Guitar meets piano; guitar orchestra & ukulele club

When musicians meet, they want to play together. They exchange recordings of themselves. Playing together is a way to establish whether they are compatible, whether they want to collaborate, whether there is a future together.

Such was the case when I met a classical guitarist more than seventeen years ago. He copied a recording of his guitar quartet on CD as a takeaway gift.

The next time we met, I brought the only piano guitar piece I owned — an arrangement of Vivaldi’s guitar concerto for guitar and piano. Eager to find more pieces to play, I visited music bookshops in my travel as magazine editor. He arranged music for us to play. Before long, we had collected and arranged enough sheet music to give a concert. Soon composers started writing for our piano guitar duo.

The subtitle of our first concert at the Makawao Union Church in Maui, in December 2007, was “four centuries of music for piano and guitar” —- which comprised of arrangements, original compositions, and commissions. We released the live recording of the concert as a CD in January 2011.

Nearly two decades later, the guitarist is conductor of a guitar orchestra while I have founded my own ukulele group. How do we combine the two? Is it possible?

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Effective rehearsal, excellent performance

The one time I was proud of my playing as a member of the guitar orchestra and the combined sound we produced was also the one instance that I had forgotten to bring equipment to video or audio record ourselves. The three pieces we played in the concert of 27th April 2018 were much easier than the repertoire of the two previous concerts. I felt in control. I felt like a contributing member of the ensemble. We started and ended at the same time, no extra noises. My only regret was that I did not record it, and we won’t be giving this concert again.

From the reaction of the audience (loud and instant applause after each piece and the prolonged applause at the end; individual compliments after the concert), I gather we didn’t do badly at all. What makes an excellent performance? The first clue, we had an effective rehearsal only four nights earlier.

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I Gotta Feeling for Easy Piano

Black Eyed Peas I Gotta Feeling is addictive and fantastic for piano ensemble playing.

I first heard the Black Eyed Peas in the Netherlands. I can’t remember how exactly I heard their smash hit “I Gotta Feeling” but definitely I worked out to it in the health club across the canal from my house. Anyway, every time I hear it, I just want to move. Their “Boom Boom Pow” is equally addictive.

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Piano orchestra

Definition of piano orchestra = many players on many pianos making orchestral sound, a rare event.

What do you do with 22 students in a classroom of just 15 electric pianos (2 of which do not sound) and one portable synthesizer for 3 hours?

  1. Let them take turns at the piano, one at a time. Give a lecture to the rest of the class. Swap.
  2. Put two students on each keyboard and have them play duets.
  3. Put two students on each keyboard and conduct them like an orchestra.

When I googled “piano orchestra” I found a variety of piano concertos and questions about the role of piano in the orchestra.

Truth is, it is rare to see so many pianos in one room, unless they are all for sale, in which case you can’t play on them as you wish.

On day one, I asked my students to play just the black keys. I split them into several section. One section played successive quarter notes. Another joined with half notes. The third joined with whole notes. I then improvised on high treble.

My father used to play Chinese songs just on black keys. Pentatonic music (using just the 5 notes of the 5 black keys) blend well in any order in any octave.

Now is my chance to deconstruct my favourite works, be they classical concertos or pop songs. Assign the parts to the various pianists. This way, everyone gets to play. Doubling up is fine. The string section does it all the time.

What I want to get across is simple:

  1. Most students of piano learn to play solo piano works. They advance to become soloists.
  2. Some learn to accompany choir or other instruments or voice.
  3. Others move on to become organists.
  4. Whether you’re an accompanist or organist, you serve the choir or congregation. You’re not equal.
  5. But when you play in an orchestra, ensemble, or chamber music group, it’s totally different.
  6. String players know this. Wind players, too. Brass players. Singers in choirs.
  7. But pianists in a piano orchestra? That’s nearly unheard of.

It’s hard to find pianos you can play in one place. It’s hard to move pianos into one place. It’s hard to find pieces written for many pianos.

But ah! such joy to play together! The full polyphonic sound of a piano orchestra!

[Note: this is my first blog post on an iPad!}

Impromptu for solo piano by Kim Diehnelt

Musicians meet each other through music and collaboration. Anne Ku performed and recorded the Impromptu for solo piano before she met the composer Kim Diehnelt in Chicago.

As a sightreader, I have an insatiable appetite to discover new music. Now and then, I receive a score that I want to sightread and perform for others. Such was one by the Chicago-based conductor Kim Diehnelt. Her music preceded her.

Impromptu for solo piano by Kim Diehnelt
Impromptu for solo piano by Kim Diehnelt

This is one way musicians get to know each other — through music.

At first I thought she was a conductor. She thought I was an agent or arts manager. Once I premiered her piece in Maui, I then got to know her as a composer.

Over an afternoon snack at Chicago O’Hare Airport recently, the first time we met face to face, I asked her about this piece.

The Impromptu was born out of a desire to capture a moment. Although a unique moment, it may very well be one we all have experienced.  A friend shared a brief description of a morning scene where Bach’s Prelude No. 1 flows from the radio, a glance towards the piano where this piece sits open, a memory from long ago surfaces. In a flash, all these combine into a new awareness of how the current self may meet the tasks of the day.

It is the moments of Between-ness that fascinate me. I hope performers – and listeners – will savor the ‘between-ness’ created with the appearance of each new note.       

Because I love the wine-tasting approach to music, the back page of the score has remarks similar to a wine label – “Austere counterpoint of quiet, timeless reflection punctuated by pauses of full, warm harmony. A captured moment – it lingers in the morning air.”

What’s interesting is that when Kim Diehnelt composes an ensemble work, she actually sees the score as an ensemble — not from a keyboard like many composers do. We discussed the importance of readability for playability down to the size of the measure. If it’s too long, the player may think it’s slower than usual. As a conductor, she knows what she’s looking for and what she wants to hear. When she sits down to compose, she can see it and hear it.

Listen to my recording of Kim Diehnelt’s Impromptu below.

Impromptu by Kim Diehnelt, as interpreted by Anne Ku (recorded on Steinway Grand model A, 1909 New York) in Utrecht, Netherlands, 4th August 2011 (mp3)