i’ve got rhythm…

I spent last week engaged as the pianist for the Noyes School of Rhythm, which holds summer workshops on a 100-acre property, Shepard’s Nine, in Portland, CT.

In many ways, it was the ideal gig.  For a few hundred dollars, plus room and board, I spent an entire week with no responsibilities other than playing the piano.  Two classes each morning, a free movement session called “Playtime” in the evening, with the afternoons free for my own practicing.

The setting, too, was fantastic — I did all my playing at a Baldwin baby grand in an open-air structure called the Pavalon.  Built at the edge of some woods, the Pavalon opens out onto a clearing which looks toward a distant hill.  One afternoon, while practicing, I noticed a fine mist was dropping from the sky — I stepped out, gazed across the valley, and saw the hill half-covered in blue-gray haze.

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I’m still unfamiliar with the overall principles and techniques of Noyes Rhythm, so I don’t know quite how to describe the classes.  But each one was built around a particular narrative, a guided-imagery excursion, which would lead the women in the class through a sequence of free movement, technical development, and focused rest.  Each new segment of the class, each new change in imagery, would be underscored by a different musical excerpt, ideally with one flowing seamlessly to the next.  The teacher and I would compile the music in the half-hour before class.  Often, she’d have specific excerpts in mind, but there would usually be at least a piece or two that she’d want ideas for.  “I need it to sound like…”, she’d say, describing a particular image, and my admittedly poor acquaintance with the piano repertoire would be put to the test.  This Chopin?  That Debussy?  Maybe some Grieg?  It could be anything.  Almost no sooner would we settle the play-list, as it were, then it would be time to start the class and I’d dive right into the music, more often than not reading it for the first time.

I’ve always been a strong sight-reader.  It’s how I managed to keep working as a theatre pianist for so many years.  But this really got me to step up my game.

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I got to put my own imagination to work with each evening’s Playtime — an hour-and-a-half-or-so session of free movement for which I’d compile the program.

This was trickier than it might sound, because there are many decades (almost a century!) of tradition and practice surrounding Playtime, especially when it comes to the flow of pieces.  The evening starts with a couple of rags, then maybe a songbook standard or two, with the rest a variety of forms, styles, and genres.  I’d brought a dozen or so books of my own, but the School has an extensive collection of scores (in a wide range of conditions) kept in crates at the Pavalon.  As in the classes, Debussy and Chopin were always welcome, but they needed to be mixed up with folks like Brahms and Mendelssohn (I played a lot of Mendelssohn), with lots of room to explore lesser-known composers and works.  One of my favorite discoveries was a collection of Finnish piano works which yielded at least one Playtime “hit”.

As the evening progresses, it is expected that the music will grow more substantial, both in length and depth.  This was my biggest challenge, since these works take a good deal more preparation.  And though I had the afternoon to myself to practice, it was a deceptively small amount of time, since I spent the vast majority of it just pounding through as much material as possible in order to compile that night’s program.  So I had to be very judicious when it came to devoting more than just a cursory reading to any one selection.

On Thursday night, I took what for me constituted a giant leap — I decided to play the complete Pathetique Sonata.  I realize, for most piano professionals, that seems like small beans (is that actually an expression?).  But I hadn’t so much as glanced at that sonata since my freshman year at IU — that would be fourteen and a half years, for those wanting to do the math — and my study of the piece at that time was not entirely successful  (my study of most pieces in college was unsuccessful).  I remember having issues with the octave tremolos in the first movement, and my finders were never quite nimble enough for the third.  I was thrilled, then, when I began playing through it last week and found many of the technical challenges of yesteryear were now practically non-existent.  That may not seem like a significant discovery, but considering the immense baggage I’ve carried for years about my abilities as a pianist, it was actually very meaningful to realize I had, in fact, come a long way since my undergraduate deficiencies.

Anyway, the Beethoven was very well-received.  In fact, the Thursday Playtime overall was the best I’d done all week, which meant I had set the bar high for the week’s final one.  As I pencilled in my journal late Friday night:

So, tonight, I had to live up to the standard I’d set myself, hoping I hadn’t peaked too early.  I played Stardust towards the beginning.  It made me think of Bloomington and I almost teared up…

I braved two old war-horses back-to-back — the Rachmaninoff C# minor prelude, and Un Sospiro.  With the Rach., I was pleasantly surprised at how quickly a lot of the muscle memory came back to me, especially since I haven’t played it in almost 15 years.  The Liszt was more problematic, as there are still spots that trip me up and I’ve just never addressed them properly.

In spite of my own criticisms, the women really enjoyed the selections, especially the Liszt.  I guess they weren’t the only ones, either.  As I played the final, pianissimo chord, there was an absolute cacophony of birdsong surrounding the Pavalon.  It was like nothing I’d ever heard.