The Prosser Piano store never sounded this loud. About 12 Tacoma piano teachers are seated at four baby grands, squeezing onto benches and grinning as they pound their way through the “Triple Dip” boogie. The bass rolls like a freight train, the treble echoes around the room in octaves. And as the final chord hits, the tricky part begins.
“OK, with all these pianos it gets a bit rackety, so let’s use as little pedal as we can,” begins Tim Strong, who’s kind of organizing the ensemble.
“And it would be great to start this section quietly, then build up,” demonstrates Margie Dickerson from the other end of the same piano.
“What did she say?” says someone at a different piano.
Rehearsing what will eventually be a 32-hand piano piece — 16 performers on four pianos — is quite a logistical undertaking, including finding a practice venue, getting everyone there and agreeing on how to play the thing.
But these particular performers have a lot of experience, and they’re tactful to boot. They’re all Tacoma music teachers, and they’re rehearsing the finale for the Four Piano Benefit on Saturday night at Tacoma Community College. It’s an annual event that showcases local teachers while raising money for a May concert at which their students get to play with a live orchestra.
“This is the 22nd year of our orchestra recital series,” says Paul Twedt, a piano teacher who’s emceeing the fundraiser. “The goal is to give students the chance to experience the thrill of being a soloist with an orchestra on a noncompetitive basis. Anyone can play if they pay the fee and have the music.”
“As an adult piano student who has performed in the series for the past three years, I can attest (that) it is a rare thing in one’s life, especially as an amateur, to play with orchestral accompaniment,” says student Maggie McGuire.
It’s also an opportunity unique to the Tacoma chapter of the nonprofit Washington State Music Teachers Association, Twedt says. While there are a number of regional competitions that offer an orchestral solo as the prize, the chance to play with an orchestra accompaniment is one that Tacoma teachers think every student should experience – not just the best ones.
But it’s also a very expensive thing to do. For a concert that can include notable pieces such as Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky concertos down to simple pieces with teacher-written accompaniments, the Orchestra Recital Series needs an orchestra and conductor that play at a high level and get paid for it. Each soloist pays a fee to participate in the recital ($60 for a three-minute piece, $200 for more than 15 minutes), but to supplement the orchestra’s paychecks, the Tacoma WSMTA has put on the Four Piano Benefit for the past four years.
And there’s another benefit from the benefit: showcasing the talents of Tacoma’s hardworking music teachers. They are graduates of schools such as Juilliard, Eastman, University of Puget Sound and Pacific Lutherann University; they are professional musicians who also work as music directors, choir directors, accompanists and even composers. But Saturday night they get the chance to shine as soloists, playing in a program that includes popular pieces by Beethoven, Brahms, Purcell, Bizet, Sain-Sans, Handel and Faure.
Oh, and Robert Vandall, who wrote “Triple Dip.” Originally for six-hand piano (three players, one instrument), the WSMTA chapter has expanded that piece into performance theater, involving four teams of four pianists who make their entrances in character, ham up the sheer challenge of fitting four backsides onto a piano bench and create a brilliantly percussive sound on stage.
“The difficulty is getting everybody to pay attention in rehearsal,” says Dickerson, a teacher and four-year Four Piano veteran who’s also playing a four-piano, eight-hand version of Bizet’s “Carmen” suite and the second movement of Beethoven’s 7th symphony. “And it’s hard to see each other (while playing). But it’s fun; I really enjoy it. Pianists always play by themselves – here you get to play in a group.”
At the rehearsal in Prosser’s baby grand room, things are moving along. Strong politely makes a couple of suggestions for the theatrics, humbly points out that the tempo’s dragging a little and diplomatically asks for any other ideas. It’s clear that this ensemble of piano teachers doesn’t include any divas. People take notes for those who couldn’t make the rehearsal. After a couple of slow runs, they’re ready to take it up to speed. Fingers fly along keyboards, arms carefully flip pages so nobody’s music is obscured and faces are intent.
And at the final hammed-up flourish, everyone laughs. As Dickerson says, it’s the kind of group thrill that pianists don’t often experience — as if a whole football team could score a touchdown at the same time — and offering that to students is clearly worth any amount of piano juggling.
Four Piano Benefit Concert
When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: Tacoma Community College auditorium, 6501 S. 19th St., Tacoma
Cost: Entry by donation, to benefit the Washington State Music Teachers Association’s Orchestral Recital Program in May
Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568 firstname.lastname@example.org