As both a member of the audience and a player in the piano trio, I found the masterclass a hugely informative and interesting experience. Zoe brings a lot of vibrancy to music as well as many years as a professional chamber musician and perfectly executed what we hoped to achieve.
Zoe covered a lot of interesting points for each group, but here’s a rundown on some of the wisdom that she shared that could be useful to all chamber musicians.
The string trio were first up with a movement from a Beethoven string trio. Zoe started with a discussion about tuning. When playing in a group with a piano, the piano is clearly the “boss” in terms of tuning – the strings need to tune to the piano and there is no argument. With an all string group, tuning up is more challenging, as a string group is like a multi-stringed instrument. For a string trio it has 12 strings, and a quartet it has 16 strings. If the group starts off with these strings out of tune with each other, then it is like trying to cook with off ingredients. When each instrument tunes up, starting with A’s in tune with each other and then tuning to fifths between strings, there can be differences between the intervals that mean that the lower strings are not in tune between instruments. A cello C may end up being different to the viola C. So it is important for players to check that their lower strings are in tune with each other.
Another issue that Zoe highlighted was the mismatch between the cello C string and the violin E string. When the players were asked to play these notes together, the interval did sound discordant. To address this Zoe tuned the cello in fourths, using the harmonic from the lower string plus the open string from the higher string. So for example, the harmonic of the D string (being a D an octave higher), and the open A. Because harmonics tend to sound slightly flatter, the lower string of each pair will be tuned slightly sharper, resulting in the C string being sharper, giving an interval between the cello C and violin E that is more concordant.
Zoe suggested that the cello be the reference in terms of tuning, as it is easier for a higher instrument to tune to a lower one (while acknowledging that as a cellist it is certainly easier for her!). Once everyone has tuned, the open strings of the viola and violin can be checked against the cello open strings.
Now that all strings were tuned to something close to perfection, Zoe moved on to the opening four note passage, where all strings play in unison. To get all players absolutely together is like all players walking in-step together. If one player is leading, then the other will be following and slightly behind. As an exercise Zoe had each player take turns in leading, and then had all players close their eyes and play together. Interestingly the “eyes closed” version was the most together.
The next aspect of unison playing was aligning the intonation. Once again the cello was appointed the reference for intonation and the other players were asked to align with the cello. The other two elements of unison playing that Zoe covered were matching bow speeds, and also the amount of vibrato.
There was a lot that was illustrated using just the first four notes, but the group now moved on, and Zoe talked more about how to keep the rhythm steady. In many passages there was a moving part, typically semi-quavers, which in this trio, Beethoven shares around between the players. Zoe described this part as the “rhythmic motor” as it drives the tempo. The player who is the rhythmic motor at that point in time needs to control the tempo, and the other players need to follow the rhythmic motor.
The second group was a piano trio (of which I am the cellist), which performed the second movement of the Smetana piano trio.
Our Lauriston music school play-in venue comes complete with a concert hall and Yamaha C5 grand, and while setting up for the Smetana, there was a short debate about whether to have the piano on short or long stick. We opted for short stick and continued on with our rendition of the Smetana. Zoe then took the opportunity to talk about the advantages of half stick vs full stick, complete with a demonstration of each by the trio, with an audience vote on which they preferred. The majority of the audience preferred half stick, with a few people commenting that the balance was better. Zoe's usual preference in performing is for full stick, as it provides more colour and clarity in the sound, and actually allows the pianist to play more quietly. My preference, as the cellist, was for half stick, to avoid the wall of piano sound that can make it hard for me to hear the violinist and even myself.
Although Zoe's usual gig is with the piano-free Flinders Quartet, she is no stranger to performing with piano, having recently recorded the Beethoven sonatas for piano and cello with Amir Farid. Benefiting from this experience, Zoe suggested positioning me (the cellist) in line with the “flat” section of the piano closer to the keyboard, rather than near the bell (the curved section), to reduce the piano volume that the cellist hears. How can I have played for so long to have not realized what a difference that makes? Now that I was positioned correctly relative to the piano, Zoe completed the job by pointing me almost straight out to the audience, rather than my usual angle of around 45 degrees to the stage, looking at the violin, and also lowering the stand so that it didn’t block the sound coming from the front of the cello. A cello can be difficult to balance with a piano, and the sound of a cello is quite directional, particularly at higher frequencies. The audience confirmed that the cello projected much better when pointing directly outwards. While this arrangement works well for sound heard by the audience, it does take some getting used to for the cellist. The piano is almost directly behind you and to see the violin you need to look away to the right. Our pianist also found the ability to see and communication with the cello less good. The diagram below shows the original and “Zoe improved” arrangement.
and angled toward violin
Shaded areas show high frequency (2-5 kHz) sound radiation
and angled toward audience
Shaded areas show high frequency (2-5 kHz) sound radiation
Another key difference between a piano trio and string trio is articulation. Strings in a piano trio often need to match the more percussive sound of a piano, particularly when playing a unison passage, such as the opening of the movement. Zoe had the group play the opening bars to match the articulation between instruments, before discovering that our parts incorrectly had different articulation marked – one of the traps with downloading music from IMSLP!