Keeping Up with the Jones

Winning awards is nothing new to North Carolina native and pianist Warren Jones, who has worked with singers as legendary as Marilyn Horne, Tatiano Troyanos, and Samuel Ramey and, more recently, Stephanie Blythe and Denyce Graves. But that doesn’t lessen the recent honor of being named Collaborative Pianist of the Year by Musical America. As faculty at Manhattan School of Music and Music Academy of the West, Jones teaches the next generation of singers about the essentials of performing, an art he began at age five. He also is an active performer of chamber music, and this past summer he conducted L’amico Fritz for San Francisco Opera’s Merola Program where, in addition to the Metropolitan Opera, he previously served as assistant conductor.

Since he has played at Carnegie Hall, I am pretty sure he knows how to get there (practice, practice, practice)—so that is what I asked him about first.

What is your practice routine like?

My practice routine is very irregular. I love to practice. I really do. I don’t always get a lot of chance to practice because of traveling and other things I have to do, but I practice whenever I can. That’s the first thing to note. And as far as how I practice, that’s always been dictated by something that my high school piano teacher told me. After I’d studied with her for a while (she was my second piano teacher), I was going to contests and festivals and I was seeing people who were practicing, it seemed to me, a lot. I didn’t practice that much when I was that age because this was in junior high, so I was in school and I had a lot going on.

When you say, “not that much,” how much do you mean?

I would practice for about an hour and half before I went to school in the morning. I started about 6:00 in the morning. I’d practice ‘til about 7:30 and then go off to school. When I got home from school, usually the first thing I did was to practice for about an hour and a half again. I also had an arrangement with the school that I was in that with the music classes, if I asked out of the classes, they would let me out of the classes so that I could go practice.

So, I asked my teacher one time, “Mrs. Gayle, how much should I practice?” And she said, “That’s easy. Practice as long as you can listen. And when you can’t listen any more, no matter. . . if it’s been five minutes or five hours, when you’re not listening, get up and do something else. Stop. Because if you’re not aware of what you’re doing, you’re not doing anyone any favors. And when you can listen again, go back to the piano and practice some more.”

And that’s what I do. Some days I’ll sit there for three hours nonstop and have a great time. Other days, I’ll sit there, literally, for 15 minutes at a time and go write some letters or pay some bills or whatever else I have to do, and come back and play for 15 more minutes. The point is to always be productive when I’m doing it. That was great advice for me from her, and I’ve always appreciated that. I still do it that way to this day.

Along with Mrs. Gayle [Bess Gayle in High Point, North Carolina], who have been your most important teachers?

She was absolutely my most important teacher because she taught me about the mechanics of playing the piano. And she taught me in an incredible way. I hope you don’t mind my answering your question like this. She could not play the piano herself. I came to her when she was quite elderly and she had had many serious illnesses in her life, including polio. She had very serious scoliosis and what they called crippling arthritis, which I think now they call rheumatoid arthritis. Some of her fingers, her nail joints, were bent at a 90-degree angle. She could play the piano for a few minutes each morning. When she got up, she put her hands in paraffin. That was the only thing that warmed her hands enough so . . . she could play for a few minutes. Then her hands would seize up, and that was it for the day.

She taught me to play by sitting across the room from me and telling me what to do, and at every step encouraging me to understand how I feel when I play the piano . . . physically and . . . emotionally. When something was good, she would say, “What did that feel like?” She never played the piano for me—not one note, which was good for me. She allowed me to be my teacher by finding out in my body what the sensations were that worked. That’s quite akin to what makes a good voice teacher, as far as I’m concerned—someone who guides them along the path, allowing them to discover for themselves what works and what doesn’t work.

My teacher in undergrad school, Jacob Maxin, taught me about my fingers in a different way. Most importantly, he encouraged me to listen to the tone I was making, to hear what that sounded like, where I sit. Then my teacher in grad school, Milton Salkind, who was the president of the San Francisco Conservatory at the time, was again instrumental for me because he encouraged me to be bigger and think bigger.

Bigger how?

Every way you want to! Bigger tone, bigger energy, bigger pianissimos, bigger fortissimos—to stretch the envelope out.

