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This article by Elaine Strauss was prepared for the January 15, 2003 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Where Piano & Singing Me
I‘ve heard pianist J.J. Penna accompany singers. He’s
a master of the keyboard, sensitive and subtle, vivid and forceful.
There seems always to be something interesting in his piano part,
even when the musical spotlight focuses on the singer. So I ask him
why he’s not a soloist. He finds an explanation in what he calls "my
In a telephone interview from his Franklin Park home Penna says, "I
started piano at an early age. My mother was a singer. So very early
I had an appreciation for language, the voice, and vocal repertoire."
That appreciation never left him. "It made perfect sense for me
to become an accompanist," he says. "That’s where my interests
in language, singing, and piano merge. The career sort of chose me."
Within the next 10 days, Penna collaborates with singers in two full-scale
recitals at Rider University’s Westminster Choir College, and returns
with a third program less than a month later. He accompanies soprano
Margaret Cusack on Sunday, January 19; soprano Nancy Froysland Hoerl
on Sunday, January 26, and soprano Sharon Sweet on Sunday, February
23. Prior to the Princeton appearances, on Friday, January 17, at
7:30 p.m. in New York’s Juilliard Theater, Penna shares accompanying
duties with his mentor Martin Katz in a recital by six young singers
sponsored by the Marilyn Horne Foundation.
When Penna agrees to perform with a singer, he gives himself a formidable
assignment. In preparation for a concert he learns in detail the vocal
behavior of the vocalist with whom he performs, he deconstructs the
texts involved, and he treats each piano accompaniment as if it were
an independent solo score. Only then does he attempt to put all the
elements together, readying himself for the rehearsals that precede
"I tend to learn music, at least vocal music, in a four-step process,"
Penna says. "I begin with the text. Sometimes I write it out on
a separate sheet. I look at the original poem and deal with all aspects
of a translation." Penna is fluent in French, Italian, and German.
He’s studying Russian now and expects to work on Czech and Portuguese
in the next decade. "I hone in on the sounds of the language and
the structure of the poetry. I consider the indirect and direct meanings
of the text, going from surrealist symbolism to immediate folk-like
"Next I put the language together with music," he says. "I
combine the words and the music. I read and sing the piece through
in rough way. I’m a good sight reader. I don’t mark the score. I hone
in on what the composer is telling me in chromatic or non-chromatic
language. I’m internalizing the score in the roughest, most holistic
"Third, I deal with all the matters of pianism — voicing,
fingering, mechanical, and coloristic aspects of the piano playing.
That can take from a few hours to a few weeks, depending on the difficulty
of the piece. At this stage I deal with the piano score as an independent
"Fourth, I take out my pencil, and mark the collaborative elements.
In anticipation of the first rehearsal, I mark in the possibilities
for breath, and for long and short consonants. In most cases, the
composer takes care of the vowels. I’m thinking as a collaborator,
thinking about how to turn the independent piano part into a flexible
and malleable entity."
"The accompanist or coach operates at the place where text and
music meet," Penna observes. "There is an inherent contradiction
in the accompanist’s role. On one hand, it represents something strong,
independent, and visionary. On the other hand, it represents generosity,
and is flexible and accommodating. For me the gestation point is breath.
I need to hone in on the speed of a singer’s breath and have a sense
of how slow or fast the singer’s voice speaks. I need to know the
ways in which a certain singer uses air, in addition to how the singer
uses vowels and consonants. All singers are very sensation-based creatures.
They use language in a kinesthetic way. Once I’ve honed in on all
of that, I can harness it and do my job. It’s a very coloristic way
of thinking about sound."
"I’ve been blessed with clients with exceptional kinesthetic perceptions,"
Penna says. The singers with whom he has worked include Kathleen Battle,
Harolyn Blackwell, David Daniels, and Denyce Graves.
Underlying Penna’s procedure is the conviction that creating a compelling
performance is a matter of organizing the rhythmic aspects of a song
properly. "Rhythm is at the basis of everything," he says.
"Rhythm is the key. The singer’s breath is a kind of internal
Penna thinks of the singer’s rhythmic sense as a visceral
matter. "A singer’s life becomes one of identifying and recognizing
the physical sensations which have a certain resulting timbre,"
he says. "A singer’s relation with language is all tied up in
this." In contrast, he sees the rhythmic sense of the pianist
as more tactile and mechanical than that of a singer.
"The accompanist must have these rhythmic perceptions honed. In
a single song the pianist might be asked to provide the singer with
a slavishly-organized sense of beat, and then, in the same song, asked
to take away that structure and give the singer unlimited room to
move and be expressive. That’s the unspoken and unteachable part of
being an accompanist — being a leader rhythmically, and being
part of an entity. That’s why you rehearse. It’s the subtle maneuvering
of one’s perception of rhythm."
