Manitoba has always been a singing province, the glorious sound of music emanating from its countless soloists and choral ensembles.
But among its unsung heroes and heroines are the collaborative pianists who tirelessly rehearse, coach, encourage and perform onstage as the indispensable backbone to a live performance.
One of those is Winnipeg’s Helen Black, who retired last year from accompanying choirs at the Winnipeg Music Festival after a 40-year career that included her playing for more than 2,000 school, community and church ensembles.
The festival, which continues until Sunday, is presenting its inaugural Helen Black Award tonight during its annual choral excellence concert in honour of the musician’s legacy.
The newly minted award, spearheaded a year ago by Black’s husband, Keith, will be given to an accompanist in the choral component based on the recommendation of colleagues, conductors and festival volunteers.
"I look at it as honouring accompanists now and in the future," Helen says. "It’s a very specialized field and I’ve heard people say, ‘Yes, they play the piano, but they’re not an accompanist.’ There’s a big difference, because you need to have that hand-in-glove relationship with the conductor and the singers."
Local musician Laura Loewen, who along with Judy Kehler Siebert has headed the collaborative piano program at the University of Manitoba Desautels Faculty of Music since 2002, trains keyboard artists to be simpatico partners with solo vocalists, instrumentalists and larger choirs.
"The most important requirement for a great collaborative pianist is an ability to listen — and not just to listen, but to play with your whole heart and body while doing so," Loewen says.
"You also have to be a bit of a mind reader — this incredible connection with the conductor is necessary not just while the choir is singing, but also while the conductor is giving instructions or correcting issues.
"We need to try to figure out where they are going to start rehearsing so that we are also ready to start playing at that exact moment."
Black, who also taught piano privately for many years, came to accompanying after the kindergarten teacher of one of her two daughters asked if she could assist during an upcoming school concert and it snowballed from there.
"It kept me out of mischief," Black, — who still plays for local choirs on an "as-needed" basis — says with a laugh. In fact, she had already played two gigs the day of our interview and she still volunteers at the festival, helping guide choristers onstage.
She credits her reliability and work ethic for her success. She’s enjoyed good health over the years, rarely missing a beat for illness, including suffering broken ribs in a car crash en route to rehearsal several years ago.
She also fell and broke her hand at the Stockholm airport — a nightmarish prospect for a pianist — but was back in the fold by mid-November to perform at Remembrance Day services.
But she feels her greatest gift is that of natural empathy, honed during her previous career as a social worker. She adores working with young people — who have always felt her caring presence and sung with gusto for her.
"Helen is remarkably sensitive," her husband, also a social worker, says. "Whenever she plays for a choir, they not only relax, but they sing better as well. She is exactly where the kids and conductors need to be. She relates to kids phenomenally and they respond to that."
Looking back over her 40-year career, does Black have any pearls of wisdom for the next generation of collaborative pianists?
"I’ve heard it said that the best, or the most, you get as an accompanist is anonymity," she says wisely.
"You certainly get noticed if you don’t play the right notes or if you’re not in sync with the choir. But often you don’t get noticed at all. You always have to remember that you are part of the team and that’s a good thing."
The 90-minute choral excellence concert, which features nine invited local choirs, will be held at 7 p.m. tonight at Westminster United Church.
The Michael J. Proudfoot Award will also be presented to recognize a conductor "exemplifying a passion for excellence in choral work," established in 2007 in honour of the late, beloved Winnipeg educator and choral conductor.