Category: Columns

Beyond the 88: A No-Fear Guide to On-the-String Piano Techniques

Hand inside the piano

The beginner’s toolbox of preparations I’ve talked about in the previous two (1, 2) articles might be, in some ways, less scary to many pianists and composers than playing inside the piano because, once the foreign objects (paper, aluminum foil, glass rods, plastic straws, etc.) have been placed on or in between the strings, the pianist plays the instrument pretty much as usual. This is part of the disconnect—or the magical nature—of Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes. The scores for Cage’s little pieces look so musically simple, and so easy to play. Look at the beginning of Sonata V, for instance, with its right hand melody and accompanying chromatic seesawing left hand—what could be easier?

For now, try turning your sound off and just looking at the first page of the score to Sonata V in this video.

But, what’s not clear from looking at this bit of score is that, in order to play this set of pieces, Cage asks for about 2/3 of the notes of the piano to have their strings prepared by inserting or threading materials between the strings, including various kinds of bolts, screws, bits of rubber and plastic, and an eraser. So, the piece asks for a ton of prep work, but then Cage gives the pianist a simple set of pieces to play on this modified instrument, which the pianist then approaches in much the same way as if she were playing a piece of Clementi. The result, however, is otherworldly.

Now turn your audio volume back up and play the video again.

Preparations are one thing; asking the pianist to reach into the instrument and play directly on the strings, as well as on the wood and other metal surfaces inside the instrument, may seem to be another kettle of shrimp entirely. Much as I started with minimally invasive and generally safe preparations, I’m going to suggest starting with a gentle-slope approach to playing inside the piano—minimal risk of wear and tear on the instrument, with, nevertheless, big timbral results.

First of all, before reaching into the piano, thoroughly wash and dry your hands (duh).

Rule of thumb: avoid touching the soft parts inside the piano—just don’t touch the dampers or any of the felt. The dampers are really delicate and a pain to adjust correctly. The felt is easily compressed, torn, soiled with oils from your hands, or otherwise damaged, and, again, some of the piano’s felt parts are labor-intensive to replace. (And, there’s mostly no reason why you should need to touch these parts in order to play inside the instrument.)

I’m going to stick to techniques that involve playing on the strings here. There are lots of other safe inside-the-piano techniques—ways of making sounds on the metal plate, on the soundboard, and elsewhere—but for now, I’m going to introduce a handful of techniques on the strings that will provide many new timbres to explore.

A pianist can even take advantage of further “training wheels” by wearing thin cotton gloves while experimenting with many of these techniques. When I was writing my book chapter on piano harmonics, I was exploring these on my prized home piano—which, after years of dreaming and saving for, I had just purchased a few weeks before. I admit that even though I had performed inside-the-piano techniques many, many times and had always been careful with other folks’ instruments, I found myself facing potentially harming my own new pride and joy with a conscientious newbie’s extreme temerity. Touching the strings with clean hands shouldn’t do any damage, but it doesn’t take much transfer to the copper windings of the bass strings to open the door to marking the surface of the strings with tarnish. I’ve bought several pairs of these ubiquitous, one-size-fits-all-but-not-particularly-well-for-the-long-fingered-amongst-us cotton gloves for the purpose of experimenting with my new grand, and, really, here’s an investment of $1.49 that has no downside. Wearing a single glove for performance might take a little getting used to, especially if you’ll need both hands on the keyboard for part of a piece, but it is possible to play many of these techniques gloved—protecting the string but without altering the sound.

Piano harmonics  

Lots of scores call for the pianist to sound harmonics. They are quite easy to play and can be sounded with one hand playing on the keys as usual, and a fingertip of the other hand lightly touching a harmonic node of one of the strings.

I won’t go into the physics behind harmonics, or the way that sounding many of the overtones can give the player access to just intonation notes that are pretty distant from their nearest equal tempered neighbors. I’ll leave that to further reading, or your own explorations.

So, put a glove on one hand and reach that hand into the piano. Start on the bass strings, because on these long strings there are lots of partials that will ring loudly on each string. Locate the approximate midpoint of any one of the lowest bass strings, lightly touch that point with a fingertip, and set the string into motion by playing the corresponding key with a finger of your other hand. If you’ve located the midpoint, playing the key should sound the second partial, which will be the octave above the fundamental (in other words, an octave above the string ringing as a whole, here produced by the string in halves). If you want to hear the sound of a second partial harmonic in performance, there’s a repeated 2nd partial harmonic D flat at the beginning of Annea Lockwood’s Red Mesa (1993). Note that this is a high note, not one played on a bass string. Watch a performance by pianist Andrea Lodge here. If you want to get an idea of how fast a pianist can play a single line of harmonics, check out Johan Svensson’s Study No. 2 (2015) available here in a performance by Jonas Olsson.

Depending on how large the grand is that you’re using and the length of your arms, the bass strings may be long enough to require that you stand up to touch the center node of the string. Further your experiments by then slowly moving your gloved finger along the string closer to the keyboard end of the string, while repeatedly sounding the string from the keyboard. You can try to locate the third partial, which sounds a perfect fifth above the second partial you’ve already located. Keep searching for the successive harmonic overtones; one I’m particularly fond of is the 7th partial, which sounds two octaves and a minor seventh above the string’s fundamental, and is 31 cents flatter than the nearest equal tempered note. On the lowest strings of a concert grand piano, it’s possible to sound some very high partials, so there are a lot of harmonics to explore even if you restrict yourself to a single bass string. You could then experiment with playing a simple melody in harmonics on one bass string.

Once you’ve found the first several partials on one bass string and gotten comfortable with sounding those, you can easily locate those same partials on any of the neighboring bass strings.   Play a cluster of three notes by fingering the third partial on three neighboring strings and playing all three keys simultaneously. (George Crumb uses three-note clusters like this in his trio Vox Balaenae.)

Muting with the fingertips

The weighted cloth-covered mutes described earlier are a better choice if you’d like a range of strings muted and for them to remain muted for a whole passage. However, if you’d like just a few different notes muted, and would like to alternate quickly between muted and unmuted notes on the same pitch, then muting with the fingertips might be the way to go. Touch a fingertip to the string close to the end of the string and depress the corresponding key to produce a rounder and darker sound than without the mute.

Though touching the strings with your clean hands should do no harm, it is possible to tarnish the outside of the bass strings with prolonged handling (a cosmetic effect, not an aural one). But, if you’re worried, don one member of your $1.49 pair of gloves and use your gloved fingers for muting. Either way, it’s an easy technique to learn.

Composer and pianist Henry Cowell explored a lot of on-the-strings techniques in his music, especially in the first third of the 20th century. Some of Cowell’s techniques I’d classify as advanced, but a few are easy and now widely used—and are probably familiar sounds to many of us, including glissando across a range of strings, various kinds of pizzicato on the strings, and the Aeolian harp or autoharp technique.

Glissando (on the strings)

Depress the damper pedal and run a fingertip or fingernail across a range of strings, perpendicular to the strings. Experiment with the differences in sound depending on register and range for the glissando, plectrum (flesh of fingertip, multiple fingertips, fingernail(s), guitar pick of various thicknesses), and contact point on strings (a gliss at the middle of the string sounds different from one played very close to the end of the strings).

Autoharp (or Aeolian harp) technique

Cowell introduced a specialized on-the-strings glissando in his piece Aeolian Harp: finger silently a chord with one hand, then perform a glissando across all of the strings in that register with the other. Doing this will cause the strings of the chord notes to ring freely, and will add a bit of noise from the strings of the other notes in the register (which will not ring freely, since their dampers remain at rest on them). Judicious use of the damper pedal to mask the transitions will allow the player to connect one chord to another smoothly. Since actual Aeolian harps are played by the breeze, whereas an autoharp has the player choose/finger the chord with one hand and strum across a set of strings with the other, this technique is closer to autoharp playing, and I (and several other composers) use this label for it.


Plucking the piano’s strings is very easy to do! Depress the damper pedal or hold down keys to raise the dampers off of the strings you want to pluck, and pluck with your fingernail or the flesh of your fingertip. Experiment with plucking near the middle of the string for a full, round sound, or near the end of the string sul ponticello for a brighter, less-focused-on-the-fundamental sound. You can get a very harp-like sound by plucking in the middle register with the flesh of your fingertip, plucking close to the middle of the string. (Just think, harp sounds without waiting 15 minutes for your harpist friend to tune their instrument. Harpist-friends: I’m only joking…I meant 20 minutes.) Try muting and plucking together! Then, muted, plucked and sul ponticello placement!

