Collaborative pianists: a conversation with Ray Wong
Ray Wong is doing a masters degree in collaborative piano at Juilliard and finishing his doctorate in solo piano at the Manhattan School of Music. At Juilliard he mostly accompanies vocalists or string players. He used to play violin and says that’s where his heart belongs: with violin music. His sister played cello so he also knows and loves the cello repertoire very much.
For Ray, the main difference between playing with singers and string instruments is in the different way of breathing and in the balance. The young man truly loves playing with violinists. For him, the beautiful part is in the search and harmonization of the color blending between the two instruments. He enjoys the longer line you get when playing with violinists because they don’t need to physically breathe. “With a really good violinist you don’t even hear the bow change so the phrase gets even longer and that drives you forward musically. With singers, sometimes they might not hit a note the way they expected to and they will need to take a breath earlier. Or if they hit it perfectly, they will want you to hold it longer so you are always tiptoeing.”
The best collaborations happen when the pianist doesn’t need to watch the violinist to feel his intentions. “With the best violinists, I can hear everything in the bow or the vibrato. Some violinists don’t pay attention to that; they feel like we are just watching them to come in time. But it’s not authentic, organic, the music is not genuine.”
The young man says that it’s also nice when the violinist is aware of the register in which the piano is playing. Therefore it doesn’t push the pianists too much into the corner or make them feel too small. “We end up playing on eggshells when the violinist is playing too soft at a place that is not comfortable for us. It’s great when violinists have a pallet of different colors for a same nuance. Then it allows us more freedom and a warmer sound.”
After 20 minutes of interview the roles change and Ray asks me – as a violinist – what I look for in an accompanist, what would make me want to play with someone over and over again. I am looking for pianists with personality. I am looking for pianists who will not give away everything they are to accommodate and simply “accompany” you. Accommodation doesn’t push you forward: you stay stuck with your own old things and ideas, even though you are playing with someone else. Your personalities don’t have to match but it’s your enthusiasm that should. Maybe there is nothing specific I am looking for, maybe it’s just chemistry. For sure though, working with an accompanist should be more like a conversation between two musicians rather then passive listening on the pianist’s part.
Then Ray asks how important it is for me that an accompanist hit every single note? I answer that clarity of the musical intentions and ideas win over the mechanical accuracy. Of course I am waiting for the “important” notes. When I play alone I imagine some sound under the violin line. So when I don’t get what I have imagined from the piano it can throw me off. I am looking for a motivated pianist maybe before anything else. In the same vein, the choice of the score’s edition, especially when playing a concerto, can make a big difference. In the end, you look for an edition and a pianist that will give you that certain texture you get from an orchestra.
So maybe music is not so much about the notes but about the intentions. “When the violinist knows what he wants and shows it clearly, that puts a smile on our face”, agrees Ray. “It inspires us to create.” That’s partially why he wanted to go into accompanying: because of this repertoire that teaches you to be creative. “It’s annoying to play with a musician who is fine with everything; there is just nothing to get there.” In fact, others’ ideas confront you, confront the music. Even if in the end you don’t keep a certain idea at least you thought it through and have the feeling you really build something. Confirming your ideas makes you feel good; you can move on and do more. Ray says that violinists shouldn’t be afraid of asking the pianist’s opinions. Vocalists can’t really hear themselves; it’s more like a sensation when they sing. So they ask for the pianist’s opinion all the time. You have to care for the other one. “It’s by asking the other’s opinion that you build friendships and a real sense of what you want to do with the piece. There is no feeling like walking into a performance knowing that you have discussed the tempo, the phrasing and everything else.”
Published on Violinist.com on May 2014: