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11 minutes reading time (2274 words)

Fostering collaboration: Elementary and intermediate works for pianist and narrator


By default, being a pianist can feel like a lonely musical pursuit. Students frequently take private lessons, practice alone, perform solo repertoire, and only occasionally play duets with a teacher, family member, or friend. It is not until after many years of private study that students are finally encouraged to collaborate with other student musicians, frequently without having had any prior ensemble experiences. Suddenly immersed into the world of collaboration, pianists are often adrift without a solid foundation of skills to guide them. When compared to band, choir, or orchestra—where students collaborate from day one—it is no surprise that studying piano can feel like an isolating experience. It can seem like a pursuit where the joys of creating music with peers—and the collaborative skills developed in this activity—are left to those who pursue piano through the more advanced levels. There must be something teachers can do to help expand a student's musical horizons while fostering a sense of camaraderie among young pianists. 

Thankfully elementary and intermediate-level pianists need not be left behind in the collaborative process! An exciting new world awaits students and teachers in the overlooked area of works for piano and narrator. Before ever having to negotiate an independent vocal or instrumental line in conjunction with the piano score, students are eased into the artistic demands of a collaborative pianist and gain the necessary skills and confidence to help them succeed in this new role. It is through these experiences that they

• Develop rehearsal and performance skills such as initiating/responding to cues, discovering the importance of breathing, and developing awareness of balance; 

• Explore the relationships between text and piano, including the ways in which each part may influence the other; 

• Examine how individual pieces contribute to a larger work, such as to song cycles, and how to execute these pieces as a complete work, and; 

• Experience the joy and camaraderie of creating music with others while paving the way for future collaborations. 

Fundamental collaborative skills are alive and thriving in Hungarian composer Lajos Papp's charming work The Stonecutter. Throughout this quaint story, the narrator's text and thirteen short character pieces alternate without ever occurring simultaneously. At first glance, one might argue how collaborative experiences could occur during a work in which the text and piano remain completely separate. Yet, upon closer examination, this work proves to be the precise introduction to the collaborative process that many young students need. 

In the truest sense of the word, collaborate, taken from the Latin words col—with, together, jointly and laborare—to labor, means "to labor together," and hopefully this will be the start of a lifelong labor of love and enjoyment for students.1,2

In The Stonecutter, the collaborative efforts obviously begin before the very first rehearsal. In addition to knowing her individual part, the pianist must also have a general understanding of the narrator's part, such as knowing where the character changes occur, and the location of the story's high and low points. As acclaimed collaborative pianist Gerald Moore proclaims, "Failure on the part of the accompanist to understand the poem, to appreciate the significance of the words, will ruin any decent song, and the accompaniment will sound meaningless and dead."3 Indeed, the evocative aural images are meaningless when the text is treated as a separate entity or vice versa. When unified in their musical intent, the vivid text paintings in passages such as "The Blazing Sun" (Excerpt 1), with its penetrating resonance of overtones, and "Huge Rock" (Excerpt 2), with its wide vastness of sounds and meter changes, support the story and together they transcend the printed page. Listening to these intricacies, reflecting upon them, and exploring the ways each part helps contribute to the work as a whole—akin to song cycles of the Romanic Era— propels this piece into a higher realm of artistic expression and development. 

Excerpt 1: “The Blazing Sun” from The Stonecutter, by Lajos Papp, mm. 1-9.
Excerpt 2: “Huge Rock” from The Stonecutter, by Lajos Papp, mm. 1-9.

Because the text and piano are never in tandem in this set of pieces, cueing musical entrances is not an immediate concern. However, appropriate pacing between them is crucial to delivering a convincing performance. The overall flow between music and spoken-word is never uniform, and, therefore, passages in which the text bubbles with energy and excitement lend themselves to a more subito entrance by the piano. Conversely, broad and expansive piano passages demand more time to breathe before the narrator continues the story. With a tale that is constantly evolving through a mixture of active and passive passages, students encounter the creative challenge of continuing the energy and momentum amid not only the moments filled with sound, but, more importantly and more challenging, throughout the moments of silence.

Erik Satie's Childish Small Talk, a set of three whimsical character pieces with the narration "…So then he was the sun. Immense power pulsed through his entire body, and he was thoroughly pleased with himself. He gave out his rays continuously, so that above and below him, in fact all over the globe and throughout the heavens as well, heat spread everywhere…" Excerpt 2: "Huge Rock" from The Stonecutter, by Lajos Papp, mm. 1-9. Excerpt 1: "The Blazing Sun" from The Stonecutter, by Lajos Papp, mm. 1-9. "…So he became the rock. And he was tremendously proud of his strength! The rock stood solid and still, unaffected by the sun's burning rays or the torrential rain…." Repertoire Fostering collaboration integrated into the piano score, expands the collaborative roles of the pianist and narrator. Unlike The Stonecutter in which the text and piano parts are separate, the text of Childish Small Talk is written between the treble and bass clefs. There is no written notation for the narrator, but rather the general placement of the words suggests when the text is to be spoken. Students have the option of using either the original French or an English translation (Excerpt 3).

Excerpt 3: "The Battle Song of the King of Beans" from Childish Small Talk, by Erik Satie, mm. 1-16.
Excerpt 4: “What Little Princess Tulip says” from Childish Small Talk, by Erik Satie, mm. 1-10.

The piano part in Childish Small Talk is not technically difficult and, given its sophisticated artistic demands, it is a particularly effective set for older students whose primary instrument is not piano. The entire set remains within the span of a pentascale, uses only white keys, and employs simple rhythmic patterns of eighth, quarter, half, and dotted half notes and rests. While certain Excerpt 3: "The Battle Song of the King of Beans" from Childish Small Talk, by Erik Satie, mm. 1-16. passages, as evident in the short movement "What Little Princess Tulip says," do require more lefthand finger independence than others, the entire set is technically straightforward (Excerpt 4).