Cowell, when he started his inside-the-piano playing, referred to his new approach to the instrument as if it were a new instrument, saying that his pieces were for the “string piano.”

If you’ve stuck with me this far, I think you can hear the big, big sound world that can open up to you if you start reaching into the piano and exploring some of its resources that aren’t available just at the keys.

Even though there are many more techniques for the piano to explore, next week I’m going to move from the piano to the toy piano and delve into some preparations, inside-the-piano techniques, and even some instrument alterations for this unique instrument.

Adapting an Ever-Changing System

A nonbinary person wearing a suit laughing

Operatic Voice Classification for the 21st Century is a multi-part series exploring the ever-changing system of voice type in classical singing through a transgender lens. The first installments delved into how types are gendered and why opera needs ungendered voice types to move forward. The final installment will draw conclusions from this and previous conversations to provide practical advice for all those involved in creating new opera.

A quick reminder that all experiences expressed here are mine and do not reflect those of transgender and/or nonbinary people in general. Everyone has their own story to tell, and this is mine.

We’ve phased out castrati…

A study of opera history quickly reveals the continually shifting nature of voice classification. We’ve phased out castrati, created distinctions such as mezzo-soprano and bass-baritone, and added modifiers to each to create the Fach system. Just as more recent classification has built upon older systems, I believe we can make tweaks to the current system to create one that’s more inclusive, descriptive, and wholly separate from binary gender identities.

Granted, we could keep classification as it is and attempt to strip the gender expectations from it. But, as I discussed in the last installment, it’s hard to change associations built into an established system. It’s worth considering changes or something entirely new, if only to allow for a more immediate adoption and implementation.

An ideal updated system would serve singers, composers, and producers. The goal is to create more flexibility for singers, a more usable tool for composers, and more detailed information for producers when it comes to casting and programming.

An ideal updated system would serve singers, composers, and producers.

I encourage everyone to engage me in this conversation. My suggestions aren’t a be-all and end-all or even completely polished. I propose these next few ideas with as much openness and enthusiasm as possible. I’ve spent far too much time thinking about this and not enough time writing. I’m afraid of leaving something out, of missing an important piece of the puzzle and exposing myself to an exorbitant amount of criticism, but I’ll push forward regardless.

The way I see it, the most important elements of voice type are range, flexibility, and timbre.


Obviously, the lowest and highest notes sung within a role are the basis for its type. That’s easy enough to delineate and notate. But anyone familiar with the operatic singing voice will know that there are additional factors to consider. A full lyric soprano and a coloratura mezzo may have the same range in terms of low and high notes, but how they navigate that range, and how often they’re in different parts of that range, are what differentiate their voice types and the roles written for their voices.

That said, I find it extremely helpful to have a range listed for each new role. At the bare minimum, that would indicate the highest and lowest notes of the role. At best, it’ll also indicate where the role generally sits and the frequency of the use of the extremes. This could be a graphic or text-based element placed at the front of the score with the role list. I’ve included a simplistic example of what could be included by the composer, using the title character of Griffin Candey’s Sweets by Kate as a model. The first measure is the role’s entire range and the second shows where the role sits most often within that range.

Music notation showing the complete range (eb' to b'') as well as the range of the majority of the notes (b' to g'') for the role of Kate in Griffin Candey’s opera Sweets by Kate

A more common example is Cherubino from Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro. With the range laid out in this way, it’s easy to see why producers can choose from sopranos, mezzo-sopranos, and countertenors when casting for this role.

Music notation showing the complete range (b to g'') as well as the range of the majority of the notes (b' to f'') for the role of Cherubino in Mozart’s opera Le nozze di Figaro

Another idea that I find helpful comes from my composer friend, David Howell. He thinks about repertoire ranges like an NFL draft or product recommendations: “If you sang X, you would probably also like Y.” This would be especially helpful for new operas. A singer could easily determine a role’s general fit before digging into the opera in its entirety. The implementation of this is more suited to range and flexibility than timbre, since timbre is less tied to a singer’s ability to sing a role and more dependent on a producer’s preference, the performance venue, and the instrumental ensemble available.

David Howell thinks about repertoire ranges like an NFL draft or product recommendations.

To continue with the example above, if you sing Kate in Sweets by Kate, you might also sing: Pamina in Die Zauberflöte (Mozart), Musetta in La Bohème (Puccini), Gretel in Hänsel und Gretel (Humperdinck), Nanetta in Falstaff (Verdi), Young Alyce in Glory Denied (Cipullo), The Rose in The Little Prince (Portman), and Helen in The Great God Pan (Crean).

Ranges could be standardized and then identified; these classifications could be as simple and clincial as numbers or as interesting as new names. Singers could exist within multiple established ranges to show their voice’s unique abilities and propensities. As I delved into in earlier installments, labels could remain as they are but without the expectation of gender, or completely new terms could be created. As a compromise, new standardized ranges could join the already-standardized types. However, I’d push for a new set of labels for ranges.


I define flexibility as the role’s tendency to have fast and/or moving (running or jumping) notes. The terms “coloratura” and “lyric” are currently in use for this aspect, but I believe we could be more specific.

My suggestion would be something akin to three categories: no flexibility, moderate flexibility, and high flexibility. Lyric roles would fall within both “no flexibility” and “moderate flexibility,” while most coloratura roles would be labeled “high flexibility.” For example: Countess Almaviva in Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro would fall into “moderate flexibility,” but Rosina in Il Barbiere di Siviglia would carry the “high flexibility” label. Then, the same character in John Corgliano’s The Ghosts of Versailles would be labeled with “no flexibility.”


This is where, for me at least, things get interesting. It’s the most subjective aspect of a voice, and therefore the least helpful in creating “types.”

Timbre is the most subjective aspect of a voice, and therefore the least helpful in creating “types.”

I think we can keep many of the Fach system’s descriptors in relation to timbre. A light lyric or a dramatic makes sense, no matter what voice type it’s modifying. It really comes down to giving names for ranges and then adding modifiers for flexibility and timbre.

An important aspect of timbre when creating new roles relates to the instrumental ensemble’s size and the density of the orchestration. The dramatic voice types emerged as the operatic orchestra changed throughout the Romantic period (and beyond) and signify a particular size in the voice. Since dramatic voices aren’t the necessary norm for new works, it would be helpful to include a size indicator within the timbre labeling system.

Timbre and Gender

Even though almost all the words we use to describe an operatic voice’s timbre (warm, steely, heavy, bright) are ungendered, timbre is where I personally find it most difficult to disentangle gender from type.

Timbre is where I personally find it most difficult to disentangle gender from type.

My major hang-up relates to the difference in timbre in the treble range between cisgender women and cisgender men. This most likely stems from my past as a mezzo-soprano and my tendency to listen to both cisgender women and cisgender men singing the same repertoire. There’s a quality to a cisgender man’s voice in the high treble range that immediately genders it for me.

Granted, this is a personal issue and not necessarily a systemic one. I didn’t notice my own gendering of the voice until I first heard Marijana Mijanovic’s recordings a few years ago. Her performance of Cesare (Händel) reminds me so much of a cisgender man’s voice that I had to question everything I already thought about the gendering of the physical vocal mechanism and its inherent ability to create certain sounds.

As my own voice box began to change, my concept regarding the difference between a “male” and “female” approach to shared notes diverged again. (I use quotation marks here, because, as I delve into in Part 2, gendering body parts is problematic and inaccurate.) I’d expected the change from my “female” voice box to a testosterone-affected one to be more like learning how to play the violin after playing the cello. Instead, it’s much more like giving up the cello for the trumpet.

The jarring difference makes it both easier and harder to separate my voice, and therefore all voices, from a binary gender structure. It’s harder, because it’s re-enforcing my idea that the voice-owner’s gender does affect the core sound, but it’s easier because my voice is even less binary than before. As I explained in Part 2, the voice’s gender reflects the gender of its owner, so my voice has always been nonbinary; but now that it has physically transitioned (an irreversible and finite process in the case of my voice box, but not my body), it has entered a space that far less voice boxes occupy and this fact re-enforces the need for a system that’s less reliant on gender.

One of the ultimate goals of this new system is to allow for a character’s description to determine the gender of the role, rather than the gender of the performer. This will not only free up composers and librettists to create gender-diverse characters, but it will allow more versatility in roles for all singers regardless of their gender identity and a wider range of choice for casting directors and producers.

I’ll pull this all together in the next, and final, installment of this series. In the meantime, I’d like to make a quick announcement.

The voice is unpredictable and incredibly unique to each person.

