Monthly archives "March 2017"

TAO April 2017–Playing Well with Others, Part 2

Playing Well with Others, Part 2

Last month we looked at hymn-based service piano/organ duet literature. Let’s continue our survey by looking at some more wonderful pieces. Most of them are free compositions that will serve not only in worship, but also in concert. Some of our favorite classical pieces are now available in duet form. Dennis Janzer has added two useful transcriptions to the list. First, there is Handel’s Royal Fireworks Music (MorningStar Music 10-361) and the Marcello Psalm 19 (MSM 10-875). Though these composers never imagined they would ever be heard this way, these baroque masterpieces light up with two instruments playing together. Hearing familiar pieces in a new sonic palette freshens old favorites for veteran listeners while also appealing to new listeners in the audience. Try Gerald Near’s transcription of the Bach Concerto in D minor for Two Violins (MSM 20-912) or Hollingsworth’s lovely version of the Fauré Sicilienne (Belwin). Two larger works for you to look at are J. Fischer’s arrangement of Prelude, Fugue and Variation by Cesar Franck (Belwin) and the sublime How Lovely Is Thy Dwelling Place (arr. Billie Nastelin, H.W. Gray), lifted from Johannes Brahms masterpiece choral work, “A German Requiem.”
The grand tradition continues with classically inspired original works including Gerald Near’s broad, sweeping Aria (MSM 10-663) and Denis Bédard’s Duet Suite (Cheldar 32). This colorful five-movement work provides a variety of moods, masterfully constructed for early advanced players. I have extracted two Sunday’s worth of preludes from this work. My congregation found them immediately appealing. M. Bédard also has a small Capriccio (unnumbered) that he might just let you try for the asking. The granddaddy of all piano/organ duets remains the Clifford Demarest Fantasy, a powerful work in C minor. Demarest that introduces several themes, develops them beautifully, then builds the entire work to a rousing climax. It’s not too difficult and is a lot of fun to prepare.
Many other composers have tried their hand at this instrumental combo. Charles Callahan offers his gentle Poem (MSM 20-899) while Dale Wood offers Prelude and Jubilee (Sacred Music Press 70/1145S) for intermediate players. What a nice way to start a service! Equally interesting are two pieces by Paul Halley, which I combine for one prelude. Pianosong (Pelagos 4001) and Anthem (Pelagos 4002) give the piano a chance to shine with gently syncopated rhythms and simple harmonies that make “contemporary” a good thing. One of my favorite works by Emma Lou Diemer is her Sunday Suite (SMP 70/1144S). The movements are entitled “Praise,” “Dance,” “Song,” and “Prayer.” These early intermediate pieces remain in conservative harmonic territory, and they are delightful to the ear. Much more characteristic of Emma Lou’s audacious musical style is Variations on “Old One Hundredth” (Zimbel/Subito 80101268). She has crafted an audience pleaser, even as she loosens the constraints on her musical imagination. For most, this is an early advanced concert piece, although my congregation loved it as a summer sparkler. You will enjoy preparing “Variation,” “Meditation,” “Rag,” and “Grand Old Finale.” Give this one a try–you’ll love it!
When you think of piano/organ duets, you can’t leave out Joe Utterback. As you know, Utterback has an ear for writing fresh pieces with a jazz influence. He is a pianist, so these sounds are particularly effective in his hands. Let’s start with Images: A Jazz Suite (Jazzmuse 2000-184), which is a fun intermediate piece. The rhythmic challenges are approachable, because you have heard this style before—just not on the organ! Here are “Ballad,” “Dance,” and “Jubilee.” In a similar vein is his Celebrations (JM 323). Although a little more challenging than Images, the work is worth the extra effort. His exuberance for life shine through in “Jubilation,” “Remembrance,” and “Hallelujah.” Dr. Joe’s love of lush, dreamy harmonies compelled him to write Visions (JM 1997-126). While the organ part is only intermediate, the piano part is frankly early advanced. Covering a wide range of expression in one piece, this fantasy brings forth sounds your audience has never heard before. Beautiful!
Last month I declared Joel Raney to be the grandfather of the organ/piano duet. Here are some more works from his creative mind. First, Kum Ba Yah: A Suite for Piano and Organ (Hope 8002). Joel takes us through a set of character variations based upon “Dreamin’,” “Laughin’,” “Singin’,” “Shoutin’,” etc. Short pieces like these will engage even the most reluctant listener. So will a similar set of variations on “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands,” found in Keyboard Excursions (Hope 8209). In the same volume are settings of “Faithfulness,” “Cwm Rhonda,” “Materna,” and “Shall We Gather.” This volume has it all! Rounding out Joel’s organ/piano offerings is a very special volume, A Symphony of Spirituals (Hope 8098). He covers six well-known spirituals (“Great Day,” “I Want Jesus,” “Go Down, Moses,” “Break Bread Together,” “Promised Land,” and “Swing Low.”) in three movements to create a truly dynamic worship or concert work that might also just be perfect for Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend.

The art of playing well with others is a spiritual practice. First, there’s the practice you must do in the privacy of your own closet, so to speak. Then, there’s the whole issue of sharing the musical space with a partner. This alone requires a surrender-to-self that is as difficult a discipline as any other. Then there is the challenge of rehearsal—truly the ultimate test of spiritual gifts. As musicians, we surely hope that our rehearsal process is not as gory as that of making laws, or sausage! In truth, there is much more to practice than getting the notes right. Musical practice parallels spiritual practice in so many ways. The more we can use the spiritual gifts of patience, kindness, gentleness and self-control, the better our rehearsals will be. When we center our rehearsals on using these spiritual gifts, we can reach higher levels of musical quality. After all, “When two or three are gathered together, there is the spirit of the Lord (Mt 18:20).” Maybe, just a little of the spirit will show through when we play together in worship.
Let’s think through some simple tips for enhancing our ensemble rehearsals and presentations. When you invite another musician into your world, you are inviting a real person into the mix. Be sure to share your goals, whether short-term or long-term, and invite them to participate in developing your plans. Listen for shared values and interests, so that you both can enjoy the music you are going to make. Be sure to keep your goals realistic and focused on each other’s strengths. After all, we all have our technical limitations! Plan for more rehearsal time than you think you need, especially in a new relationship. Effective rehearsal needs time for playing—and for communicating about playing.
Sharing the musical space means building non-verbal rapport and developing a sense of each other’s musical sensibilities. Conversations about each others’ musical concepts for each piece will help develop a stronger mutual understanding. Reaching an accord between your musical concepts will lead to mutual trust in performance. Mutual trust is key to quality duo performance. Trust is built on several levels: accurate rhythm, displaying physical gestures that clearly signal your intention, using common breaths to assure musical phrasing. I recommend that you watch a few YouTube clips of duo-pianists or other chamber musicians as a way of gaining more insights into these music making essentials.
Yes, there is more to ensemble playing than meets the eye–or ear. Working with a musical partner involves side-by-side practice, and it involves developing a personal relationship with each other. Relationship is what the spiritual life is all about. Keyboard music practiced with spiritual intent is one more way we make Music into Sacred Music. We have spent two months looking in detail at the literature for one of many possible instrumental combinations. Let’s see what else there is next month, when we continue considering what it means to “Play well with others.” See you then.