), and pipe organ; but it wasn’t until her student years at Brandeis University that she discovered and fell in love with the harpsichord.”
So with 4 instruments under her belt before choosing the harpsichord in adulthood, she had a firm bedding for a career that reached in more than one direction. Try the Bach Cantata No. 78, with so much going on, that a conductor need know voicing, instrumentation, color, phrasing and more, plus possess a hands-on feel for various instruments including their tuning; timbre; and range of expression.
In my case, simultaneous violin and piano studies brought diverse musical experiences and settings.
In one venue, I was concertmaster, as previously mentioned of a student orchestra. In another I was the second violinist in a string quartet and the same in the the New York City High School of Performing Arts (P.A.) Orchestra.
In still a different setting, I was in a pit orchestra that played for an Off-Broadway show.
When I performed the first movement of Mozart Concerto K. 453 at P.A.’s Winter concert, I left my seat in the violin section to go to the piano, and then returned to the orchestra fold to accompany a cellist playing Bruch’s “Kol Nidre.”
A sight to behold, in the nervous shuffle.
The summer I spent in Merrywood included camp jaunts to Sunday rehearsals of the Boston Symphony in tree-draped Tanglewood.
At least one evening per week we ventured to the Shed to hear chamber music with autographed programs flowing from these outings.
The names “Bernard Greenhouse,” “Joseph De Pasquale,” “Richard Kapuscinski, “Eugene Lehner” and “Sascha Schneider” popped up on Berskshire Festival Chamber Music Programs, and one special hallmark concert that featured Isaac Stern performing Beethoven’s violin concerto with the Boston Symphony produced the most sacred treasure of all.
With tears streaming down the violinist’s cheeks while playing, he had stolen my heart. Just moments past the final cadence, I had no control over my actions or behavior, and made an impulsive break with the camp bus schedule, running to find the soloist wherever he was.
In my haste, I recall passing through a hallway where BSO personnel played poker with visors on. Was I dreaming? Chips and cash bills were floating around. I tried to look the other way.
When I finally located Stern in the Green Room, he wore a silky scarf draped around his neck, and stood beside his mother. Naturally, I nudged a concert program into his hands and begged for a signature. He complied, his eyes still moist.
For my indulgence of his time, and that of awaiting campers in buses that were backed up and stalled, I was grounded from play activities for a heartless week.
Nonetheless, an autographed program, though stigmatized, survived decades of time and resides somewhere in this room.
Meanwhile, another that managed to turn up in a musty closet.
My piano and violin studies co-existed for at least 6 years, at which point I turned toward my true love, the piano and pledged fidelity forever. Time was sparing and my practicing needed focus.
Still, to this day I hunt down opportunities to play chamber music in my role as pianist. These have included performing the Beethoven “Ghost” Trio when I resided in Fresno, and the Brandenburg Concerto No. 5, Gigue movement, memorialized in a blog about Merrywood Music Camp.
Finally, my performance of the Mozart G minor Piano Quartet that dates way back in time to the Appel Farm Art and Music Center in Elmer, New Jersey brought the virtuoso violist, Toby Appel to our ensemble. He was about 9 at the time.
In those days members of the Philadelphia orchestra enriched and cross-fertilized our camp experience, just as learning another instrument besides the piano will accomplish the same for those who embark upon the dual instrumental adventure.
What Pianists Can Learn from String Players
Merrywood Music Camp Adventures
Appel Farm Music Camp and the Chicken Coops