This is for all of you who struggle to keep a 9-foot concert grand in the same dynamic plane as instruments 1/10th of its size. For those of you for whom the left pedal is their best friend, and for whom forte and fortissimo in the score mean “pantomime playing loud while continuing to play as softly as before”.
Yes, my friend, I’m talking to you. Because no matter how sensitive you think you’re being, the string player sitting in the crook of the piano will always feel overwhelmed and tell you they can’t hear themselves. Not their fault, they have the most thankless seat in the house. They can easily say to me “You try sitting right in the butt of a gargantuan amp and tell me how you like it”.
But this is our rant, not theirs.
I mean, let’s state the truth for what it is. No one’s pointing fingers here, its just a shitty situation. Tensions run high when the majority of a chamber group feels consistently drowned out by an instrument whose horsepower of volume dwarfs their own.
This rant could easily also be called “what happens when you take things personally” aka: WHAT NOT TO DO. Therapeutic to write only because, well, frustrations need to be vented somewhere, and better here than in a rehearsal, where there should be a big sign of “Get Over Yourself” before sitting down to play.
See, the piano we rehearse with is a Steinway D, a beautiful instrument, but one whose size is more suited to a thousand seat hall than an intimate chamber space. It’s meant for concerto performances or solo. It also is a piano that’s naturally boomier and brassier than most; loose to touch, with basses that keep ringing long after you’ve taken off the pedal, and high notes that pierce rather than sing. And because we are a small nonprofit in the middle of the boonies, the piano cannot be regularly serviced or maintained. When you play 60-70 concerts on it per year, and rehearse on it daily, the fact that this instrument does not have a resident technician becomes an issue. It’s at the stage where it’s beginning to sound, (in the words of our visiting piano tech) “raunchy”.
Now that I’ve laid down all the excuses, let the complaints begin! Because there is nothing that makes you feel more like a musical amateur than your compatriot turning to you to ask “Can you hear us?” And there is nothing more frustrating than to spend days and days getting all the million notes of your part down, and working out the nuances of those million notes, only to have the one comment about your playing be “you’re too fucking loud”. (Therein lies another lesson – being too fucking loud can override all your hard work, so pay more attention to it).
But you know what I hate the most? When someone says “oh, you’re probably more used to playing SOLO” or condescends to tell you how chamber music works, because clearly you’ve never played with another person in your whole life. It is an extreme and erroneous response to take such comments so personally, but I have to admit that hearing such criticism negates the decades that I’ve spent learning how to play chamber music, as if I were just an oblivious idiot pounding away. You can of course say “well, play softer and no one would accuse you of being a noob”, and I can also say “I thought I was”, because to a pianist not sitting in the butt of the piano, what is soft actually sounds soft. I’m sure I deserved to be reminded of how inexperienced I am compared to my more experienced colleagues, but it might cause a less tense environment if string players did not automatically assume that all pianists are stupid soloists who aren’t listening. I mean, definitely tell us that we’re too loud, ALWAYS, but try not to bring up solo playing as a comparison. Unless we’re truly playing chamber music for the first time (See? I wasn’t done with the excuses. Typical).
I’ve developed some methods over the years to combat the density of most piano chamber music writing, (making arrivals count but getting off the loud chords almost immediately, voicing drastically towards the top, sparing pedal, going with shorter articulations, making all passagework leggiero), but when the piano is raunchy, the distorted quality of the tone makes those efforts kind of moot.
What I have to remind myself when I get butt hurt is that every time we tour and play in a venue where the piano is smaller, the comments are often on how there are “no balance issues at all!”. That maybe criticism from a frustrated string player who is sitting where the piano sound is the loudest is not a reflection of how shitty of a chamber musician the pianist is, but how chamber music has changed as the piano as grown in capacity. And to remember that the challenge is not insurmountable. The pianist just has to grow a thicker skin.