When asked if there is a core theme to the Mannes Collaborative Piano program, Cristina Stanescu doesn’t hesitate: “To listen, to really listen in the greatest sense of the word, to play well with others.” Stanescu launched the relatively new specialty for graduate piano students in 2001, when she came to Mannes from Yale, and has led the program ever since.
“Like the river that takes the shape of a landscape it has to go through, we all have to learn to adjust. And this takes listening, above all else,” she says. “There are sub-skills that must be developed, but situational adaptability and interpretation, when to lead and when to follow, it all comes back to listening.”
Stanescu, who received her master's and PhD from Juilliard, credits Samuel Sanders, a mentor at Juilliard, for coining the term “collaborative piano” 25 years ago and inspiring her as she developed the program.
The students selected for Collaborative Piano must first have excellent solo piano skills, at the level of a graduate of a conservatory undergraduate piano degree. The number of students admitted is limited, and the atmosphere of the program places an emphasis on intimacy, trust, the ability to listen deeply and develop new language skills and interpersonal skills, in addition to performance and technique.
Language study is part of the program, to help in working with vocalists, and includes phrasing, interpretation, the meaning of poetry, the lines in a piece, and understanding what is happening with a singer and with instruments and how they work with the piano as a partner in different musical situations.
“Part of art is being able to adapt to each kind of instrumental or vocal situation and combination. We need to take from each other’s ideas,” Stanescu says.
Core repertoire is at the heart of the curriculum. From the beginning, students choose their major teachers and play in their studios — instrumental, vocal or both. Students also have an opportunity to coach freshman singers and can audition for The Mannes Opera to play for rehearsals and coach for productions.
A typical week includes Vocal Accompaniment slass, Instrumental Accompaniment class, studio, playing for lessons (students are paid for this work), Mannes Opera rehearsals, and group coaching seminars, where a focus on interpersonal skills and differing needs for singers or instrumentalists is explored. In Collaborative Piano classes, there is always the opportunity to see how other students coach, discuss how to improve, and adapt in front of one another.
Master Classes are offered each semester, as well, with outside artists who offer Q&A sessions for students on career guidance. Collaborative Piano students also participate in Master Classes for Voice and Opera students as they explore career possibilities.
“The program is not a factory,” Stanescu emphasizes. “We seek to nurture uniqueness with skills at Mannes; we want to encourage individuality and enhance uniqueness.”
Collaborative Piano offers an abundance of exciting performance opportunities, including ones at major musical venues and cultural institutions around New York. Each student performs in the Mannes Festival series, and each semester there is an “Evening of Songs” series as part of the program, in which students partner with Mannes Voice students as teams. They are coached as a team and perform as a team. At the end of the two years, students present a final recital.
Recent graduates include Vlad Iftinca, who is also on the Mannes Collaborative Piano faculty and is assistant conductor at the Metropolitan Opera, and Julie McBride, a music director on Broadway. Some graduates have participated in the Metropolitan Opera Lindemann Young Artist Development Program, and many have gone on to become teachers, coaches, and freelance musicians, as well as opera music directors and chamber music artists.
“Mannes is a small school in the best sense,” notes Stanescu. “There is plenty of individual attention — only four to eight students in the program — and the spirit of camaraderie is for real. Competition is not inhibiting you. It’s more like emulation. We get inspired by what our colleagues do and grow together. It’s a nurturing environment.”
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