Since starting this series, my voice has changed again. I’ve left my tenor days behind me, and I’m now fully entrenched in the bass-baritone range (below). If I’ve learned anything through this process, it’s that the voice is unpredictable and incredibly unique to each person. I want to find a way to mirror that individuality in a specific, detailed, and helpful way. This series is just one step in that direction.

Music notation showing Aiden Feltkamp's current vocal range (G to e')

Beyond the 88: More no-fear piano preparations

Golf tee inside the piano

In the last post I talked about some easy surface preparations for piano, but I didn’t mention that there’s a long history of these. Some early piano makers experimented with creating “stops” for their instrument that would change the timbre of the piano. Many of these were essentially mechanisms for surface preparations. The bassoon stop, for instance, lowered a parchment roll (or a parchment roll covered in silk) onto the strings, producing a gentle buzzy sound against the strings when notes were sounded by the keys, much like the surface preparation of placing paper on the strings of the piano. (No I don’t know why folks in the 18th century thought this sound = bassoon.)

Even some modern upright pianos, rather than tying a sostenuto mechanism to the middle pedal, instead install a “practice mute.” On these instruments, pressing the middle pedal lowers a curtain of wool felt between the hammers and the strings, reducing the volume of the instrument.

With a few exceptions, there aren’t a lot of current piano makers who are offering stops on their instruments such as the bassoon stop, so it is up to individual players and composers to dream up their own surface preparations and discover other timbral resources for the instrument.

Here is one more easy and safe surface preparation, which I’ve saved for last because it requires some work. This is for a weighted, cloth-covered mute. This mute has several things to recommend it: since you build it yourself, you can customize each mute to the length you need, and it will cover the number of strings you’d like; it’s cheap and easy to make; it goes on and off easily, and it is safe to use on the piano strings in any register. It’s easily my favorite mute, as it’s totally consistent: place one of these mutes on a set of strings, and it dampens the sound of every string.


I first heard about this mute from composer Stephen Hartke, who made some of these mutes with children’s socks and ordinary filling materials and used them in his piece Meanwhile (2007) written for Eighth Blackbird. Jennifer Jolley also heard about Hartke’s mutes and has blogged about making these herself. (Note these make an excellent composer task-avoidance project! Jolley remarks that adding googly eyes is optional.)

Here’s the basic idea: fill a sock with BBs or dry rice or other weighting material. Sew the end of the sock closed. Wrap the sock in another sock and sew it closed as well. And then probably enclose all of that in one more sock and seal. Finis.

Rather than using socks, which I had trouble filling all the way to the top and, since I was sewing each layer separately, I ended up with an end of the mute that didn’t mute so well, I’ve made a very slight modification. I start with two layers of t-shirt fabric, shape this into a single thick cylinder about two inches across, and double-stitch the end of the layers together. I fill that cylinder with BBs (leaving a tiny space at the top, so the mute will bend and curve easily), then double-stitch it closed, et voila, my own custom mute. Without a specific piece in mind for these, I simply made a variety of lengths, so I have one for just about any piece.


Now for a few simple and safe string preparations. The surface preparations—resting light objects on top of the strings like the paper, aluminum, and cloth items that I’ve talked about thus far—are the safest (and probably the least “scary” to new experimenters). String preparations, which involve inserting foreign objects between the strings, may be a little more intimidating, and there is indeed more opportunity to do damage with these. But, by approaching with care, there are lots of string preparations that you can try without causing any harm at all to the instrument. And, these can open up many additional sounds from the piano.

First, the protocol: Again, start with clean, dry hands. Next, you have to protect the delicate felt of the dampers, so before inserting or removing anything that you’ve previously placed between strings, always first press and hold the damper pedal down, lifting the dampers off of the strings. This prevents your lateral movement of the strings from scraping or compressing the damper felt.

Don’t try to insert anything close to the dampers, or within a couple of inches of the ends of the strings. Richard Bunger in The Well-Prepared Piano warns never to insert anything that doesn’t flex within an inch of either end of the string, and this is very good advice. Let’s play it super safe and, for now, don’t insert any string preparations at all within two inches of either end of the string.

One thing this means is basically no string preparations for the very highest register where the strings are very short and stiff. Also, it’s safest when you’re getting started trying these to avoid the more delicate wound strings of the bass register. Best to try string preparations nearer to the flabby middle of the steel strings in the middle register.

Next, in order to insert most items, in addition to releasing the dampers, you should gently move the two strings apart before placing the preparation material between those two strings. There are lots of items that pianists over the years have used for this. I recommend using a (dull) plastic children’s knife. (A bamboo wedge works very well, also, but plastic children’s knives are easy and cheap to come by.) Lots of pianists use screwdriver blades for this, but plastic is much safer to use than steel. After depressing the damper pedal, place the blade between the two strings, pivot it so that the knife edges gently push the strings apart, place the preparation in between the two strings, then pivot the knife back to release the strings onto the preparation. Then you can release the damper pedal, and check the note.

For a first string preparation, try plastic straws. You can experiment with the difference in sound between preparing with a straw between strings 1 and 2 and nothing between strings 2 and 3 of a unison set, and straws both between strings 1 and 2 and also between 2 and 3. Then try this: place a straw between strings 2 and 3 only. Play the note. Then depress the una corda pedal (left pedal) and play the same note. Cool, right? Since the una corda mechanism moves the action over so that the hammers hit fewer strings in the multiple-unison sets, now you have two different prepared piano sounds available at one key, using only the pedal and a single straw!

Next, try rubber piano tuner’s mutes. These rubber wedges are very gentle on the strings and transform the piano’s ordinary notes into a lovely muted thunk. Since these are soft and wedge shaped, you don’t need to use the children’s knife to insert these—just press and hold the damper pedal before inserting or removing, to protect the damper felt from getting squeezed by the pressure of inserting/removing the mutes.

You could also try wood golf tees. (Try the trick with the una corda pedal with these too!) Rubber cap erasers are also nice—cut a slit across the bass of the eraser and snap that over the middle string of a set of triple unisons. This will modify the sound of all three strings.

Once you’re feeling brave, you could next experiment with some harder materials as string preparations: plastic screws, plastic screw anchors, wedges of bamboo, one jaw of a wooden clothespin. These all work as string preparations, can produce some very interesting sounds, and you can use these on all the strings that are sufficiently long for preparing purposes.

And once you’ve tried all of these, and a built up a familiarity and a comfort level with them, you could try some metal items. Safest to restrict these to use with the flat steel strings, and safest to use soft metal items—small copper tubing, brass bolts and screws, aluminum machine screws. Best to avoid steel, and not to use any metal (or anything with a sharp edge) between the delicate wound bass strings.

I like Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s instructions in her piano solo scape (2011): the score indicates that eight specific mid-register notes should be prepared with screws, and says that the resultant sound should have a “’gong like’ quality,” but she leaves the size, materials (Steel or, even better, brass? Could I get away with hard plastic screws?), and the size and type of screw completely up to the pianist.

Now, obviously, John Cage’s prepared piano works don’t limit themselves to what I’m calling soft metal items. And, I will freely acknowledge that there are some wonderful sounds available by inserting steel bolts of various lengths and diameters, and bolts with additional nuts, or with nuts and loose metal washers kept in place by the nuts to add a rattle to the sound. But, I would not recommend that these be used for the wound bass strings, and great care should be used when inserting steel items even on the steel strings. Save experiments with hard metal items for once you’re thoroughly comfortable with the other string preparations I’ve covered, and consult with a professional before trying these at home!

Are Operatic Voice Types Inherently Gendered?

A woman in a dark red coat, blue shirt and dark lipstick posing as the role of a prince for an opera

Operatic Voice Classification for the 21st Century is a multi-part series exploring the ever-changing system of voice type in classical singing through a transgender lens. The first installment delved into why opera needs ungendered voice types to move forward, and later installments will discuss possibilities for the continual adaptation of voice classification systems.

A quick reminder that all experiences expressed here are mine and do not reflect those of transgender and/or nonbinary people in general. Everyone has their own story to tell, and this is mine.

Imagine, for a moment, a mezzo-soprano. Who do you see? If you’re having trouble, this is what Google came up with:

A screenshot of a Google Image search on "mezzo-soprano"

You’ll notice that they’re all women. I can’t make assumptions for those I don’t know, but of those I do know, many of the women shown here are cisgender, not transgender or gender non-conforming, women. (They’re also mostly white. But that’s another topic for another article.)

Now, imagine a countertenor. Who do you see? Here’s what Google sees:

A screenshot of a Google Image search on "countertenor"

It’s also interesting that both the mezzo-soprano and the countertenor are newer voice types. Countertenors are a contemporary version of the Baroque and Classical era castrati. Mezzo-sopranos didn’t exist as their own voice type until the 19th century.

