Artistic Standards

Tonight I went to the Museum of Fine Arts Houston. My original plan was to write about the experience of their exhibit Big Bambú: This Thing Called Life. After all, that was my original reason for going down there. But take a look at my Instagram for that. It was a very cool experience, but it's not what stuck with me as a topic for this post.

Instead, I found something in a nearby gallery that caught my eye. Really I could have written about just about any work, but what got me thinking is something in the Art of the Islamic Worlds gallery. It was the painting "Dancing Girl" by Muhammad Baquir.

Click on the image to go to the MFAH collection info.

Click on the image to go to the MFAH collection info.

Detail Matters

Next to the painting was a lengthy wall plaque describing the restoration process. Apparently the original painting was sealed with a substance that yellowed with age. A modern removal of the coating, and replacement with a modern coating allowed it to be viewed in its vibrant glory.

The plaque made a particular point of the detail. In particular, the pearls along the girl's waistband (which are not particularly visible in this photo) were painted with "a single flick of the wrist" and a slight shading of grey for dimension.

The precision and detail needed to pull off the hundreds of pearls is really staggering. Even up close, they are virtually identical and perfectly in line. This really incredible craftsmanship got me thinking about my work and the precision and detail that's needed.

Detail in the Performing Arts

There's an argument to be made that there's only so much precision you can have as a performing artist. When the goal is to create and recreate a work every time, the variations are part of the charm. No performance is perfect, and even "perfect" recordings are usually patched together from the best parts of a few takes.

But that has never been the realm in which I operate. For years now, my work has been subpar even for someone expecting the occasional flaw. I know for sure that one of my weaknesses are a performer is a lack of attention to detail and consistency. I play more wrong notes than a competent accompanist should because frankly I don't practice enough.

That's been a challenge as I've been working with my new piano teacher. It takes time and study to develop not just accuracy, but an artistic approach to a piece. In the summer I have plenty of time to do that, and when I'm working on just a few pieces for a long time, that's the goal.

But when I have to put together a show (200+ pages of music) in ten weeks, the simple fact is that I can't work every detail to the kind of precision that would be artistically ideal. And written accompaniments can be weak or downright unplayable, as any accompanist will attest to. 

Realizing Piano Accompaniments

So how do I deal with that? It's one thing when I'm playing Chopin, but playing a Sondheim piano reduction is another matter. What kind of detail should I be expected to realize from that? In Beethoven I can shape little miniature phrases, in Bach I can bring out individual melodies. But how much of that is important in the realm of playing a reduction for rehearsal?

I think most pianists I could interview would say "The more of that you can play, the better. An artistic accompanist is always better than a merely accurate one." So does that mean that as long as I'm a part-time accompanist, my piano skills are never going to be as good? How can I possibly catch up as long as I'm earning a living doing other things?

Where to start?

Those last questions are big ones. And honestly, I suspect the answer to the first is "Yes" and to the second is "I can't." But if I was going to make any progress at all, I need some kind of guidance. How do you grow as a collaborative pianist when you don't have many opportunities to collaborate because you're not a particularly good collaborator in the first place, and don't have the leisure to take on other commitments?

In the meantime, I think the best things I can do for myself are to continue to improve my piano skills overall, and to raise my personal standards for accuracy and artistry as a musician. "Accurate" and "competent" can no longer cut it. I have to find better adjectives.

Building an Audience

I've been spending a lot of time this summer reading Drew McManus's blog Adaptistration, after I happened on it just before the end of the school year. Drew is a prolific writer, and has published an article virtually every day since sometime in 2003. I've only made it through 2009 so far, but it's been fascinating reading.

Among the many things that Drew returns to over and over are the questions of how to make an organization socially relevant and financially solvent. That is, how to attract and keep an audience.

Throughout these early archives, Drew emphasizes relationships. He is constantly urging groups to communicate between management and performers, and reach out and genuinely listen to the concerns of stakeholders such as board members, performers, administrators, and the audience.

This has gotten me thinking about some topics that I first approached back in the spring. I work with two organizations that are trying to build an audience and a reputation. One of them, the Players Theatre Company in Conroe, claims a 50+ year heritage of community service through theatre.

And yet it has a vibrant, young competitor right across the street. Shows rarely sell out, despite a relatively small auditorium to fill. This suggests to me that their reputation doesn't speak for itself enough to attract unify the community behind them. How can they improve their standing?

The other company, The Woodlands Chamber Music Project (Facebook) (Instagram), exists in a somewhat untapped market. The northwest Houston area doesn't have any homegrown chamber music ensembles or performances. We want to bring this music to the area and generate some interest in the music, both new and old.

But so far, our three audiences have been made up almost entirely of family and close friends of the performers. How do we attract outsiders and people who aren't already invested in us personally? As we move forward, I want to discuss these things with my fellow organizers.

The live and performing arts are always struggling for their lives. Even artistically adventurous, culturally relevant organizations rely on donations and grants to help make ends meet. I still get calls from professional companies in Houston asking for donation. Is there any way a performing arts company can generate enough interest and find the correct balance of income and expenses to self perpetuate?