I used to accompany young singers (from beginners right up to seniors) in the local singing Competitions. I did this for quite a number of years until I just couldn't take it anymore. It's hard work: you have to keep the tempi of dozens of songs in your head, and have to remember any changes that have been made to what's on the page, and often you'd go straight from accompanying one child to accompanying another without any time to think about what the piece was that you were playing. And in some cases you'd have the singing teacher hissing at you from the wings if the tempo wasn't quite up to scratch, or if you didn't seem to be doing quite what they wanted...
Of course you had a rehearsal with all these kids. One rehearsal for each child and for each piece. You'd also have the music in hand a week or two before so you could practice it. And truth to be told, most of the pieces were a doddle to play, since they were geared at little kids.
The seniors' music was a different kettle of fish, though usually things weren't quite so pressurised with their competitions. You didn't feel constantly rushed. On the other hand the music could be quite complicated, and required you to actually practise the stuff. That was no problem, and enjoyable, and often very satisfying. I accompanied some very fine young singers over the years, a number of whom have gone on to much bigger things.
Anyway, I haven't done the singing comps for some time, apart from maybe playing for one or two singers who happened to come my way for some particular reason. I'm due to accompany a young fellow next week, for instance, at the senior comps. Just one person.
I've very rarely accompanied instrumentalists in the instrumental comps. This is a different kettle of fish again. (That's three kettles so far.) I think the last time I did I accompanied an instrumentalist (apart from the Brass Band competitions, which are a fourth kettle of fish) was more than twenty years ago. I can't even remember now who I accompanied, or what instrument they played.
However, I got asked recently if I'd accompany a young clarinettist (she's in Year 13 at school) for this year's comps. The connection was that she'd been in the orchestra for Grimhilda! (as had her mother). Only in that orchestra this talented young lady had played the violin while her mother played the clarinet! (Confused?)
I was happy to do this. And then I saw the music. One of the pieces was fairly straightforward: a movement from a Weber clarinet concerto with an orchestral reduction. The reduction was, overall, readable and manageable. I just needed to do some work on the scales that ran helter-skelter down the keyboard in a couple of places, and do a bit of jiggling with a bar which would be fine if you were a string player, but which doesn't fit under pianistic hands at all. So I rewrote it in a way that I could actually manage without falling over.
But then there were two of the Gershwin Preludes for Piano transcribed as pieces for Clarinet and Piano. Do they let the pianist off the hook? Not at all. Perhaps there are fewer notes, but there are some real 'moments' when you're leaping about the place or trying to fit a tricky rhythm into what seems to be an inordinately short space of time. I have really, really had to practice these. And they last less than a couple of minutes each.
Then there was the Jazz Variations on a theme of Paganini by Michael Garson. This is easy, overall - for the pianist - the clarinettist has notes going off in every direction. Check out these two youngsters playing it with insouciance. The jazz rhythms aren't anything to get your hair in a frizz about. But one stretch of about eight bars when the clarinet and the pianist's right hand play exactly the same thing is a bit of a killer: sixteen semiquavers to the bar, at speed, involving some really interesting turns and twists. (I have practised this five thousand times. I'm sure I have.) This actually came off very well in our performance. We stayed together beautifully - although I don't know when the clarinettist breathed. I'm not sure that I breathed either.
Finally there was another Weber: the first movement of his Grand Duo Concertant. When I first looked at this I thought, this is (sort of) okay. It probably doesn't go very fast. And then I watched a video on You Tube and discovered that it does go very fast. [Here's one example of several.] And keeps on going fast except for a few bars when either the clarinettist or the pianist take a slight breather. (There are more of these moments for the clarinettist than the pianist.)
I had to work. My fingers felt as though they'd gone back to the 50s or 60s when they were practising for a major exam. The only difference was that they're no longer as flexible as they were, and the brain doesn't fire as fast as it once did, and what, in the past, would happen almost without me thinking about it, doesn't happen any more. I have to think. I have to tell the fingers what to do (they seem to have lost their ability to just get on with it.) I have to say, Yes, we will practise this bit until you get it right. And even then, having got it right, they forget what they did yesterday and we have to start all over again.
They respond (a little sarcastically) that it's good for me. I haven't been impressed with anyone telling me this since I was a youth, when my best friend used to say it regularly. But they're right; it has been good for me to do some real solid practise, as I haven't been playing anything that stretched me since we finished the Grimhilda! rehearsals, apart from four piano pieces I wrote after the production was over that have sections in them that require me to do some work.
Besides the young artist I was playing for, there were a number of other talented musicians: one violinist was the sister of the young man who conducted Grimhilda!; deservedly, she won both the sections I saw her perform in. Another violinist was the young man who played the Parrot in Grimhilda! - connections all over. (And this morning the young man who did the lighting for the show turned up at the competitions, even though he was supposed to be in Australia.)
There was a pianist who played one of his own compositions - a theme and variations from his piano sonata. It a very good piece, full of intricacies, fun, jazz, noise, crashes and bangs and such huge chords towards the end that I didn't think there'd be anything left of the piano for me to play when it came to my turn. And he played it with enormous verve and confidence. I'd be happy to have half the confidence he's got, but sadly my confidence just has to gird its loins these days and do its utmost. It isn't there like it was in the old days.
There were also a couple of boys of Asian parentage (both brought up in New Zealand by the sound of it) who played the piano. One played a piece called Cat and Mouse, by Aaron Copland. This was a delight, though I'm not sure if the mouse survived or not. The other boy played a piece by a Japanese composer (I think - I didn't have a programme). This was a seemingly simple piece, halting and emotional, and wonderfully played.
The worst thing about the competitions is how few people attend. The audiences while I was there consisted mostly of parents, some relatives, and a few teachers. At one point there were no more than ten people in the audience. This is a crying shame, because not only are the ticket prices very reasonable, you get to hear some excellent performances by young people on their way up in the music world. And you get to hear some music that's unfamiliar. Even if I'm not playing for anyone next year, I think I'll go along just to hear what the local kids are doing. It's well worth it.