Jan Young

My hands rest lightly on the piano keys, ready to play, but my eyes are not on my music. They are attentively on the soloist as she composes herself before beginning. Joyce doesn't glance or nod to cue me; we have worked together enough that I can sense when she wants me to start.

When I accompany a soloist, I have to play with feel--the same kind of feel we are developing in our riding. That means I pay close attention to the feedback from the soloist, trying to anticipate what she is about to do. I must be ready, both mentally and physically. Joyce doesn’t consciously cue me, but she also has to get ready to do whatever she is about to do; if I give her my total attention, I can pick up her subtle cues.

We are a team--not 50/50, but 51/49--and she is the leader. We have a partnership; we are both needed to get the job done, but I am helping Joyce in her job of performing a solo. In order for us to stay together and sound good, I have to play as if the two of us are of one mind. The written music is my guide but not a rigid guide. The real guide is the feel I get from Joyce, and that feel changes constantly.

I start the introduction. Finding that the tempo I chose is a bit too fast, I immediately slow to her tempo. I constantly adjust my speed, rhythm and emphasis to match hers. Sometimes I even leave out notes or add notes if she takes the liberty of doing something a little different than the written music calls for. If she mistakenly skips a couple measures or an entire line, I must instantly, smoothly and calmly change my plan to fill in for her.

In some places I tone down my playing; in other places, like high notes, I may need to offer more piano support. Joyce doesn't ask me for it; I have enough feel, and experience, to sense she needs it, and she is confident because she knows I will be there for her. There are brief interludes where the piano can come out as the leader momentarily before dropping back into the support role. If I let my ego take over, I might try to overpower her voice with my playing; our partnership would suffer, and the beauty of our performance would be diminished.

It's helpful to practice with a soloist ahead of time to get a feel for what they do, but a skilled accompanist can do a good job without a practice run. The better pianist you are, the better you can follow this feel. A mediocre pianist is too worried about the mechanics of playing to effectively follow the feel of a soloist.

Early in my horsemanship journey, I didn't have a lot of feel. I was too busy thinking about the mechanics of what was happening. But the more my riding skills became second nature, the more my attention was freed up to focus on how the horse was responding and feeling, and on how I should adjust my approach.

This adjustment might mean offering a little more support if I felt his attention wandering, or if he was dragging or pushing on me; it might mean backing off and letting the horse fill in on his own when I sensed he didn't need as much directing. Riding with less feel often caused me to use more pressure than was necessary, or to wait too long to release, or to be behind the horse instead of with him, because I couldn't feel what was happening or about to happen. Therefore my timing was frequently off.

Just as I used the written music as a basic guide at the piano, so I try to have a basic plan when I ride, but not a rigid plan. Riding with feel means I adjust my plan constantly as I get feedback from the horse. In my earlier riding days, I preferred to ride a horse I was familiar with, because it was easier for me to interpret feedback with a horse I knew. But as my riding improved and my feel developed, I found I could get along fairly well with a strange horse because I had learned how to quickly tune in to the feel of a horse.

My partnership with Joyce was similar to the one you would have with a good horse, that follows your every subtle move because his attention is on you and he is always ready to do whatever you ask. You don’t have to get his attention, put him together, or wait for him to get ready, like you would with a green horse. He is so in tune with your body language that he picks up what you are thinking, as you focus on the job at hand. He is physically and mentally collected--he is attentive, balanced, ready to do any job you need.

Riding with feel on a horse that willingly follows that feel is almost like reading each other's minds, and is a deeply satisfying experience. Whether accompanist and soloist, or horse and rider--when both are following this feel, there is magic in the partnership.



Accompanying a soloist in church one Sunday years ago, I got another glimpse into what it means for a horse to be ready and collected, and what it means to ride with feel. At that time all my piano students were riders--most lived on ranches. I often used riding examples in explaining piano playing concepts to them. This particular Sunday, as I played, I was thinking about how I might explain to my adult student how I was able to follow the soloist as she speeded up, slowed down, paused, got louder and softer. The riding analogy came to mind as I played.

I not only explained this to my student at her next lesson--I also shared these thoughts with the soloist when I ran into her a few days later in our tiny rural post office. Being a rancher, she was also a rider. She understood exactly what I was saying, loved the analogy, and we had a good laugh. The postmistress, also a rancher/rider, was part of the conversation and laughed too. Such is life in a small ranching community!