If a mezzo-soprano and a countertenor share the same range and often the same roles, then why are they separate types? And why is there an obvious gender difference?

Of course, the obvious answer is that timbre and ability are different between mezzo-sopranos and countertenors. And that timbre/ability difference, on the most basic and overly generalized level, is due to the physical differences of the vocal cords.

As much as I love science, I don’t think it’s beneficial to go into it here. Instead, I’d like to speak about my own experience transitioning from average “female” vocal cords to testosterone-affected vocal cords that more closely resemble average “male” vocal cords. I’m using quotation marks here, because the gendering of body parts is as useless as the gendering of articles of clothing. A body part or an article of clothing may have societal or traditional associations with a specific gender, but that isn’t enough to gender it; instead, these things take on the gender of the person they belong to.  Since I’m a transmasculine nonbinary person, my vocal cords are transmasculine and nonbinary as well.

All of this aside, the mechanism that I’ve spent years training as a mezzo-soprano feels and operates completely differently since hormone replacement therapy caused it to change. Not only has the timbre and range fluctuated, but the overall sensation of singing with these changed vocal cords is now foreign to me.

That said, am I still a mezzo-soprano if I have the range, the roles, the experience, and the training? Or am I a countertenor now, since my vocal cords more closely resemble “male” vocal cords? Or, perhaps, I’m neither. This is where the inherent gendering of the voice types becomes more apparent and far less useful.

Perhaps I’m being a bit flippant about decoupling gender from voice, since it’s still a topic of hot debate when it comes to operatic casting as well as recital repertoire. There’s still the question of who’s “allowed” to sing Winterreise (spoiler alert: the answer is “everyone”) and critics continue to make women’s bodies a big deal (generally, but especially) when they’re performing trouser roles. Perhaps my own concept and experience of gender is too opaquely coloring the conversation here. I just can’t move past the fact that boy sopranos are boy sopranos and I don’t personally know any female operatic tenors. To me, this seems too constrictive to be adaptable.

As I mentioned in the last part of this series, I believe that adaptability is crucial to an art form’s success and relevancy into the future. I’m thinking we could go about solving this with one of two major shifts: we could remove the gender implications of our current voice type system (as the German Fach system has attempted to do, especially in regard to transgender singers) or we could create a new system that has a lack of gendered implications. Or, perhaps, it’s as easy as normalizing gender as part of the voice type. Then, female tenor will be as much a voice type as dramatic tenor. I’ll dive into these possibilities in the next part.

Too often, it seems that the answer to “Has society gendered this?” is “Yes.” It’s no different with operatic voice types.

Beyond the 88: A No-Fear Beginner’s Guide to Preparing the Piano

inside of a piano

In my university music department, I run a weekly composition colloquium, bringing in guest composers and new music performers, as well as faculty speakers, with the latter often coming to talk about things like idiomatic writing and extended techniques for a particular instrument, or setting up a composer website, or digital publishing. A couple of years ago, some of my composition students asked me if I could spend one of those meetings on extended techniques for piano. I dug through my scores, found some of my own and some Crumb, Cage, and Cowell, (among other things), and began jotting down ideas. I did a little organizing and saw that it might make sense to talk about techniques on the keys, inside-the-piano ones, plus a few simple preparations. I thought, “There has to be a book out there that already does this,” but a couple days of searching didn’t turn up very much. The campus library had a copy of Richard Bunger’s The Well-Prepared Piano, and I found several dissertations that dealt with one facet or another of the topic: one on body health and piano extended techniques, another on a pedagogical plan for introducing young students to extended techniques, even a giant historical treatment of extended techniques for piano, and then several studies of particular parts of the repertoire (especially on the works of the “Three C’s” mentioned above).

But, I didn’t really find what I was looking for. And I thought this book was needed.

So, now I’ve written that book (The Contemporary Piano: A Composer and Pianist’s Guide to Techniques and Resources), it’s out in the world, but I still feel like there’s more to do to let pianists and composers know a little more about the sonic resources available within the instrument, and to encourage safe experimentation with the piano. Recently clarinetist Heather Roche conducted a study to determine a body of multiphonics that were easy for clarinetists across models of instrument and across levels of performance experience—some universally easy multiphonics. I’m thinking of these articles as something like this for the piano—some basic, easy preparations and inside-the-piano techniques for every pianist to try.


I think lots of pianists and composers are a bit intimidated by the idea of reaching inside the piano, or of inserting foreign objects into the instrument. I totally get that, and I have experienced this trepidation myself. Pianists are often insulated from their instrument in ways foreign to most players of other instruments—clarinetists clean and adjust their instruments regularly (even assembling and disassembling them each day). Oboists fashion an essential part of theirs (and many oboists carry their toolkits around with them). Cellists change their own strings. Percussionists regularly replace instrument parts or fashion new mallets or parts themselves. Practically everyone tunes their own axes. But, not pianists. So, to a lot of pianists, suggesting that they tune, adjust, and repair their instrument (much less reach in to play inside it or prepare it with other crazy implements) may feel a little like you’re asking them to repair their own Tesla or dabble in a little light surgery on themselves rather than visit a trained mechanic or board certified surgeon.

Now, if you’ve already toured Annea Lockwood’s Ear Walking Woman or Frankensteined your Baldwin at home with nuts, bolts, and barbed wire, there may not be much here for you. But, if you’ve always been afraid of reaching into your piano, I hope something here will give you the confidence to try out some new resources. I’ve geared these toward application on grand pianos of any size, but many of these can be adapted to work on upright pianos as well.

Some quick guidelines before getting started: before reaching into a piano, always carefully wash and dry your hands to remove excess oils.   If you’ll be experimenting with a piano that’s not your own, you probably want to get permission from the owner and/or the piano technician who maintains the instrument first. (I’m happy to write you an endorsement for any of the experiments listed below, if that will help.)

Surface Preparations

Surface preparations (which involve preparing the piano by resting a foreign object or objects on top of the strings) are the least invasive preparations to try, so let’s start with those.

After cleaning your hands, a second caution: don’t use hard materials for your preparations. Cloth, paper, cardboard, rubber, plastic, wood, and thin bits of bamboo—these are the safest materials. For string preparations, the steel strings of the middle and high register are the least delicate, and the wound bass strings are the most delicate. It’s safest, if you’re unsure, to avoid using metals entirely, but there are softer metals that are mostly safe to use as surface or string preparations: many aluminum, copper, and brass materials should be fine to use on the middle and upper register strings and, with care, can mostly be used on the bass strings, too. (But, again, feel free to start with baby steps and save all metal preparations for much later.)

So, let’s get started! First, rest an ordinary piece of letter-sized paper on top of some middle register strings, away from the dampers. Then play the keys for that register.

It’s a great sound, and the preparation is both safe and easy to apply or remove—even in the middle of a piece.

You can also experiment with different weights of paper, which will change the duration and quality of the buzziness of the paper on the strings (try poster board, a small piece of cardboard, thick cardstock, tissue paper, or Japanese rice paper). You can also try paper on strings in different registers, though it’s generally most effective in the middle register where we began.

Next, take a piece of aluminum foil, maybe about half the size of the sheet of paper, and place it in the same way on the string tops in the middle register. Aluminum foil buzzes similarly to paper, but it definitely has a different sound.

For related but slightly different sounds, it’s also easy to fashion a string preparation from strips of paper or aluminum foil. Cut a foot-long (or more) strip of either material .5 to 1 inch across and thread this under one set of three unisons, over the next set, and under the next, and so forth. A pencil or a plastic children’s table knife can be used to get under the strip and push it up between unison sets, without actually touching any of the strings or putting any pressure on them at all. The strips each produce a tighter buzz than resting the sheets of aluminum or paper on the strings.

One surface preparation that I love and that George Crumb uses in a few works is placing a thin glass rod on top of the strings. This produces a metallic, jangly harpsichord-ish sound, and it also goes on and off the strings easily and is safe to use on strings in all registers of the piano. Registral placement of the glass will be limited a bit by the interruptive braces of the particular model piano you’re using.

Several composers have explored coaxing other sounds by applying glass objects to the strings. Some ask the pianist to use the base of a glass tumbler or a bottle as a slide on the strings—a sort of slide guitar technique. Sofia Gubaidulina’s Der Seiltänzer (1997) for violin and piano exploits the glass tumbler-as-slide, for instance. C. Curtis-Smith’s Rhapsodies (1972) has the pianist invert a small wine bottle, placing the neck between two sets of unisons, and then pressing and sliding. Ashley Fure’s sextet Soma (2012) has the pianist spin a 4”x4” glass tile on the strings to sound “thin wisps of high partials that blossom sporadically into rich clusters.”

