The uncertainties we encounter as performers translate to the risks we face and manage on the spot. Before arriving at the venue, we have no idea how we will sound and how the audience will respond to our music. Getting to the venue poses other uncertainties, particularly if the journey is susceptible to traffic congestion and delays.
Musicians who bring their own instruments have one less uncertainty to worry about compared to those who rely on the instruments provided. By this token, pianists have to get used to a lot. Other surprises have to do with room acoustics, audience, and technical adequacy.
One way to control risk is to reduce the number of moving parts. This year we decided to stick to one programme with minor alterations, unlike the previous year of changing programmes every month and nearly custom-tailoring to every venue and occasion. By restricting ourselves to a fixed set of duo works, we were able to focus on the way we play together rather than tackling each piece individually.
As a pianist, I feel more prepared if I know what kind of piano to expect. The top models such as Steinway, Bechstein, and Borsendorfer grand pianos give me confidence that I don’t have to exert extra effort to “control” the instrument. An unknown name or an upright piano gives me an added worry that I’d have to get used to how it sounds, whether I’m able to play repeated notes, if I will need extra pedal control, if it would go out of tune, and how I should sit so that I can still see and hear the guitarist.
Recently I played on a Steinbeck upright. The name rings a bell. It sounds like Steinway — could it be a relative?
The guitarist observed that it was Bechstein in reverse. That’s why it sounds so familiar!
Unfortunately the piano did not behave like either a Steinway or a Bechstein. It was not evenly tuned, making it difficult to play with another instrument in this chamber music setting. Worse, it got progressively out of tune the more I played.
Pianists have a prejudice when it comes to their instrument. Grand pianos look and sound better than uprights in general. The well-known models are more predictable (and reliable) than the unknown ones. Uprights are usually used for rehearsals and not considered instruments for solo or chamber music performance. Equally black is favoured over brown.
Unlike the pianist, the guitarist, who always faces the audience, feels the full impact of audience attention and reaction. Restlessness, movement, and noise can unnerve a performer’s concentration. With my side or back facing the audience, I can choose to ignore such distractions more easily than the guitarist who is more exposed.
“All that glitters is not gold.”
We thought it would be a good concert this afternoon in Amsterdam when we saw the Yamaha grand piano and raised stage. After we sat down to warm up, we noticed that only the treble notes of the piano were resonating. The bass notes drowned almost as soon as they were played.
The guitarist gestured to sit more closely together. He pointed to the floor to ceiling and wall-to-wall glass windows and doors. We were surrounded by glass on three sides. The low system ceilings further dampened the sound.
It was an acoustically challenging situation, not helped by the piano feeling rather new. The action did not allow me to play fast runs or repeated notes.
“We’ll have to take it easy,” he said. “Slower tempos.”
The one hour concert (without intermission) was further exacerbated by the restless audience. Ten minutes before the end, we heard the foot steps of a staff member wheeling a resident out the door. It was so loud that it sounded like a third instrument, only off stage.
We took our bows and walked quickly to the windowless dressing room on the side of the stage. We were exhausted from having to cope with elements incompatible with what we had hoped for.
“Come on,” I urged. “Let’s get out of here.”
“I don’t think they’re used to classical concerts,” he concluded. “You have to arrange the opera overtures for our duo quickly. Those are the tunes they’ll recognise.”
We had forgotten that there is risk in the repertoire. Most of the composers and works for piano guitar duo are unfamiliar to most audiences. Perhaps more familiar works or composers would reduce the uncertainty in audience reaction.
I leaned against the doorway and agreed. It’s about time we focus on getting a CD to send to those venues equipped with grand pianos and good acoustics, those that attract attentive audiences who would appreciate our music.