Monday, April 27, 2009

A Career in Parentheses?

Deborah Sontag's A Life Lived on the Side in Sunday's New York Times looks at the life and work of pianist Larry Fuller, a regular on the New York jazz scene, but one who works as a sideman rather than a band leader. The story of his personal journey and musical engagements makes for some interesting reading, as does Sontag's description of what it takes to maintain a lasting career in jazz:
To make a steady living as a jazz musician is in itself no mean feat, and Mr. Fuller has done so his whole life. His experience offers some insight into the requirements for survival as a working artist, especially in a specialty like jazz where fame and fortune are not realistic goals. Talent most certainly helps, but single-mindedness, passion, humility and the ability to live modestly seem critical too.
And yet...

I sense a kind of manufactured bias towards pianists who choose to work with others, as if a musical life that is spent working in collaboration rather than in the spotlight is a kind of disappointment (hint: re-read the title of the article). Buried near the end of the article is a disclosure by Fuller that he in fact makes $80,000 to $100,000 a year playing, a pretty respectable amount in the jazz field. Why not celebrate the fact that a jazz pianist who has managed to maintain an extremely stable career for years while overcoming enormous personal odds is able to make a solid living from his love of playing jazz? 

Be sure to check out the tracks of the Larry Fuller Trio on the multimeda sidebar. Although Sontag's article makes no mention that Fuller has ever led his own trio, the Larry Fuller Trio's recording on Pony Boy Records lists Fuller on piano joined by the legendary Ray Brown on bass and Jeff Hamilton on drums.


One of the things I mention in workshops I give about my blog is how the media's perception of collaborative pianists colors what we do. Could you imagine the direction of this blog if I had named it "Accompanist's Corner"? "In the Shadows"? "At Your Service"?

And if there ever was reason that much still needs to be done, simply take a look at the anonymization of the pianists (and the abuses hurled at them) who are mentioned on a Twitter accompanist search

Previously on the Collaborative Piano Blog:


  1. I like your perspective on this, Chris.

    Those of us who do this for a living can truly sense our value as collaborators. We are fulfilled by our contribution in a way those who are driven to be the soloist or the *star* may never experience.

    Speaking for myself, the rewards unique to collaboration and facilitating to advance my particular corner of the creative arts far outweigh any possible rewards I might find in another field. I'm not sure the NYTimes would be able to see this satisfaction I'm able to live on, nor could they easily spin it into something the masses would be interested in reading, and I'm okay with that for the time being....

    If I craved that attention, I think by definition I wouldn't be as good at what I do.

    That's not to say I don't appreciate being appreciated!

    And re. the term "accompanist" -- it's occurring to me that an unwritten, perhaps unofficial, standard in NYC is for operatic coaches to be referred to more often as "pianists" and "coaches" (if they coach), and the term "accompanist" mainly used for broadway pianists.


  2. As I haul through the heaviest part of kids' competition season, I have the opportunity to notice - and feel quite keenly with my high stress level - the microcosm of attitudes towards accompanists just through the group of kids I'm working with.

    Some have never known another accompanist, while some have had three, four or more. They are always incredibly eager for feedback - especially with competitions this weekend. I do my level best to do as much as I can for them. This is helped in large part by the teachers, who generally treat me like a goddess. Most of the parents go along with it, and learn as they go, and many treat me like gold. A certain few (mostly strings, the ones that see me most) bring me jewelry and chocolate and coffee gift cards at Christmas!

    But then there are exceptions, and they are hard to take when I'm really stressed, sometimes even from the people I know best that know better. Forms were turned in by a teacher for one competition mere seconds from the deadline, for a kid I've never met before - without so much as word one to me from the teacher. She has yet to say boo to me at t minus 4 days. What is the teacher thinking? One parent who really ought to have known better waited a very long time to contact me, and then gave me a super limited window of times to work with for rehearsal, all based on her convenience and included the child's social schedule, not reality - I had to drop her and let someone else pick her up (for whom she suddenly had workable times - gee!) The mother doesn't seem to understand how these things work - or, more to the point, apparently does, and just wasn't willing to put out the effort. Another does seem to hold my playing and coaching in high regard, but is flaky as fine pastry.

    It's really eye-opening when some parents are astonished by my pricing. I'm charging about the same as the going rate as a lesson at the school they go to for this kind of thing, yet every year, at least one parent seems unpleasantly surprised. I often undercharge when I know the family is under financial stress, and even then, one person will always nickel and dime me (generally someone that could afford far more than my rates). Some seem to think that I'm a service employee and will have wide swaths of time open just for them, yet would never hesitate to wait weeks for an appointment with their doctor or their hairdresser.

    The good outweighs the bad in the long run, or I wouldn't do it, but I feel the wrong attitudes and abuses of my work far more keenly when I'm under stress; as well, at this time of year, a lot of yahoos come out of the woodwork for these big events, so I see more of the bad attitudes at this point as well. I just try to remind myself of the little 9 year old pianist who thinks having an orchestra for his Mozart is the coolest thing *ever*, or the one teenage singer that had never met me before and came in bubbling over with gratitude before I had even played a note, and then it's all ok.

  3. Thanks for the incredible comments, you guys!

  4. I like the idea of viewing myself as a collaborator in an ensemble situation,instruments or voice. I believe in my importance to make the performance a success. However, usually, when they look for a pianist to work with them, for audition or concert, they are the ones paying the pianist which they call accompanist. Because of this payer and payee relationship, we are not on equal ground any more.

    Many of them balked on my fee as well. I charge them my lesson fee. I get call from music students in a university near me. Many of them get staff pianists or their school friends to play for free, and only call me when neither option worked. Somehow, they can always find some other pianists that would do it for peanuts.

    Often, the thought of only getting paid 1/4 of what I can charge as a piano teacher makes me drop the chance, unless I just want the experience.

    I want to collaborate, but I find it hard when considering the payer-payee situation.

  5. Anonymous11:11 PM

    I am in agreement with those comments with respect to fees, and charging them the same fee as lessons: it sets a standard and importance for both collaborative gigs and teaching gigs. I gauge both teaching and collaborations to be equal, because no matter what, at the end of the day, you are working with someone else to make music. That, and when peers and parents see you charge the same amount in both scenarios, I find they mentally eventually understand that musical collaborations are also a branch of a one's musical education, and not merely musical byproduct.

    I do have a comment re: Lydia - "Somehow, they can always find some other pianists that would do it for peanuts".
    Unfortunately, I am one of them, only because I am a novice in the market. I find myself working for friends whom I personally know are strapped financially. In some instances (like in smaller towns, say, Kingston), some teachers just exclusively commit their students to "questionable" accompanists (with whom they are BFFs), but who barely learn the music but still charge an arm and a leg. I have found myself needing to sacrifice even my musical esteem to find work. All in all, I am battling constantly with the insatiable need for experience, and also the worry of "overcharging", especially when the payer knows you're new to the scene, or competition (some good, some not...).
    Although this is a comment, I would love to hear comments from those who are also novices, and perhaps are experiencing something significantly similar or different.

    - GradNovice