Pretty much any time I enter a non-musical realm seeking something for the cause, I suddenly gain an advocate who enthusiastically tries to help.

As a grad student preparing to play Crumb’s trio Vox Balaenae, I had no idea where to find an appropriate glass rod. I asked the composer when my student trio had a coaching session with him. He suggested the chemistry department would have them. I approached someone in chemistry about glass rods, and they kindly gave me a couple of lengths. In the Google age, this has gotten exponentially easier. A quick search of online sellers shows me that 1/4” glass stirrers in one-foot lengths are easily ordered. I just picked up six one-foot rods for $7 including shipping. Longer rods prove more expensive and may ship more slowly, but are available from scientific supply places. Or find a chemistry lab, explain to someone there that you want to play a piano with glass on the strings, and see if they’ll help you out with a couple of lengths of glass!

This brings me to my experience asking for help with my experiments with pianos and toy pianos. Pretty much any time I enter a non-musical realm seeking something for the cause, and sheepishly explain what I need it for, I suddenly gain an advocate who enthusiastically tries to help. Go to the industrial supply place seeking music wire to reboot your toy piano in an alternate tuning? Suddenly there’s a clerk in steel-toe boots combing shelves for back stock and other diameters. Go to the sex shop seeking variable speed personal vibrating devices to play piano strings with? Get a careful tour of a whole case of possibilities, and next the manager is quickly unsealing boxes and loading in batteries for you to hear the range of speeds. It’s amazing how supportive people can be.

So, grab some paper, aluminum foil, glass, and cardstock, and go try some of these surface preparations!

Does Opera Need Gendered Voice Types?

From a 2016 production Higglety Pigglety Pop 2016 featuring Aiden Feltkamp as Pig with soprano Sophia Burgos

This is the first of a four-part series about operatic voice classification for the 21st century which will explore the ever-changing system of voice type in classical singing through a transgender lens. All experiences expressed here are mine and do not reflect those of transgender and/or nonbinary people in general.

My path as an opera singer has been a strange one. I started out as a coloratura mezzo-soprano with a high range, but then I slowly developed into a low, full lyric mezzo. Then, just when I thought my voice couldn’t get any lower (or higher), both occurred when I started hormone replacement therapy (testosterone) as part of my medical transition. Now, my countertenor range sits higher than my mezzo range did, but my chest voice’s range is that of a low tenor. If I were to step into an audition tomorrow, what could I possibly list as my voice type?

Granted, this isn’t anywhere near the average experience for an opera singer. It’s estimated that about 0.6% of the United States population identifies as transgender. Even fewer people identify outside the gender binary. While the mere existence of trans and nonbinary artists should be enough to change things, I’m not arguing for an ungendered system of voice types for our sake alone. However, my experience as a transgender nonbinary singer has led me to question the effectiveness of the voice type classifications that we currently have in place.

I began my operatic career as a female-presenting mezzo-soprano. I almost exclusively played trouser roles, first out of coincidence and later out of desire. It was during my preparation for these trouser roles that I first discovered the online transgender community. Even though I was 19 at the time, this was my first introduction to the idea of transitioning and the first glimpse of something that had been nagging at me since I was very young. I’ve always felt out of sorts in the gender binary, but I could never pinpoint the issue or explain how I was feeling. For example, when I was in third grade and we used the gym locker rooms for the first time, I didn’t understand why I was in the girls’ locker room. I lived with the pressing anxiety that they’d find out I was a fraud and assign a punishment. But feelings like this were inexplicable to me at the time, and for long after. As an opera singer, I loved learning how to present male onstage. It felt comfortable and right, like pulling on a well-loved, nostalgia-inducing sweatshirt that I’d found unexpectedly in the back of the closet after giving it up for lost. While playing those roles, I felt, for the first time, something much more like “me.”

My time as a graduate student in the Vocal Arts Program at Bard College Conservatory served as the catalyst for my acknowledgement of my gender identity and the beginning of my social transition. The faculty there, Kayo Iwama and Dawn Upshaw especially, continually pushed me to dig deeper, to understand myself, and to be myself without reserve or shame. With this new courage and some study of gender theory, I started to put things into place.

Aiden Feltkamp as Cherubino from a 2015 production of Le nozze di Figaro (photo credit Nikhil Saboo)

Aiden Feltkamp as Cherubino from a 2015 production of Le nozze di Figaro (photo credit Nikhil Saboo)

As I came into myself, my physical dysphoria made everyday life extremely difficult and I could no longer put off starting hormones. I’d never intended to take hormones, because I wanted to keep my mezzo-soprano voice. The vocal changes caused by testosterone are inevitable and irreversible. When I had to choose between myself and my voice, I had to choose myself. It has absolutely paid off, since I’m more myself and more centered than I’ve ever been before. I’ve accepted my new voice, no matter what it is or will be, and I’ve grieved my mezzo-soprano voice as I’ve grieved the end of a relationship or the completion of a spectacular experience. But that’s a story for another time.

We can’t assume that a transgender singer has experienced, or will experience, a vocal change. Hormones do not make someone any less/more “legitimate” or “trans.” They were necessary for me, but they’re not necessary for everyone. There is no universal trans experience. My experience is singular. It might resemble someone else’s, but it equally might be completely different. Therefore, trans singers could fall into any of the current voice types.

Let’s return to my first question about the hypothetical audition and dig into that a bit. Let’s say, for argument’s sake, that I’ve decided to train and identify as a countertenor. I’ll be walking in with a resume full of mezzo-soprano roles, male clothing, and an androgynous appearance. Since I’ve written “countertenor” on my resume, most judges will assume that I identify as male. Since many mezzo-soprano and countertenor roles overlap, there will be less question of what I’m capable of singing. However, when the audition panelists read further down my resume, they’ll see that I’ve played female roles that are generally sung by cisgender women, such as Hermia and Jo March, in addition to my trouser roles. They may have read my biography and know my current gender identity, but they may not have. They have a lot of material to work through and it’s not on them to know or remember my gender identity. Unfortunately, this may lead to confusion that overshadows my singing, making the audition interaction more about my gender than my performance. Perhaps this is an issue caused by the lack of gender education in our society. Regardless, the outcome is the same.

Elizabeth’s Act I Aria from Sweets by Kate sung by Aiden Feltkamp
Music by Griffin Candey; Libretto by Thom K. Miller
Stage Director: Amber Treadway; Music Director: Griffin Candey; Costumes: Kaitlyn Day
Piano: Peiharn Chen; Cello: Spencer Shen; Violin: Sara Sidley
Video: La Cuarta Productions
Performed live at The Stonewall Inn – July 12, 2017

I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard mentors tell singers, myself included, to go out of their way not to “confuse” the panel by listing roles of different voice types on their resume. This isn’t to say that audition panelists are uneducated or incapable; it’s to illuminate the fact that auditions are short and your singing is easily overshadowed by a preoccupation with other details or the unintended bias caused by those details.

Let’s go to a more common example. Imagine a soprano who has just changed her voice type from mezzo-soprano to soprano. She’s immediately at a disadvantage if she lists every role that she’s performed on her resume, because it will immediately cause the review panel to question the legitimacy of her soprano-ness. The next inevitable step is that they’ll question her ability to sing the role for which she’s currently auditioning. This isn’t a gender issue any longer, but rather an issue of the current classification system’s inability to handle change.

And perhaps you’re thinking, “Our current voice types aren’t inherently gendered. What’s the issue?” Stay tuned, because while I won’t get to that here, I’ll go more in-depth into that aspect of the discussion in the next part of this series.

Voice type classification doesn’t only relate to the vocalists performing existing repertoire – this system also relates to the operatic roles we’re creating now and the roles we will create in the future. As a librettist, I’ve found that the current system severely limits and/or complicates the characters I write. When I write a trans or nonbinary character, many composers (rightfully) ask, “How do I write for this?” or “How do I identify it in terms of casting?” It’s quickly discovered that it’s not enough information to state a range or a standard voice type.

In the past, opera has intelligently dealt with the gender/voice interaction with its trouser and skirt roles. It’s still working with a gender binary, but it made a point of deciding how best to express certain variations and experiences in gender. I believe that changing the voice classification system can continue that adeptness into the future of the art form, allowing opera to continue to grow. The system has been purposefully designed; it can similarly be redesigned.

