Friday 12th June, 2020

A spade is a spade;
a pianist is a pianist

A pianist, however versatile they may be, is often pigeon-holed into a particular role. Words About Music participant Paige Gullifer spoke with Leigh Harrold, 2020 National Music Camp piano tutor, who invites us to reconsider our view of the art of pianism, and provides insight into the world of working with pianists.

Bartók | Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion

Hear a performance from AYO National Music Camp 2020, featuring Scott McDougall, piano; Leigh Harrold, piano; Rob Cossom, percussion; and Alex Timcke, percussion. Spoken introduction by Words About Music participant Paige Gullifer. Listen while you read!

I just have to ask you: what’s the best term to use? Are you an accompanist? Collaborative pianist? Associate artist?

The term I actually prefer is just ‘pianist’. Traditionally one talks about pianism in terms of one’s specialisation: oh that person’s a soloist, that person is an accompanist, that person’s a choral repetiteur. We don’t tend to do it with other instruments; someone introduces themselves as a violinist and we just accept that they have the capacity to perform concertos, lead orchestras, be part of string quartets. One’s training as a pianist needs to encompass a large array of skill sets.

What’s something you wish young musicians knew about working with pianists?

It’s good for them to know that pianists in accompaniment roles are taking their work seriously and want to do a good job. We’re very happy to accommodate things specific to certain instrumentalists; a flautist might ask me to accelerate through a certain passage because they need to take a breath. In return I would hope that I can also provide them with instructions that help me better execute my part: for example if I have a lot of notes under something sustained on their part. All I can ask for is mutual respect and an understanding of each person’s role. Often a duo sort of format can fall into a strange middle ground between ‘solo’ and ‘chamber music’, but I think the expectation is that we make great chamber music together.

And from the young pianist’s point of view?

The main thing is a young pianist needs to listen and be responsive. Working with others is an interesting thing, because—as silly as it sounds—pianists need to look at their hands, so you need to focus on developing great acuity. You’ll need to learn to work in close proximity with other musicians, something that might be more foreign for pianists. You need to have great control over the whole of your instrument, and chops and flexibility that will allow you to not only grapple with say, a Chopin piano concerto, but also play an ‘accompaniment’ part.

At what point in the learning process do you think students should start collaborating?

As early as possible. It’s never too early to start developing those skills in terms of call and response; for a young instrumentalist there’s a great thrill in learning how the way you play can change the way you interact with other musicians. It’s an empowering experience, because as a young performer you are told how to play music and often criticised. It’s inevitable, and it’s the way we get better. But working with others is an occasion where you’re suddenly not told to do something, and your playing changes the playing of someone else. It provides you with the skills to be adaptive, and it’s never too early to be taught these skills. The earlier they’re in your domain, the easier it is for you to utilise and develop them.

Leigh Harrold with Syzygy Ensemble

What are some memorable performances that you think are relevant to this year’s National Music Camp?

I’ll never forget my time at camp which was 2000 and something… Lisa Moore was the piano tutor. It was my first exposure to full-on orchestral piano playing. We played Respighi’s Fountains of Rome and Lutoslawski’s Variations for Orchestra. The Lutoslawski especially was really amazing; just being part of something so huge—one of about 80 parts—but having such an important role was quite significant.

I also had a wonderful experience a few months ago with Melbourne Symphony Orchestra musicians, performing Bartok’s Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion, which is, well, exactly how it sounds: a big grand piece for two pianos and two percussionists. One of the percussionists in that performance is here tutoring at camp—Rob Cossom. We both love that piece so much, and it was such a chamber music highlight for both of us and we had to play it again. We eventually realised that we’d both be here and so it made its way into the chamber tutor concert last week. We had so much fun with that piece and it’s exciting that we’ve been able to bring it here for others to experience.