Monday, May 25, 2009

Accompanist or Collaborative Pianist?

I received a pleasant surprise earlier this evening upon noticing that I had been mentioned in an article by Colin Eatock in The Wholenote entitled When is a Collaborator Not a Collaborator? Although Colin is eager to support the role of pianist as an equal partner, he questions the rebranding of the traditional moniker:
But I have my doubts about whether simply inventing a new term is going to have any effect. The enterprise smacks of Newspeak and political correctness. If "collaborative pianist" is universally accepted (and this hasn't yet happened), will people's perceptions necessarily change?
Well put. However, let's realize that the label "collaborative pianist" is not a newly-invented term but goes back to the mid-80's when Samuel Sanders first coined it in New York. I suppose one could argue that the initial use of the nomenclature was "politically correct" as it spread throughout academia in the mid-90's. But the accusation that it is a politically correct one is to bring the discourse back 15 years when the collaborative pianist meme was first gaining traction.

To address Colin's question as to whether a change of name will actually change people's perceptions--let's take a look at a live search for the terms "accompanist" and "collaborative pianist" on Twitter to see what people are writing about the subject at the present. A search for "collaborative pianist" at present shows little beyond my blog postings and retweets--people simply don't use the term extensively on Twitter yet. A search for accompanist shows a lot more hits (around 3-6 per day), with some entry-level job postings, others from singers and instrumentalists talking about the unnamed pianists they work with. Here is a random sampling (with usernames deleted--cut and paste onto Twitter Search if you want to know who said what):
exhausted after 4 shows in 2 days. breaking in a new accompanist on Sunday, followed by the last show before our ONE day off...

What part of as fast as humanly possible did the accompanist not get? At least i'm used to it and just worked it.

Re-reading Zinn and contemplating how to be an accompanist-activist.

is wishing that he had a portable accompanist to use whenever he felt the urge.

I just learned that you can't always trust everyone. Even if they are your choir's accompanist.

Looked really cute at hair auditions. Too bad the accompanist confused a folk ballad with a polka.

Well I didn't win but I also didn't pay the accompanist because she was rubbish.

Two observations based on what I've seen on the two Twitter searches:

1. The title "collaborative pianist" is still barely catching on in the public consciousness.
2. The title "accompanist" not only implies inferiority, but anonymity and sometimes comes with a tendency towards a borderline-abusive tone on status updates.

So what can you do?

Here's one idea: when you talk, write emails, write articles, or post status updates to Facebook, Twitter, or other social networks, use "collaborative pianist", but use it in a perfectly natural tone without the slightest pretense. The common usage of "collaborative pianist" in this way will slowly but surely make the usage of "accompanist" obsolete.

But ignore the issue and some of the most talented, talented, hard-working, active, and consistent money-earners in the entire musical profession will stay anonymous, will remain just the accompanist. Otherwise a 20-year journey to bring more respect and public consciousness to our art may have been for naught.

I'll end with more observations from Colin Eatock:
I also find myself wondering if singers and instrumental soloists are really buying into this idea: if they are, then why haven't I heard of a "collaborative soprano"? And how can pianists describe themselves as "collaborating" if the person they're trying to collaborate with doesn't see the relationship in those terms?

Until pianists achieve full equality - not just in concert billing, but also in repertoire selection, artistic interpretation, audience appreciation, fees, and other things as well - isn't changing the name just an empty gesture?

Previously on the Collaborative Piano Blog:

What Is Collaborative Piano?
What Collaborative Piano Is Not
You're a What?
You're a What? Part II
You're a What? Part III
Support Staff?
Vocal Coach vs. Voice Teacher


  1. Here in Australia, I don't think I've ever heard "Collaborative Pianist." The term in vogue is "Associate Artist," which is more of an all-encompassing term and can apply to non-pianists. Although the only time it really gets used is on your programs.

  2. Why does the pianist have to be the collaborator?

  3. Pianist!
    (Collaborative Cellist, anyone??)

  4. Pianists who indeed work in tandem with singers and instrumentalists are most DEFINITELY collaborative! They do not "just accompany" but rather, are part of the performance process - including coaching prior to that performance! "Accompany" to me indicates being without any kind of self-direction. Why must we have a hierarchy when it comes to creating art? Why can't it be collaborative in whatever way the artists choose together? I know many collaborative pianists who have saved the butts of many singers during a performance!! If that isn't collaborative, I don't know what is!