More and more trans artists are realizing that they can be both trans and an opera singer, something I once believed impossible. How can we be welcoming to their presence and artistry if the very structure of our system works against them? We’ve revised the operatic structure again and again, allowing it to flourish for hundreds of years. We can do it again to dismantle barriers for gender-diverse artists.

I’ve asked a lot of questions and I’ve purposely left most of them unanswered. First, I’m not a pedagogue; I’m speaking from my experience and the experiences that others have shared with me. Second, I don’t think that this is something that should be decided by one person. I’m far more interested in opening up the conversation to as many as are interested as a way to lead to a change in protocol. In later parts of this series, I’ll map out my ideas for the necessary elements of this new voice type classification system and how we can begin to combine these into a new system.

In the end, the onus should be on the system to support and correctly describe the artists within it, not on the artists to fit within its established parameters. A system that no longer serves its purpose, or that cannot expand to meet its purpose, must be redesigned.

Charlottesville and Citizen Artistry

Mixed instrument ensemble

It all started with a conversation. My colleague across the hall at the Hugh Hodgson School of Music, percussionist Kim Toscano, came into my office one day and we talked for a long time about racism in the United States. Kim is married to Timothy Adams, professor in music and chair of the percussion department. He’s also a composer (and that’s going to be important in my story). Tim is black, Kim is white, and they have an adorable baby boy who melts hearts with kind, innocent eyes. Kim was worried (and still is) about the kind of world that her baby was growing up in. I was outraged at…well…any number of things that had happened in the previous year. What could we do as teachers? As artists? As conductors? As drummers? What could we possibly do to make things better? That’s kind of how the conversation went. Lots of questions, some rage, a lot of sadness, some hopelessness, some feelings of inadequacy and irrelevance, more questions. We talked again and conjured up some ideas for getting out of the university and reaching out to the community in Athens, Georgia through music. Sure, we’ve all done that—“outreach” concerts, teaching, church services, tours—but we wanted to do something more profound, more long-lasting and impactful. The kind of citizen-artistry that Eric Booth talks about: “a revolution of the heart within the arts.”

I knew we had to get Connie Frigo involved. Connie is the saxophone professor at the Hugh and she’s incredible. I’ve seen both her and her students do innovative and meaningful performances, and I had recently attended an event called “The Innocence Project,” which Connie brought to the University of Georgia that involved an unlikely but powerful group of diverse participants. The three of us met a couple of times and although we found the conversations important, even helpful, we talked in circles. Lots of ideas, a few leads, some phone calls, we even bandied around some dates, but nothing really landed. And we weren’t even sure what we were planning.

Then, two things happened.

One, Connie and I went to “Athens in Harmony,” which brings together black and white communities in song. And here we were introduced to Mokah-Jasmine and Knowa Johnson. Mokah is the co-founder and president of the Athens Anti-Discrimination Movement, a grassroots organization in Athens, Georgia, that aims to combat discrimination through education and activism. She is also the co-founder and owner of the United Group of Artists Music Association (UGA Live), a business that specializes in music promotion and event production. She and her husband Knowa founded the Athens Hip Hop Awards, the Martin Luther King Jr. Parade, and Music Fest in Athens.  We knew that Mokah and Knowa had to be involved in whatever we planned.

At around the same time, Tim saw me in the hall one day and said, “Hey, I’m writing a piece for you.”


“Yeah, you, Connie, and Kim. You’re the narrator. It’s about what happened in Charlottesville.”

He was talking about August 12, 2017, when “Unite the Right” white supremacists marched, violence broke out, and 32-year-old Heather Heyer was murdered when she was mowed down by a man slamming his car into a group of counter-protesters.

We met several times with Mark Callahan, an incredible “connector” and thinker, at Ideas for Creative Exploration (an interdisciplinary initiative at UGA).  We knew we wanted to do something impactful, helpful, and important, and we wanted to involve an audience that might not normally attend a concert event in the Performing Arts Center on campus (a decidedly white crowd).

From here, things snowballed. Fast. That’s because the one-year anniversary of that horrible day was approaching, and Connie had the idea that we perform the piece.

Two problems. One, we didn’t have that more broadly welcoming venue. Re-enter Knowa Johnson. He suggests the studio of Stan Mullins, a local sculptor and artist of international renown, who occasionally opens his (huge) space for events. Knowa and Stan are friends. We meet at the studio and know immediately this is the place. Stan hears about the project and is totally on board. Read more about Stan; this guy is cool.

Stan Mullins's studio

Stan Mullins’s studio

We had talked about the idea of workshopping the piece with community members early on in the process, but now, it was a given. Why? That was the second problem, the piece wasn’t finished.

Each of us (Mokah, Knowa, Tim, Connie, Mark, me) invited five specially chosen community members to attend the event. Here is the invitation, which also explains the process of “workshopping”:

The weekend of August 11, 2018, is the one-year anniversary of the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, VA, where white nationalists gathered to protest the movement to remove Confederate monuments.  The rally turned violent when counter-protesters gathered to express their opposition.  Dozens were injured and Heather Heyer was killed when a pro-Nazi, James A. Fields Jr., rammed his car into the crowd of counter-protesters.

In response to the events of that day, composer, percussionist, and UGA’s Mildred Goodrum Heyward Professor in Music Timothy K. Adams, Jr., is composing a new piece for saxophone, percussion, and narrator that represents his own processing of the Charlottesville rally.   The performers are UGA professors of music Connie Frigo, saxophone; Kim Toscano Adams, percussion; and Cynthia Johnston Turner, narrator.

On Saturday, August 11, 2018, portions of the new work will be shared in an intimate workshop setting designed to engage critical dialog between the audience and performers, facilitated by Athens activists Mokah and Knowa Johnson, and Mark Callahan, Artistic Director of Ideas for Creative Exploration (ICE) at UGA.  The goal of the workshop is to use audience feedback to further develop the piece, including where in Athens to perform its premiere in the coming months, and to invoke racial harmony as we unite members of the Athens community through contemporary music and important civic conversation.

You are being specially invited to this unique and intimate event. It will begin with a casual BBQ dinner, followed by the performance and workshop. Please bring an open heart and mind, and a willingness to engage.

Several colleagues, graduate students, and friends volunteered to help with the logistics (food, drinks, tables, chairs, paper, pens, nametags, etc.). Dale Monson, director of the Hugh, agreed to finance the BBQ dinner. As the audience members arrived, there was an air of wonder and excitement. During the casual dinner, many expressed that they weren’t sure what they were expecting but were intrigued by the message and the concept. It was a diverse and relatively intimate group. They were divided into three tables, and we began.

Tim introduced himself and the motives for composing the music. His words were inviting, sobering, effective, and poignant. We then explained that the piece wasn’t complete and asked the audience members to respond to the piece with honesty. Their insights would be important for the direction of the work. We performed the first movement. Immediately after, each group was given approximately ten minutes to respond and record their reactions to the music. We did the same for the 2nd and 3rd movements. We received a standing ovation. There were tears. Finally, Mokah facilitated a brief summary of thoughts which sparked important and heartfelt dialogue. The evening concluded. Another standing ovation.

For the August 11, 2018 workshop of Charlottesville, a work in progress by Timothy K. Adams, the composer/percussionist ultimately joined Connie Frigo (saxophone) and Cynthia Johnston Turner (narrator) for the performance.

As a result of that evening, we now have an ambitious plan for moving forward. Possible venues for the premiere, as suggested by audience members at the initial workshop, emphasized the importance of conversation and diverse audience participants. Ideas included The Chapel at the University of Georgia, an antebellum structure adjacent to a Confederate monument in downtown Athens, shared public spaces, the historic Morton Theatre, churches, and alternative art spaces in Atlanta.

Tim will be composing three more related works over the course of two years. We have applied for major funding with a proposal entitled, “Citizen Artistry: A Performance Model to Raise Social Awareness, Promote Dialogue, and Inspire Change.” We have guaranteed funding from other sources. Educators have volunteered to write curriculum. It’s exciting.

But what has been most exciting is the process. From those initial conversations to a series of serendipitous events to the authentic and important involvement of community members in the artistic process, this experience has renewed our commitment to citizen artistry. Those feelings of hopelessness and inadequacy and outrage have morphed into energy, relevance, and meaning. Trite as it may sound, I believe music can make a difference. In this case, it took a village, a little risk-taking, walking way out of our comfort zones, and a lot of trust in the process.

The Collaborative Studio: Suggestions for Your Next Recording Project

So far throughout this series on the recording studio and the collaboration within, I have provided a primer on what producers are and what they do, my process of producing non-classical music, how classical music production differs from non-classical, and ways in which classical music production could evolve with contemporary composition trends. For this last post, I’d like to offer up five suggestions for those who may be new to the studio experience—either as a producer or performer—or for those who would like to take their future projects in a new, collaborative direction.


