Solo Piano Reflections

A week before my performance in Ottawa on November 14th, Peter Hum contacted me and asked me a few questions regarding playing solo piano. This was prompted by a message he received from an Ottawa jazz fan:
“Should I go to Paradiso Saturday evening?  Do you think Chris will play anything different? As good as his solo work is, I’ve heard it enough – his CD, last gig at Paradiso, and the JazzWorks fundraiser. I await your guidance.”

Peter’s questions and my answers are below. In the coming weeks, I’ll be reflecting on his questions and other issues with playing solo piano in more detail.

1. How many tunes are in your solo “book?”

I always have at least two sets of music (14-16 songs) in my immediate repertoire (songs ready to go at anytime). But my entire performance repertoire (tunes I’ve performed at least once) is probably triple that. I wish I could have my entire performance repertoire in my immediate repertoire, but memory fades and maintenance can be very time-consuming.

It’s a balancing act. If I put more tunes in my immediate rep, then I won’t have as much time to learn new rep. If I spend more time on new rep, then I’ll have less time to spend on maintaining my immediate rep. I think I’ve found a balance that works for me.

2. What is the split between originals and other people’s compositions?

In my immediate repertoire, it’s usually one-third originals and two-thirds non-originals. The balance in my entire repertoire is more like one-fifth originals. One of my long-term goals as a composer is to invert that balance.

3. What are some of the criteria that attract you to developing other people’s compositions for your own performance? What are some specific examples?

I ask myself two things: 1) Does this composition move me? 2) Am I capable of sharing/re-creating this experience for my audiences? If the answer to both questions is “yes,” I’ll take steps to incorporate that composition into my performance rep.

  • Yes, Doug Riley’s music moves me. Yes, I think I can re-create that experience.
  • Yes, My Foolish Heart moves me (especially Bill Evans/Tony Bennett’s rendition). Yes, I think I can re-create that experience.
  • Yes, Bach’s music moves me. No, I don’t think I’m physically capable of playing his music.
  • Yes, Kapustin’s music moves me. Yes, I think I can re-create that experience (just barely!).

Being mentally capable is also important, but it’s not part of my initial criteria. I usually make that discovery while practicing for a performance or on the bandstand. I’ve made last minute changes to set-lists because I didn’t think I was mentally/emotionally capable of performing something in that moment.

4. What’s involved in bringing some of your material up to a performance level?

For written/prepared music, most of it is memory work. I try to memorize a piece on every level: visually, aurally and physically. In my ideal world, I should be able to pass three tests before my material is ready for a performance.

  • Play all notes from memory as you want them to be played.
  • Write out the score from memory away from the piano.
  • Sing every note in the score from memory.

I rarely achieve 100%, but that’s what I’m striving for!

Preparing to perform improvised music is a little less systematic, but still follows a few patterns. It usually starts with a concept or a sound and then I develop/study a vocabulary to realize it. The concept could be bebop or Doug Riley or something original. If improvising is a creative act of regurgitating vocabulary, I’ll know a tune is ready for a performance when I think I can freely regurgitate within that concept.

Of course, I never really know if my material is up to a performance level until I’m actually performing it. That’s the ultimate test!

5. What would you say to a fan such as the writer above, who seems to be suggesting that he wonders if your performance Saturday will not be “different” enough from previous performances that he’s heard?

Listeners may be interested and find enjoyment in every facet of music-making. This could include process, evolution, creation and re-creation. I can’t change their interests; all I can do is share mine.

6. Do you have any new tunes up your sleeve?

I always have new tunes up my sleeve! I try to mix up my set-lists when I know I may be performing for audiences I’ve performed for before.

Specifically for the Paradiso performance, I’ll be performing some new excerpts from my Metamorphosis set. I’m also going to dedicate an entire set to the music of Doug Riley.

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