Joe's Blog

Basic Advice regarding ensemble playing: Part One of Two

March 1, 2017

Originally published on Facebook on 2.14.16

The ease or difficulty in remaining together with your partner varies with the difference in the timbre of your instruments. The greater the difference in the timbres the more challenging the task. But there is an alarmingly simple way around this. Let’s use as an example that I am playing piano and my friend is playing cello.

The first step for the pianist in removing the difficulty in matching timbres is to do away with the difference and play the cello part in one hand, and with the other hand play the notes that this other hand plays normally in the piece.

Since one person is playing, the parts will automatically be simultaneous and together. Achieving the togetherness becomes trivial because of the identity in timbres.

The pianist can reverse which hand is playing the cello part. If the pianist had played the cello part in the left hand, now play the cello part in the right hand, while the left hand plays the notes written for the pianist’s left hand.

It is good for the pianist to hear how each hand of the piano part, without the other hand’s part, sounds with the cello part. In each case the pianist will be hearing two thirds of the ensemble. The loss of the third  is made up for by learning how each hand meshes with the sounds of the cello part.

When both instruments are again there, and all the written notes are being sounded, the pianist can go through a transmutation of timbres. Even though the cellist is playing with the timbre of a cello, the pianist adds to her awareness, the imagined sound of the piano sounding the cellist’s notes. Then as the final stage the pianist no longer has to cover over the cello sound with an imagined piano sound, but is able to blend with the actual sound of the cello.

Let’s consider this from the cellist’s point of view. It is equally effective to the blending of the ensemble for the cellist to play the notes in the piano part – either hand. Then both artists play their respective parts together, but the cellist still ‘feels like’ s’he is playing the notes in the piano part, while more distractedly bowing and fingering the notes written in the cello part.

The end goal, as in all the forthcoming advice on ensemble playing, is for each person to feel responsible for creating every sound in the ensemble not just those belonging to her proper instrument.

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