At first glance, students might even wonder why rehearsal is even necessary since the pieces appear to be so "easy." However, they should not be deceived. As Gerald Moore warns, "The simpler the accompaniment, the more food for thought it will give to the sensitive pianist."4 Indeed, when an abstract text is paired with sparse musical writing, the narrator and pianist must intensely explore how to craft these unconventional pieces into a tangible, convincing, musical performance. Each note, syllable, movement, and breath must have a purpose.

Yet in order to craft a convincing performance, young collaborators need to explore the concept of being "in character" and then transitioning among various characters and pieces. As esteemed collaborative pianist Martin Katz reminds us, "No matter how beautifully a pianist may collaborate while playing, creating perfect ensemble, inflecting identically to the singer, structuring and scripting introductions, interludes, and postludes so it seems as if the soloist's mind is playing the piano—all of this can be undermined if care is not taken with the moments immediately before and after a piece. This requires being visually in touch with one's partner at all times."5 This eloquent testament to the importance of being in constant communication with one's partner (albeit with non-verbal communication) challenges the young pianist to create—often at the nod of a head or the blink of an eye—a musical canvas on which the story unfolds. It is equally important to know how and when to end this musical microcosm. Ending too soon robs the audience of this ethereal moment of fantasy, while prolonging the ending can result in awkward dead time. The strength and clarity of communication between performers is fundamental to the successful, convincing delivery of these pieces.

Addressing non-verbal communication provides the perfect opportunity for a discussion regarding tempo choices. While singers/narrators constantly discuss breathing in their lessons and performances, it is an equally important, often neglected, element for pianists. Music must have time to breathe at the ends of phrases and moments of energy must be allowed to surge ahead. Yet, in this set, the concept of breathing takes on not only a musical role, but also a practical role. Quite simply, the pianist cannot play faster than the narrator can speak articulately, the narrator cannot speak faster than the pianist can play clearly, and together the ensemble cannot perform any faster than they can convey the piece musically! More than simply slowing down or speeding up, students must synchronize their musical goals as an ensemble and choreograph how to orchestrate, communicate, and anticipate them.

Excerpt 5: The Fairy Tale of Teeny-Flea and Weeny-Louse by Carl Orff and arranged by Hermann Regner, mm. 10-13.

The Fairy Tale of Teeny-Flea and Weeny-Louse, a quirky piece composed by pedagogue Carl Orff and arranged by Hermann Regner, recalls the story of Weeny-Louse and her unfortunate fall into the soup pot. Reminiscent of a Grimm's fairy tale, this little ditty is full of unexpected characters and unpredictable twists and turns. Most of the narration is written in the margin above the grand staff, with the general placement of the words suggesting when the text is to be spoken, similar to Childish Small Talk (Excerpt 5). However, adding to the complexity of this gem are moments in which the narrator and pianist work in tandem to engage in playfully quick splashes of sound and energy that require both speed and precision (Excerpt 6). This work challenges the pianist to know the entire score in a much more intimate manner. Of course, the narrator must be aware of the piano motifs and the impending character changes, but the brunt of the responsibility for score awareness falls upon the pianist. The ability to assimilate both parts is taken to a more exacting level immediately before, during, and after the numerous segue passages. Due to these repeated motifs, the pianist must not only know the text and the specific manner in which the passage will be delivered, but also anticipate how much repetition is necessary before progressing into the next theme (see Excerpt 6).

Excerpt 6: The Fairy Tale of Teeny-Flea and Weeny-Louse by Carl Orff and arranged by Hermann Regner, mm 51-57.

 Given the sheer amount of repetition, it is very easy for the music to become static and boring. Yet with a slightly different mindset, the repeated motifs become the perfect platform for the story to come alive. Attention to subtle changes in dynamics, tempo, and articulation transform this somewhat plain accompaniment into exciting moments of action and emotion depending upon the character and/or significant plot moments. This transformation can occur only when the ensemble has a clear understanding of the shape of the text and how the music supports the story.

With the pianist and narrator performing in tandem as well as independently, The Fairy Tale of Teeny-Flea and Weeny-Louse helps the young collaborative pianist come full circle. The experiences of working with another musician and the exposure to new musical demands pave the way for more traditional collaborations with singers and instrumentalists. And while the development of these highly nuanced skills are fundamentally important in the education and development of a young musician, there is one more crucial, though often slighted, element to acknowledge.

The Stonecutter's Tale, Childish Small Talk, and The Fairy Tale of Teeny-Flea and Weeny-Louse represent broad musical styles with unique technical and interpretive challenges, but they also share one overarching common characteristic— fun. The enjoyment of music making at a high artistic standard whets the appetite for more collaborative experiences. Not every piece a student performs needs to be humorous or whimsical—nor should they be—but these pieces do open the door to learning new skills and encourage future collaborative experiences in an enjoyable manner.

Developing a shared sense of joy in music making and learning during the highly influential "tween" and teen years is crucial for lifelong learners. As teachers, we know that socializing and peer groups are dominant forces in the lives of our students. Fostering collaborative experiences in the elementary and intermediate levels of study and providing students with the necessary skills to succeed in these roles is an underutilized opportunity. These introductory experiences encourage more collaborative performances during the junior high and high school years, and ideally throughout a student's adult years as well. While most students will not grow up to have a musical career, every student can grow up to have a musical life. 

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May/June 2018: Variations
May/June: Perspectives


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