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What pianists can learn from opera singers

You Tube has its distractions and delights often to the benefit of pianists, especially when a colorful personality springs upon the screen who rises above and beyond her particular art form.

I can confidently say that I was happily blessed to have been side-tracked by a Masterclass appearance at Juilliard by Opera diva Joyce DiDonato. An earthy mezzo soprano born of the Midwest, she spoke in a universal language to an intimate and simultaneous U-streamed international audience.

So what did I know about the world of glittery coloraturas that could have any practical application to piano teaching and performing?

While pianists had to cultivate the singing tone, they faced the challenge of rising above their instrument’s hammer mechanism to find a spiritual core of musical expression. (Our vocal cords seemed subsidiary to our fleet fingers)

Murray Perahia, “tone poet” of the piano, enjoyed early exposure to opera performances at the Met (NYC) as a toddler, propped in his father’s lap.

The pianist recalled the deep impression these staged musical productions made upon him as he soaked up ingredients of drama and molto cantabile that seeped into his playing, ultimately creating a bigger than instrumental-centered expression. (Underline the divine, full-bloomed breath of his immaculate phrasing)

My early memories of the Bronx where I was born, included weekend-beamed Metropolitan Opera radio broadcasts of Traviata, Carmen, The Magic Flute, etc. introduced and critiqued by Milton Cross in his indomitable squeaky voice.

How could I forget the strains of Bizet’s “Habanera,” with its rhythmic intensity so appealing to a child engaged in imaginative play. (My mother would tell the story in her own words)

To see the production, “live” years later, added a dramatic component that heightened my pleasure and expanded musical consciousness…which brings me back to Joyce DiDonato as she rehearses Drama Queens (Royal Arias from the 17th and 18th Centuries) with interspersed commentary that underscores communication and emotional engagement. (these being so fundamental to performing) In addition, the two video links below are equally applicable to our collective journeys as pianists.

Here they are:

An excerpt from the Q and A following Joyce’s Juilliard Masterclass, titled, “On your Inner Critic,” and her Vlog, “Handling Nerves.” (Take note of her focus on BREATHING)

I can say with confidence, that absorbing the multifaceted dimensions of this opera diva’s artistry brought home the unity of our creative undertakings as “musicians” and bestowed an expanded horizon of learning that adds to our growth and development.

Joyce DiDonato’s Official Website

What we can learn from String Players

Singing in our culture and vocal inhibition

Performance Anxiety and the Pianist

Piano warm-ups, Chopin and the Art of Breathing

Murray Perahia is in a league of his own

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