A point that deserves to be reiterated is the importance of communication in creating a healthy and successful collaborative environment. This means talking through ideas, providing feedback, asking questions, as well as being an active listener. Communication is a two-way channel. Not only is it important for you—whether you are the producer or the artist—to communicate your thoughts, but it is equally important to listen to others involved. As the producer, this is crucial for creating a strong working relationship. I have been in sessions where the producer only gave orders and hardly listened to the artist’s ideas. It creates a bitter relationship and a hostile environment in which no creative process could ever be fruitful.

From the producer’s perspective, listening to the artists you are working with will give you a better understanding of what it is they are trying to achieve. If you are working with musicians who are not as familiar with studio processes, their ideas may not work out the way they are imagining. However, listen to their ideas to help them achieve the end goal they are envisioning. For performers, it is important to go into a project understanding that the producer is there to help you achieve the best outcome possible. Listening to your producer and offering feedback only strengthens the project and deepens your understanding of what is possible in the studio.

Trust your team (i.e. don’t take your engineer for granted)

Part of the communication process I listed is to ask questions. What I mean by this is that, specifically as a producer, you should not feel like you need to have all of the answers. In a studio session, you are collaborating with a team of professionals. Whether it be performers, songwriters, or engineers, each person has a wealth of knowledge to contribute that you may or may not have. Take advantage of these resources and ask questions. Every composer knows how important it is to consult with performers about the extensions and limitations of their abilities on an instrument. This is the same for producers; ask questions and learn about fields you may be unfamiliar with. If a performer needs to adjust their tone to better sit in the mix, defer to their expertise on the instrument and ask what options there may be.

On more than one occasion, my engineer has provided invaluable insight that changed the course of the session and created a better end result. There have been times in which I was so focused on the musical material of a song that I wasn’t thinking about the sonic impact of each section. Suggestions about which areas of the sonic spectrum were lacking have pushed me to change the way I approach a section—sometimes by writing new parts to complement existing parts, other times by omitting parts I thought were necessary but realized were just a distraction. All this is to say, never take engineers for granted. They are more valuable than just turning a few knobs and hitting record. Even if they’ve only been in the role of engineer, they’ve been in the room with countless other producers and performers. They may just have a few tricks up their sleeves.

Have a plan (but don’t get too tied to it)

When preparing to produce a project, I always begin well before the first day in the studio. This includes doing research, studying references, studying scores, pre-production, and general conversations with the performers about what it is they are wanting to do stylistically. I always come to the first day of recording with a plan. This plan isn’t always extremely detailed, but it is an aid in organizing the upcoming sessions to ensure that everything gets done in a timely manner. The reason I tend not to prepare an overly detailed itinerary is because these plans almost always change once recording begins. It is valuable to be flexible and not get tied to a set way of doing things. These changes come about once a solid workflow is established and it is evident where the most time will be necessarily spent. However, having the initial plan will help you stay organized once things are set in motion and pieces of the schedule begin to move around. Performers will look to you to lead the way and get things rolling in the studio, and having a strong start sets you up for a successful and organized project. One of the roles of a producer is to maintain organization and keep the artists on track to meet their deadline. Doing your research ahead of time and having a foundational understanding of what the artist is wanting to achieve will keep you from wasting time during the recording process.

From the artist’s side of things, one way to help prepare for your studio sessions is to have at least an initial reference for what you are wanting to achieve sonically. Your references can be a combination of sources and they don’t necessarily need to all be things that you like. Knowing what it is you don’t like is also a helpful resource for the producer and engineer. Having an idea to get the conversation started is a great way to begin the pre-production process.

Push boundaries

One thing that I often see get lost in the studio is the spirit of exploration and experimentation. Of course, time and budget constraints can limit what people will be able to do, but, for those who are willing, the studio is an ideal environment for pushing boundaries. In a studio setting, you have the luxury of being able to hear an idea come to life in real time, and nothing is permanent if you don’t want it to be. As a producer for non-classical artists, I love offering up suggestions that are outside of the box. Sometimes they stick and sometimes they get shot down, but if an idea is easily executable there is no harm in trying something new and seeing what sort of creative impetus spawns from it.

In the previous post, I talked about ways in which contemporary classical production might evolve. Take some of these ideas or come up with your own and try them out. Maybe it won’t work, and that’s okay. I have no shortage of ideas that were left on the studio floor because they just didn’t work out, but there was no harm done. I take those experiences and learn from them. Sometimes I tweak the ideas until they finally do work, and other times I just move on entirely.

Trust yourself

Not only is it important to trust your team, but you must also trust yourself. If you’ve established a solid foundation of communication between all parties, you shouldn’t feel apprehensive about speaking up when something doesn’t sit right with you or you have an alternative idea. In a healthy collaborative setting, respect between all parties should be strong enough to hear out and work through any ideas presented. Ideas will never come to life if they aren’t presented in the first place.

As a performer, being in a studio and surrounded by studio equipment can sometimes be intimidating. We have years of experience as musicians, and all of these experiences are different from one another’s. Studio production teams are small and every person plays an integral role. Your knowledge and strengths make you a unique expert in your field. The engineer will handle the equipment, the producer will take care of organization and management, and the performers will know their instruments better than anyone else in the room. Know your field and know your limitations; you will have a team of people there to fill in any gaps and to support you and the project till the very end.

Crowdsourcing Rehearsals—Part Two (the good part)

In my previous article, I suggested that it’s time to move beyond the top-down, conductor-driven kind of rehearsals in education settings to be more inclusive and more student-focused. We also explored some “whys” of rehearsal, other than preparing the repertoire. Here come some practical ideas to experiment with.

Disclaimer: You probably shouldn’t (well, just don’t) try all of them at once. That would not be successful. I certainly don’t employ all of these ideas all of the time. But I do use all of these ideas some of the time.

Instead of Always Telling, Ask More Questions

I get it. We like to fix things. We’re pretty good at it. And, most of the time it’s more efficient. But I can guarantee it’s not as collaborative or engaging as it could be when you are the one telling your students what to do 100 percent of the time. You can start with things like, “That was a pretty good run, but I heard a few things we could improve on. Before I tell you, what are you hearing?” Or, if you hear a balance issue, instead of “Trombones, please play softer.” You can ask, “Hey trombones, are the trumpets playing louder or softer than you are?” Or, “John, is Matt playing softer or louder than you are?” Be prepared for “I don’t know. I wasn’t listening to ____.” Then be prepared to run that section again so they can listen. Nine times out of ten, it will fix itself. You don’t have to do this ALL of the time. But the more you do, the better the students get at listening and figuring it out.

As long as they are talking about the music, it’s O.K.

Here’s another idea: when you are approaching the concert and ready to run the piece, ask the students to listen carefully for things that need improving. After the run, have them talk in their sections about what needs to happen. (This can get cacophonous. You have to be O.K. with the idea that as long as they are talking about the music, it’s O.K.)

Talk Less/Conduct Less

My dear friend Tim Reynish likes to say, “Talk less; show more,” and that’s great. It should be a given that you are constantly perfecting your gesture and conducting to be the most musical/expressive/artistic/helpful it can be, and that you are consistently training your weaknesses. But more and more, I’m conducting less in rehearsal. When there is an ensemble pulse issue, it’s particularly important to stop conducting. We all know it’s far more important for the players to LISTEN than it is to watch, so take the eyes out of the equation. It works nearly every time.

It’s far more important for the players to LISTEN than it is to watch.

Also, get off the box and walk around. It’s amazing how differently you will hear when you do this. It seems like a simple thing, and it is, but it’s tremendously effective.

Change the Seating

I regularly do a “scatter” rehearsal, often two or three rehearsals before the performance. The rules are that the students cannot sit in the same row as they usually sit, and they cannot sit beside a like instrument. There are a number of benefits to doing this, but the most important benefit is deeper listening. More specifically:

  1. Musicians hear things in entirely new ways. Or, they hear things for the first time.
  2. Musicians get used to hearing the “back” or the “front.” Now they have to open their ears and adjust to make the balance work and the blend.
  3. It’s fun. Tubas like to come to the front row, as do trombones. And flutes like to move to the back.
  4. You hear things in entirely new ways.
  5. You can’t cue sections without looking ridiculous, so don’t.
  6. More individual responsibility and musical independence.
  7. It builds community and collaboration. Have the students introduce themselves to their new neighbors.
Try the “monk” rehearsal … where you don’t speak.

