Pianist Michael Scales: The Classics Make Shared Experiences Live

March 1, 2016 Updated: September 22, 2016

Two classical forms are Michael Scales’s mainstay: classical music and ballet. As pianist and music director for the New York Theatre Ballet, he believes classics are important because they share human experiences across time, and make them come alive.

Shostakovich’s compositions show what it was like to live in Soviet Russia under that suppressive regime.
— Michael Scales, pianist

The great works that stand the test of time and still speak to us help us glean understanding about what the world was once like.

Of course, classics are necessarily of a specific time and place in history. Sometimes they are written in response to a social movement or artistic fad, and then they become a time capsule, said Scales, who has a master’s degree in classical piano performance.

“Shostakovich’s compositions show what it was like to live in Soviet Russia under that repressive regime,” he said, and his music gives us a more visceral experience than would a history book. It allows us to experience a bit of what we won’t or don’t have to live through.

But just as the classics can let us glimpse a past we might never experience, they also show us that some human experiences remain the same over time. There is a unity in human experience, which they demonstrate.

Michael Scales on piano with NYTB dancers Amanda Treibe and Steven Melendez. (Rachel Neville)
Michael Scales on piano with NYTB dancers Amanda Treiber and Steven Melendez. (Rachel Neville)

Even after 200 years, he says, we can hear and recognize ourselves in them. They give us a portrait of our human emotions, and that’s why we still play them today. “They still ring true,” he said by phone on Feb. 8, 2016.

“Chopin still evokes similar experiences—like isolation—that we can feel today. It can touch us as it touched people in the past,” he said.

Scales started on piano as other children might, when his parents gave him lessons. Over time, his own passion for music grew. Later, he studied at Kutztown University of Pennsylvania with Dr. Maria Asteriadou, and then he took his advanced degree at James Madison University, where he studied under Dr. Lori Piitz. 

Although Scales enjoys playing new works, he believes that the classics are important when learning an instrument.

In fact, many of America’s leading composers and artists of the 20th century learned from Nadia Boulanger, a famous French pedagogue. She taught exemplars from Aaron Copland to Philip Glass what they needed to know about Bach, Mozart, and Chopin.

(Courtesy of Michael Scales)
(Courtesy of Michael Scales)

Performers learn the expressive colors of the compositions of certain great composers through time, and also the limits their instruments imposed on them.

Scales explained that each great composer pushed an instrument to the limits of its capabilities until the instrument itself was modified. The piano of Mozart’s day was softer sounding and had a smaller range than later instruments.

By the time of Beethoven, the instrument allowed for a much louder sound, so “he expanded pieces tonally, and the music became bigger, more sustained, and lush,” Scales said.

The Classics in Live Performances

After graduating, Scales went to New York with no prospects. He had heard that pianists could earn a living playing for dance classes and tried his hand at that. Once he started, he fell in love with it.

Currently he plays for both NYTB’s rehearsals and its performances. The company performs small classics, new contemporary works, and innovative ballets for children.

Playing for both rehearsals and performances gives the musician and the dancers a chance to develop tremendous rapport, and the dancers can take the security they feel in rehearsals into the performances.

For his part, Scales likes that he is not the center of attention. Theater, ballet, and music meld to be experienced as a whole.

(Courtesy of Michael Scales)
(Courtesy of Michael Scales)

In a similar way, his work for NYTB resembles a musical form he loves: chamber music. Performers of chamber music, which is undergoing a renaissance of sorts, play in settings that are smaller and more intimate than those of concerts, where the context is larger.

The focus in a concert is on what the performers bring to the music, rather than on the music itself and the listeners’ reactions to it. This sets up a distance between the player and the audience and may make a concert seem high-brow to some, “where we think of tuxedos,” he said.

Scales prefers the more personal setting. “In a room with a fireplace, it’s more inward,” less formal, he said. “People listen for the sheer enjoyment.”

And the chamber setting changes how a performer plays. The playing can be subtler, quieter. In fact, the artist can almost disappear.

In a sense, a musician becomes a translator for the classics.

Despite his preference, Scales believes that both settings are important. As long as we continue to hear live music, he is satisfied. Although a recording of the great pianist Vladimir Horowitz captures a moment in time and is really special, nothing can replace the drama of hearing  a classical work performed live.

“Whether it’s noticing the subtleties of how a performer interprets a piece, or simply the drama of watching someone immerse themselves in their art,” live renditions of the classics become “a moment in time that is ephemeral and precious and takes the listener and performer away from their day-to-day lives,” he said.

Scales loves a quote by Gabriel Fauré: “The artist must love life and show us that it is beautiful.”

In a sense, a musician becomes a translator for the classics. He or she “becomes a liaison for the audience into the world of the composer, and can bring new relevance to classical works where, even though the vocabulary might seem dated, underneath lie the same joys and fears we experience still today as human beings,” he said.

“That is what I think great musicians today strive for in presenting the classics—not ‘how original can my interpretation be,’ but ‘why does this great piece of music still speak to us.'”

“The biggest challenge I feel as a musician sometimes is to just get out of the way and let this timeless music speak,” he said.

In our series “The Classics: Looking Back, Looking Forward,” practitioners involved in the classical arts respond to why they think the texts, forms, and methods of the classics are worth keeping and why they continue to look to the past for that which inspires and speaks to us. For the full series, see ept.ms/LookingAtClassics