This article originally appeared in a fascinating quarterly called Philadelphia Music Makers.  I'm posting it here because I like the way it came out.  I think it gives you some understanding, in a brief article, of the things a certain kind of musician puts into her work.  The Lyric Fest series mentioned in the article is a lively art song series I've been enjoying for several years.  AVA is the Academy of Vocal Arts-- a small, tuition-free Philadelphia school that has played a major role in the history of American opera.







By Tom Purdom


“I do not want to sound like I’m playing the piano,” Laura Ward says.  “Ever.  I always think orchestrally.  Because it’s so much more interesting to listen to.”

  Ward is discussing a song Gustav Mahler composed for voice and full orchestra.  Her hands curl and uncurl as she demonstrates how she tries to reproduce the sounds of an orchestra when she is playing a piano version of an orchestral accompaniment.

In the places where the original score calls for woodwinds, Ward explains, she plays with her fingers curved.  For strings, her hands are flat.  Mahler’s orchestra score starts with “desolate sounding clarinets” so she doesn’t use the pedals.  “I take out all the nuance.  There can’t be any nuance. No rubato, no pedal."

As the audiences for the Lyric Fest song series are aware, Laura Ward is a pianist who surrounds art songs with accompaniments that set scenes and create moods.  She discovered the attractions of accompanying when she played for her high school chorus in her native Texas.  She has never had any ambition to be a soloist.  She discovered she could get a master’s in accompaniment while she was majoring in musical pedagogy at Baylor University.  She received her MA from the Cincinnati Conservatory, and her doctorate from the University of Michigan program headed by Martin Katz.

She is probably one of the best-known accompanists in the world, thanks to a step she took soon after she received her doctorate.  She was living in Milwaukee at the time, so she called the largest music publisher in the city, Hal Leonard Publishing, to see if they had anything she could do for them.  The editor she talked to told her he did a lot of Music Minus One recordings and suggested she prepare an audition.

For vocalists, Music Minus One recordings are a useful practice tool--  a recording of the accompaniment played so the singer can study the song by singing with an electronic partner.  Ward has now recorded accompaniments for over two thousand songs.  When singers buy a book from Leonard, they receive one of her CDs with it.  She has also co-edited song collections by Strauss, Faure, and Brahms for the Hal Leonard Vocal Library.

“I really prefer being in the company of people and not spending all that time in a practice room by myself,” Ward says.  “I have spent a lot of time in a practice room by myself.  But I really enjoy collaborating much more than playing solo music.  I just find that much more rewarding.”

If a song was originally composed for voice and orchestra, Ward starts her preparations by listening to a recording of the orchestral version, so she can hear the kind of sound she is trying for.  If the accompaniment was originally written for the piano, “I still think about it orchestrally,” Ward says.  “According to the words.  If you can give people different colors as much as possible and give them different things to listen to and focus on, I think it’s much more interesting.”

She always learns the vocal part herself.  “That’s your radar.  You have to be a sympathetic listener.  So I practice by myself singing their part.  So you know where it’s tricky because of the words.  And so you know where they need to breathe.”

A good accompanist needs to know how each breath should be treated, Ward points out.  For some breaths, the accompanist should pause with the singer.  For others, she needs to play over the breath.

“Either the phrase is going to continue and you have to kind of help them move along, or they need a pause.”

When Ward actually starts rehearsing with a singer, she concentrates on the tempos they’ll be comfortable with and-- again-- the places where they’ll breathe.  In the performance itself, she has to “have her radar out” and be prepared for the modifications good vocalists make as they sing.

“You have to learn how to predict where a singer might stretch and where they might speed ahead.  That’s the other reason you have to learn the vocal part.  That way, when they’re ready, you’re right there with them.”

Martin Katz once gave Ward a class in which he tried to outwit her.  “He sang a Samuel Barber song and he couldn’t get away from me.  He tried to speed up, he tried to slow down, and I stuck to him like glue.  He really tried to mess me up. And he couldn’t.”

She’s also willing to modify a part when necessary.  If a singer needs some extra help, for example, Ward will add the notes of the vocal part to the accompaniment, even if they aren’t included in the score.  “It’s all very subtle,” Ward says.  “The only people that would know are the singers or somebody in the audience who’s sung the song.  And they know exactly why you’re doing it.”

She has developed a personal technique for telling singers when they’re supposed to come in after a break.  She takes a deep breath, loud enough for the vocalist to hear it.

“It’s like a conductor’s signal.  You breathe and you get them in.”

Many singers find this very helpful, Ward says.  They frequently ask her to do it every time they’re supposed to make an entrance.

Ward is currently the official pianist for the Washington International Vocal Competition, the Astral Artists Auditions, and the Emerging Classical Artist Competition for the Marian Anderson award.  She worked as a vocal coach at the Academy of the Vocal Arts for five years before she decided that “with kids, I couldn’t do it all.”  She has performed at international festivals such as Spoleto and Colmar and coached for Westminster Choir College, the Washington Opera, and a number of other organizations.

The Lyric Fest song series is directed by Ward, soprano Randi Marrazzo, and mezzo Suzanne DuPlantis.  Ward and DuPlantis became friends twenty-five years ago, at summer festivals.  DuPlantis and her husband, Kevin McDowell, the director of AVA, kept urging Ward to come to Philadelphia, and she finally responded to an emergency request.  Her husband managed to arrange a highly successful relocation and they’ve now been here ten years.

Ward and DuPlantis fantasized about a song series for most of the time they have known each other.  Seven years ago, Ward sat down with Marrazzo over a cup of coffee and began the process that led to Lyric Fest.

Lyric Fest employs a unique format, Ward points out.  Each concert presents several vocalists singing four or five songs apiece, with the individual offerings tied together by a common theme.  In most of the concerts, in addition, the songs have been created by a smorgasbord of composers.

“Your ear doesn’t know what to expect,” Ward says.  “If there’s something you don’t like, just wait five minutes.”

The thematic material requires a lot of extra work, with searches through journals and letters for the excerpts interspersed between the songs.  But the Lyric Fest impresarios never have any trouble finding suitable songs.

“In the world of collaborative piano playing,” Ward says, “there is no way I can begin to learn all the repertoire I can learn.  I’m always learning new things.  Plus I get to be with people.  I get to utilize my talents and have a great time doing it, too.”


Copyright (c) 2008 by Tom Purdom. All rights reserved. This document may be printed out and archived for personal use. All other use is strictly prohibited. A slightly different version of this piece appeared in Philadelphia Music Makers.

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