Try sitting in a circle as well, and put percussion in the middle. And you can always try the “monk” rehearsal (students LOVE this one) where you don’t speak. Very interesting what can evolve in this setting.

Be Authentic

Talk about being “authentic” is really hip right now. But, it’s amazing how many people I see change who they are when they are on the podium. Be vulnerable. Demonstrate that you are a life-long learner. Let your students in. If you make a mistake, admit it. Everyone knows you made a mistake anyway so if you don’t take responsibility, you not only look silly but you model a behavior that is really undesirable. Sincerity and humility build a culture of trust and responsibility. Early on in my career I observed a choral rehearsal where the singers quickly put up their hands when they made an error. It’s a simple thing but gosh, not only does it save time (you don’t need to stop) but it helps create this culture of accountability and trust.

Guide-at-the-Side versus Sage-on-the-Stage

Have a second score and have a student sit beside you while you run a large section or a piece. Have them talk to the ensemble about what they are hearing. Choose these musicians VERY carefully.

Invest in Student Leadership

This is for middle and high school folks mostly. All that incredible student leadership that you build in to marching band—section leaders, rank leaders, drum majors, etc.—bring inside. For some reason, all of that peer-to-peer coaching goes away with a lot of programs in the spring semester. Why?

Open up the Programming Decisions

What if the students helped you choose some of the repertoire?

In the previous article I said something like, “We tell them what to do, how to do it, and when to do it,” and then brag that our students are more engaged in our band class than in their math class. What if the students helped you choose some of the repertoire? You can start with a theme then give them a choice of three pieces that “fit” the theme, have them listen to all three (hey, now they’re listening to more repertoire!), and afterwards choose (by vote…democracy! Cross-curricular learning!) the one they want. The “buy-in” on that piece goes through the roof.

Record Rehearsals

Sure, you already do this. But do you send the recording to the students? I can assure you they think they sound better than they do, and it is ear-opening for them to hear it. Try telling them that their homework is to NOT practice and instead their homework is to listen critically to the rehearsal. Have each section deal with one aspect. For example, percussion comment on intonation (which they tend not to think about); trumpets make suggestions on balance; flutes make suggestions about blend, etc.

Project the Score

It’s absolutely silly to me that in 2018 we are still handing out individual parts. On paper. (Some students are using iPads) Why, for goodness sake, is there only one expert in the room with all of the information? And why do we keep it a secret? For several years, I’ve been projecting the score from my iPad. We have a large screen in the rehearsal room at the Hodgson School of Music which I stand in front of and the score is projected behind me for the musicians to see at all times. I have used the app forScore, which is great and pretty intuitive, but we are now also using Newzik. Projecting the score and referring to it in rehearsals is not only more efficient, it’s more engaging.

How you create a culture of trust and collaboration matters.

The greatest gifts we can give our students are life-long. Years from now, they may not remember a chromatic fingering, a composer’s name, or a musical term. But they will remember how it FELT to be in rehearsal, that their opinions mattered, how they learned to take ownership and responsibility for their own learning, that you cared, how to work with others in a community, that hard work paid off, how to lead, how to follow, and so much more. Quality repertoire matters (that’s a whole other article), it matters a lot. But how you create a culture of trust and collaboration matters, too. And frankly, it’s how we will stay relevant.

“Of a good leader, who talks little, they will say, ‘We did it ourselves.’” (Lao Tzu)

The Collaborative Studio: The Past, Present, and Future of Classical Music Production

The previous post in this series took a look into my production process for non-classical projects such as rock bands and singer-songwriters. Although my process changes significantly when I produce contemporary classical sessions, there are a few core philosophical similarities in how I approach a classical project. For this post, I want to walk through what changes, what is similar, and in what ways contemporary classical production can evolve.

The starkest difference between the two worlds of producing independent artists versus contemporary classical is the inclusion of a composer and a written score. When working with independent artists, you are usually working directly with the songwriter, and there is flexibility for changes. This flexibility doesn’t generally exist for classical music, so the focus then shifts almost entirely to the performance.

In classical recordings, there is an emphasis placed on producing a flawless performance with technical facility becoming the focal point of the recording. However, the inability to alter the content of a piece does not mean that production must solely focus on playing the right notes at the right time. During a recent project I was producing, the performer and I had an in-depth discussion about one piece that didn’t quite feel as satisfying as it could have. The performer was executing it flawlessly as written, but it took a deeper dive into the music to understand the best way to portray the work emotionally. Certain rhythms were flexible enough to be interpreted differently, and phrasing was altered to imbue a sense of drama that was previously lacking.

This is a drawback of working from a score; the details aren’t always as clear as they could be on the page. In these situations, a producer should assist in providing direction for the performers. As a composer myself, I can confidently say that scores often times fall short, and using your musical instincts can clear up any insecurities a performer may have about what’s written. It’s much like a performer coaching an ensemble, you dig deeper than what is on the page to understand what the piece is and where it is going. Not to mention that studio time is not free (nor cheap), so decisions need to be made as quickly and confidently as possible.

Good producers will do their homework for an upcoming project. Score study is only one aspect of preparation for classical music recording sessions. Other ways to prepare for a session could involve researching instruments that you have less experience with to gain a basic understanding of how they produce sound. This is a necessary practice for composers. Without an understanding of how an instrument works, a composer cannot effectively compose idiomatically. Producers can use this same knowledge—in dialogue with the performers—to make suggestions, coach, or troubleshoot sonically problematic passages.

Preparation should also involve researching the performers you will be working with, which will provide insight into how those performers sound and what they are capable of. When producing a classical project, I spend a lot of time listening to recordings. I listen to any previous or live recordings by the performers as well as other recordings in the same field, e.g. string quartets, solo flute, solo violin, etc. When listening to other performers’ recordings, I’m not as interested in the performance as I am interested in how the music impacts me when I listen to it. If I really enjoy listening to a record, I will deconstruct the production of the record. Or, transversely, if I don’t like how a particular record sounds, I will know what it is I want to avoid as I prepare for the upcoming project.

Instead of the recording acting as an archival document, it can become an expansion of the music itself.

One of my first memories of working with a producer was at a pre-production meeting where the producer asked me what records I was listening to at the moment and what I really liked about them. At the time, this idea of taking ideas for the sonic imprint of my own record from other records I loved had never crossed my mind. This is now a consistent practice for me. Any time I begin working with new artists, one of the first things I ask is about which records comparable to their own work do they enjoy listening to. This frame of reference provides a tangible source to study for the producer so that they can confidently execute stylistic choices that are in line with what the performers prefer but may not know how to articulate.

Listening through recordings from previous decades, the production style of classical music has only very recently begun to change. The biggest differences over the years have been the improvement of recording technology which produced higher quality recordings. For the most part, producing classical music has been as much about capturing the space as the performance itself. However, when you look at the history of pop or rock music, the production quickly moved away from capturing a sonically accurate live performance recording, and instead creating a unique aural experience on record that, in some ways, intends to replicate the live image but utilizes recording techniques that isolate instruments and add an immediacy to the sonic landscape. Music listeners never think twice about this approach. You hear a band on record and when you see them live you usually never think about how different the sonic experience is. Whereas, with classical recordings, what you hear on the recording can sound almost identical to what you would hear live if you were to witness the performance in the same space.

The idea of creating a unique aural experience on record that differs from a live performance without changing the content of the music itself is an exciting notion both from the perspective of a composer and a producer. Instead of the recording acting as an archival document, it can become an expansion of the music itself. On record, you can provide a unique look into a piece of music that can’t be replicated live, especially in the present day where most people listen to music through headphones.

There is a growing trend among contemporary composers of creating works that ignore the arbitrary boundaries of genre. These works—such as Sarah Kirkland Snider’s Unremembered and Gemma Peacocke’s upcoming record, Waves & Lines—are ideal canvasses for modern production techniques, and a glimpse into what the future of contemporary classical production could be. The isolation and immediacy of the instruments in these recordings and the liberal exploration of the stereo field leaves behind the fixed spatial recordings of past classical recordings. Listeners are able to aurally navigate dense instrumental textures as if they were a part of the ensemble. The intimacy of this type of production also creates an emotional relationship to the music, much like the way a pop singer’s voice is recorded to hear every nuance of sound created. For as much as classical music harps on the emotion and drama embedded in works, it could benefit from this type of intimate production style.

My final installment in this series on the potential of the collaborative studio will offer up some suggestions for taking full advantage of your studio project and how to be a better collaborator with the rest of your production team. Every studio experience is a learning opportunity, and with the right positive mental attitude, everyone involved can benefit and learn in different ways.