The other person who was a very important teacher to me was the first woman I ever heard sing . . . in an operatic voice. That was a lady who taught at the Manhattan School and also at the New England Conservatory, where I was in school. That was Margaret Hoswell. I remember the first time that I heard her sing and felt what that felt like, to be in the middle of that sound. I will never forget that afternoon. My eyes opened and my ears opened.

Was that the moment you knew you wanted to work with singers?

No, I’d always known that. I played my first recital in public when I was five, but I was singing and playing at the same time in public from the time I was seven until I was 13. My sisters and I had a fairly well known gospel trio and we sang what I suppose would now be called white gospel music. We were regularly in front of 2,000 to 4,000 people on a weekly basis. I talked to the audience [as] the MC for our group. By the time I was 10, there was nothing that daunted me about speaking in front of an audience. It was amazing practical experience. Even after we stopped . . . when my voice changed, later on in life when my sisters and I got together, we could sing together very beautifully because we understood how to listen and blend our voices in harmony.

That close collaboration is sort of a template for the kind of work you’ve gone on to do.

Absolutely.

When you’re teaching and you see singers who are not so comfortable in front of an audience, what sort of advice do you give them?

You should know, from the time I started entering contests until I was through high school, not one time did I ever lose a contest. I won every contest I entered. I had an incredibly positive attitude because I didn’t know anything else except to win. After a while, that started to get a little bit creepy. I asked Mrs. Gayle one day, “What happens the first time that I lose?”

She had two very good pieces of advice for me. She said, “Warren, if you go and do your very best on the day, you will never lose, because you win for yourself. If you don’t do your best, you may still win the contest, but you haven’t been good to yourself. Don’t expect it to be perfect every time. Just go at it with the idea that you’re going to do your best, and walk away knowing you’ve done your best.”

The other thing she said—and this is something I was doing already, but she helped me to identify this—she said, “You have to fill your brain with all of the stuff that goes into making it a wonderful, good, positive performance. Your brain is limitless in its ability to have good stuff in it. But that one doubt that’s back there can eclipse all of that other stuff if you allow it to. The only way to have that doubt is if you make room for it. If you make room for it, it will be there and it will overrun all the rest of the stuff.”

A lot of people talk about the fact that I play the piano in public, a lot of times, by memory. I don’t go in public unless I am 100 percent sure that I can do it without the music. That’s just how it works. The idea of being positive all the time with what you’re doing is very crucial. I have the advantage that before I knew what I was doing, I had been doing it a long time. And I understand that. But I tell people, you can study swimming until you’re blue in the face, but you have to get in the pool and swim. The only way to learn to swim is to get in the pool.

So, if you have a student who’s nervous about performing, you’ll say, “Go do more performing.”

Absolutely. The tendency is to do the other, to pull back, which only exacerbates the problem. The only way to do it is to just do it. If you screw up, fine! Screw up. But just keep going and do your best.

There’s another thing I’ve learned myself from being in contests. I’m amazed when I watch people sometimes in contests who concern themselves with their colleagues. Music is an entirely offensive game. There is no defense to play! You cannot block the other person from singing well. The only thing you can do is to do your best. It’s very much like golf or bowling. You just hit the ball down the fairway and you see who is better. Many people become concerned with how the other person is hitting the ball down the fairway and then that takes them off their game, so they can’t possibly do their best job.

Is there anything in particular that you find about working with conservatory singers?

I can tell you that, in my case, my singers don’t learn a whole lot of music. I’m frankly not interested in the volume of music they learn. I’m interested for them, while they are in school, to learn how to learn. It’s better that they sing or play two or three things well than do some “gigunda” list of things poorly or half way. Learning to learn is very important. It’s like learning how to work. That’s why I so prize my piano teacher Mrs. Gayle who allowed me to learn how to do it. That’s what I try to do with my students: to shepherd them along to understand what’s going on in their bodies and in their minds with music.

For more from Warren Jones, see the rest of this interview exclusively online.

Lisa Houston

Lisa Houston is a writer and dramatic soprano who divides her time between Berlin and Berkeley. She recently performed Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder with the Kensington Symphony Orchestra and the title role in The Last Diva on Broadway with the Leipzig Kammeroper. She can be reached at Lisahouston360@gmail.com.