Ensembles Help Amateur Pianists Learn to Perform

Learn the subtleties of performance by playing in an ensemble or with a vocalist, urges the Association of Classical Musicians and Artists' founder.

Amateur pianist Alberto de Salas performs with his ensemble–Sarah Mankes on the violin and Emily McCabe on cello–in this exclusive video for GRAND PIANO PASSION™. The work is Otoño Porteño (from Les 4 Saisons de Buenos Aires) by Ástor Piazzolla, a 20th century Argentinean composer.

Amateur pianists who perform in ensembles, such as trios and quartets, develop crucial performance abilities, advocates Alberto de Salas. By day, Alberto works as a business analyst in New York City, but on evenings and weekends, he transforms into the founder of the Association of Classical Musicians and Artists (ACMA). In this exclusive interview with GRAND PIANO PASSION™, Alberto explains how his experiences with ensembles have helped him to become not only a stronger pianist but also a better person.

Tell us about your interest in trios, quartets, and other forms of ensembles for amateur pianists, especially for ACMA’s annual concert at Carnegie Hall. 

The reality of performing, especially for amateurs, is that you will make a mistake. As a soloist, if you blank out, or if you get nervous, you have nobody to help you, nobody to cover you. On the other hand, if you’re a part of an ensemble, there are ways or techniques where the other players can help cover mistakes, and you also have a network of support. It’s almost like being on a team.

Also, playing in an ensemble makes you a better musician. There are a lot of ensemble works where, at one point, one instrument takes a dominant role and the others are supportive. A lot of pianists who are soloists aren’t very cognizant of this. They’re used to being the constant center of attention. In an ensemble, you get feedback from your fellow team members, and you have to learn the importance of being generous with your music. You learn a lot of the shadings and the subtleties of performance.

Could you give us an example of when you as an amateur pianist performed in an ensemble?

Awhile ago, I worked on the Yellow River Piano Concerto, a piece for piano, violin, and harmonica arranged by a collaboration between musicians including Yin Chengzong and based on the Yellow River Cantata by Xian Xinghai. The violinist, Tyson Mao, is a very fine amateur violinist who has since moved to California. The harmonica player is named Jia-Yi. He is actually a professional harmonica player who has toured in Berlin, Israel, Hong Kong, and throughout the United States.

For a lot of the Yellow River Concerto, the piano is really more in the background, but I had this impulse to play louder or to not listen, because I was so focused on my end. And through their guidance, I realized, hold on a second, you’re not wasting your time if you’re a supporting player, an ensemble player.

I was providing the base and the background, but at the same time, I was helping the entire wall of sound, if you want to say that, the sonic landscape. So I think that a lot of piano players become much better ensemble players when they play with other musicians or with a vocalist.

The piano has played a role in your life since your childhood.

When I was seventeen, my Dad was diagnosed with cancer.  My Dad’s illness was expensive, and unfortunately we didn’t have much financial security following his demise. When we moved, I sold my Baldwin upright piano. I didn’t have another piano for nine years.

In my late twenties, I decided the piano was something I should get back into. Even though I decided not to become a professional musician, I still felt like music was my true vocation.

So you enrolled in the Juilliard Evening Division to study classical piano music?

Yes. You had to be well prepared, and to know what you were going to say. What was your musical statement? Juilliard instilled in students the responsibility towards an audience to entertain them, to take them someplace. People will walk away having felt better for having listened to you.

How did ACMA get its start?

After I finished at Juilliard, I didn’t feel there was a place for amateur musicians who are working people but who still have a voice. In 2005 I printed out 50 or 100 flyers advertising an amateur forum and put them all over New York City. Didn’t take off.

Two years later, in 2007, I tried again, and this time three people were interested. I rented a hall above a Catholic elementary school in the Upper West Side. The next month—that was back in September 2007—twenty people showed up.  Since then, we’ve held monthly recitals or concerts.

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