Sunday, May 11, 2008

The Growing Pains of Emerging Collaborative Pianists

A recent post by Tao Squared strikes to the heart of why pianists decided to become collaborators and the difficulties they often face at the early stages of learning their craft:

People still don't treat accompanists like real people. Maybe it's better in the professional world, but most student singers don't understand diddly squat about what we go through. In fact, it's worsened by the fact that most student pianists treat accompanying as something they do on the side. They'll pick up a piece, ask the tempo, and plunk out the notes, to give the singer a framework in which to perform. That's it. They are not invested in the piece at all - just providing the backdrop. I don't blame them - I used to be like that too. But we just need to suck up our egos and admit that accompanying is hard. One needs to spend MORE time practicing and preparing an accompaniment than working on a solo piece of comparable difficulty. There are more questions to be answered, because someone else is DOING something at the same time, and you have to sound good TOGETHER. No one seems to acknowledge this fact!

On the other hand, there still many people who consider collaborative pianists to be a bunch of opinionated divas trying to rise above their station. Consider this quote (author not named) from the People for the Ethical Treatment of Accompanists group on Facebook:

Look, all I'm saying is that as a singer I am frustrated by having to deal with hostility from pianists (regardless of their abilities). I am VERY considerate and always provide music well in advance, when possible, and it would just be nice to work with someone who can be pleasant and is not constantly trying to assert their importance by being a pain! (You may be thinking, well, you're just not working with the right person. That may be true, but don't kid yourself into thinking this is not a very common thing among CPs.) Guess what, the way for a CP to make a big career is to hitch a ride on someone else's rising star. I'm sorry, but it's the truth. Look at all the famous and successful CPs, they are all where they are because they were associated with a great singer, violinist, cellist, etc. Those singers, violinist and cellists were surely much better off for having that talented pianist with them, but remember your ambition when you decide to be a piano "diva".

How does a young collaborative pianist rise above these questions about status, fairness, ego, and their role in the musical fabric? There's a whole generation of young cp's still trying to figure out where they fit. My advice on how to rise above the fray: act with dignity and professionalism and put the music first.

Your comments are welcome, as always.


  1. Great post, Chris! A collaborative relationship can open up all kinds of questions about relative status, ego, and etiquette. Two "etiquette" questions I often see go unanswered (especially for students) have to do with bowing and the wording of the CP's role on the program - any thoughts on this?

    BTW I like the new "look" of your blog - nicely done!

  2. What a can of worms, Kate. Do you mind if I answer both questions in two separate articles?

  3. Sure - that would be great! I wrote something about this on my blog tonight (Ivory Tower) to continue the conversation. Cheers!

  4. Wow, I didn't even realize I'd been quoted here until someone left a comment on my blog. I don't know how you found my original post amidst the myriad of blogs, but thank you for the advice!

    It's kind of funny how the "fray" can sometimes mask what's more important - the music!

  5. Anonymous4:29 PM

    I love this post! It presents a foot in the grey areas of the careers of the collaborative pianists in their early stages. I think the lines of right and wrong are crossed by both the soloist and the collaborative pianist, at the same time. It is true, sometimes, that instrumentalists/ vocalists don't give their counterparts enough time with the music, thus creating a disconnect when time comes to put together. Oftentimes, certain things that are worked upon during rehearsals go out the window onstage (which, I find, happens with young performers quite often). I find these to be the significant moments where collaborative pianists find their reputation (and mental health) at risk, and feel that they are left to take the blame.
    On the contrary, there are many young collaborative pianists who are at fault - ones who don't know how to coach, and feel that they are there just to "play the piano part" (which is counterproductive, as this deters from the musical learning experience, as well as doesn't give a proper frame of reference, other than the notes for the other musician), and also those who don't speak up for themselves when they aren't given enough time (rehearsal or prep) to invest upon the music.

    The success of collaborative pianists are not warranted by whose career they hitchhike upon (in which here, I will say, I strongly disagree with the author of the last quote from PEToA). I think they produce an equally brilliant career by presenting themselves as artists who work together, sharing the limelight with other musicians (be it an instrumentalist, vocalist, or even artists or dancers), and producing an illustrious musical presentation.
    It's ultimately a two-way street - no matter if it's success or failure. As we all fall back onto the true reason for being there in the first place - that is, the music making. The outcome will be the creation of a memorable collaboration, and a reputation built upon three important factors - as Dr. Foley reminds us - dignity, professionalism, and, most of all, the music.