"The best kind of musical partnering happens where both singer
and pianist have done the same kind of work, thinking about the other’s
part as much as their own," Penna says. "I’m of no use to
a client if I don’t spend as much preparation time without them as
with them. The collaboration is the heightened unity that happens
as result of a lot of independent work. That’s what makes collaborating
with singers so spiritual and gets at the most basic part of their
Penna distinguishes between the terms "accompanist" and "coach."
"The accompanist’s job," he says, "is musical ensemble,
creating unity of the disparate elements of style, language, poetry,
musical line, and musical construction."
"The coach is a kind of overseer," he says. "My job as
coach is to assure the singer’s musical process, to perfect or hone
in on how a singer internalizes words and music. The coach is a teacher
or mentor. I’m often asked `As a coach is it my job to instill my
will in someone else or to bring out theirs? Is it about me or them?’
When you talk about individual musical development and the relationship
to the score, it’s all related to process. If one comes in with a
strong artistic vision, but a collaborative outlook, one brings out
the best in one’s musical partners. It’s fortifying one’s clients."
"Something that unifies accompanying and coaching is harnessing
an individual’s musical instincts. It’s not just giving information,
but honing in on the individual’s relationship to the music and the
printed page. Something about an individual’s humanity comes out of
that. At its most primal level these are collaborative arts."
Named Jerry-James when he was born in 1971 in Binghamton,
Penna has been known as J.J. his entire life. His mother, the singer,
is now a professor of French Literature at the State University of
New York at Binghamton. His father is a high school principal. J.J.’s
brother Jonathan is a lawyer; his sister Elizabeth teaches French
and Spanish. J.J. and his mother were the musical axis of the family.
The others were uninvolved musically.
As a Binghamton University undergraduate Penna spent four years going
through the vocal literature under the tutelage of Diane Richardson,
who is also on the faculty at the Juilliard School. His studies before
graduating in 1993 included Italian, French, and German.
During his sophomore year he met Martin Katz, whom he refers to as
"my great teacher and mentor." After participating in Katz’s
summer program at the Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara,
California, Penna commuted to New York City every few months to study
with him. As a student in the University of Michigan doctoral program
in accompanying and chamber music, he worked with Katz in Ann Arbor.
He earned his doctorate in 1996.
"Martin Katz would say that I’m a martyr to the practice room,"
he volunteers. But then he cites guilt about practicing as an occupational
outlook. "All pianists that I know," he says, "are united
by the unspoken belief that says we should be practicing right now."
Fresh from his work with Katz, Penna accepted a faculty appointment
at Westminster Choir College, turning down offers to work in opera.
At Westminster, he met soprano Aurora Micu, a graduate student, and
married her in 1997. She was finishing her graduate work when they
met. Penna points out that she was not one of his students.
Since the beginning of the current academic year Penna has been a
faculty member at Yale, in addition to Westminster. He also maintains
a coaching studio in New York City.
Although he doubts that his schedule would allow the time for it,
Penna fantasizes about working at an opera house. "Opera is an
exciting musical setting," he says. "You would be around a
high level of musicianship." The pianist’s role in an opera company
appeals to him. "One of our main responsibilities as a pianist
at the opera is to imitate the color and rhythm of the orchestra and
to give the sense that a conductor is present."
When he’s not pursuing his music Penna devotes himself to reading.
He concentrates primarily on French literature, especially late 19th
century symbolist poetry. "If I didn’t have a career in music,
I would have had a career in writing," he says. His writing, he
guesses, would have been poetry or music journalism.
Penna’s choice of words when he talks about his musical career is
revealing. Repeatedly, he refers to "honing" or "honing
in." I ask him to explain. "What I do involves such high powers
of perception that I use those words." He admits that there is
a physical, tactile aspect to the quality of his paying attention.
Equally significant is his use of the word "client" for the
artists with whom he performs. I don’t inquire, because I understand
it as a badge of his professionalism.
— Elaine Strauss
Chapel, 609-219-2001. Margaret Cusack, soprano; and J.J. Penna, piano.
$10; $8 students & seniors. Sunday, January 19, 4 p.m.
Chapel, 609-219-2001. Features Nancy Froysland Hoerl, soprano; and
J.J. Penna. $10; $8 students & seniors. Sunday, January 26, 4 p.m.
Chapel, 609-219-2001. Features Sharon Sweet, soprano, and J.J. Penna,
piano. $10; $8 students & seniors. Sunday, February 23, 4 p.m.
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