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Double-Take Duet

Ray Ushikubo fulfilled a long-held dream of performing a live duet with himself during Colburn’s Sounding Point Academy recital series this summer, playing both parts of Schumann’s Sonata No. 1 for Violin and Piano using Steinway’s Model D Spirio | r.

Pianist, violinist, and Colburn Conservatory of Music Artist Diploma student Ray Ushikubo excitedly welcomed the opportunity to return to the Sounding Point Academy this summer. Founded by Colburn faculty members Robert Lipsett and Fabiola Kim, the two-week in-person program offers an intensive learning experience for violin students, including technique classes, master classes, and presentation forums. Ushikubo enjoys teaching young students, helping them discover their own love of music like he did when joined the Colburn Community School of Performing Arts at age 8. He also embraced the opportunity to deliver a very personal performance. He finally fulfilled a long-held dream of performing a live duet with himself, playing both parts of Robert Schumann’s Sonata No. 1 for Violin and Piano in A Minor, Op. 105. Impossible, you say? Not when you employ technology such as the Steinway Spirio player piano.

“The Spirio piano perfectly records my key movements, my timing, and my pedaling. The first time I heard it [play back the recording] was the first time in my life I heard myself as a third person, like a member of the audience. The sound is coming from the piano, not a speaker, so it’s a strange out-of-body experience,” says Ushikubo.

Of course, preparing for such a duet demanded a nontraditional approach. Yes, Ushikubo rehearsed the sonata, but he had to adopt a wholly new mindset in how to play the parts. First, he perfected the piano and recorded it with the Spirio. Then he played the violin to the piano recording, and that’s when Ushikubo realized as a violinist he had to conform his playing to the musical line of the piano, and not just let his interpretation in the moment guide him.

He explains, “There is no room for spontaneity because the piano was recorded. You have to think about timing and phrasing and balance. One by one, I mentally took notes about where I had to take more time or rush more and what I had to do to adjust to the piano recording. Every time I played it, I learned more about both parts.”

It also challenged him to rethink his role as a pianist in ensembles and as a recital partner.

“As a chamber musician, I’m often told to play the piano softer, and my response in the past has been to tell the strings to play louder,” he says. “This experience showed me that there is no way Violin Ray can compete with the volume of Piano Ray. I now think more about what the pianist has to understand when it’s under violin parts.

“In fact, the experience required a lot of patience. It was interesting to learn how differently Piano Ray and Violin Ray think,” says Ushikubo. “I’ve never argued with other musicians like I did with myself. It turns out I argued quite a bit with myself throughout the process.”

Despite such personal revelations, Ushikubo was pleased with his duet that evening in Thayer Hall.

“The audience had the same reaction I had when I encountered in the Spirio. You’re not really believing there is not a pianist there,” he says. “It adds a new layer of how far technology has come and how cool it is to see one person play both parts. That’s the reaction I saw.”

Ironically, Ushikubo does not consider himself a technology-oriented musician. That said, he keeps an open mind on its influence on the future of classical music.

“That’s how music evolves. There are so many people today who still enjoy classical music, but you have to let it evolve, and that includes letting technology be incorporated when it is necessary,” he notes.

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Special thanks to Steinway & Sons for the use of the