    I disagree with Eatock. Gestures are not empty if they are there to make a change and acknowledge a definite artist with whom another artist is making a statement with. I always bow WITH my pianist. Any pianist collaborates on making a performance the best it can be. That in itself should be enough. The gesture to give a collaborative pianist an equal billing by using this term, allows for the recognition that what they do is IMPERATIVE to the outcome!

  5. Michelle10:21 PM

    Dutch composer and pianist Coenraad B. Vos used the term "collaborator" extensively in his book "The Well-Tempered Accompanist" (published in 1949). Not sure what that means, but it is interesting that the usage of some form of the term goes back that far. After WWII hit, however, no one wanted to be known as a collaborator.

  6. Agree with Becky - "pianist" says enough. The moment that the pianist is referred to as an accompanist or collaborator is the moment that a hierarchy is created.

  7. To be honest, I've never really liked the "collaborative pianist" term, even though my DMA is in CP. I agree that it sounds politically correct, even Orwellian - but worse, it's just inelegant. "Pianist" is definitely the term I prefer, although I don't really find accompanist all that offensive; it has a real history and I've proudly been an accompanist to various choruses and the like.

    And, as has been often said, even when collaborative pianists are playing sonata rep by Beethoven/Brahms where the musical role is unquestionably that of an equal, there is a sense in which we're often accompanying "someone else's" recital. Not always true, of course, but if Violinist A is making a Carnegie Hall debut, the pianist's social/cultural role is that of accompanist, regardless of what the musical role is. Samuel Sanders was a great man, but when he played recitals with Perlman, he was an accompanist in a useful sense of the term, no matter what he or Perlman might have said. The people bought tickets to hear Perlman. (I'm not saying I think that's a great thing, but I do think it's true.) Even Jeremy Denk playing for Joshua Bell still kind of fits that mold - though less so. There are always degrees.

    However, your random Twitter search is unsettling. (To be fair, probably most random Twitter searches are unsettling.) I agree that "collaborative piano" makes more sense for degree programs than does accompanying and, at least for now, we pretty clearly need the two tracks of piano and ... something else. Frankly, it's a shame that 95% of career-seeking pianists aren't given more CP training, but that's a whole other story. Hey, we can start calling it CPR, Collaborative Piano Rulers? (OK, the r needs work.) "We've got a singer who needs a diction intervention. Stat!" "I'm on it - I've got a DMA in CPR!"

    I do think the term is here to stay, mainly because it's being so widely adopted by degree programs. It might seem less odd to the next generation than it does to me. I also think the moniker works nicely as a title for your blog, by the way. Maybe it's that the extra syllable (blog) helps to balance out the mouthful that is the word "collaborative."

    Perhaps we should just take a page from Alex Ross and call our world, "awesome piano."

  8. Oh wow, all these comments came in while I was writing. Susan, I certainly agree that what we do is collaborative - but, like Becky says, the term can seem redundant since all musicians should be collaborative. Jeremy Denk, Emanuel Ax, Vladimir Ashkenazy, and Martha Argerich are certainly all collaborative pianists for example.

  9. Whoa. Awesome comments, you guys. I need time to digest everything that's been written so far and will comment further tomorrow.

  10. Nathalie Doucet-Lalkens11:16 PM

    When I was in the United States, my colleague and I were trying to phase out the word accompanist, it was not easy to do. I have to admit, that the term used to describe what I do doesn't usually bother me that much, I do seem to prefer the term "pianist" OR "collaborative pianist". I think that most people won't understand why we want the term "collaborator" because to the outside world, that ,people who aren't in our field, the pianist sitting at the piano will always look like the one who accompanies the Singer or instrumentalist without much say in the matter. At least the bow is getting a little better, I remember the days where the pianist was presented by the singer as an after thought, but more and more singers are trained to bow with their partner.

    Either way, we are some hard working people in the buisness...and without us an awful lot of people would be singing and playing A Capella (not that there is anything wrong with that!!!) :)

  11. Hey Chris,
    Love following your blog....I always associated the use of "collaborative pianist" with Anne Epperson, and not Sam Sanders. Although Sam was the original collaborative pianist in my mind, I thought it was Anne who actually coined the term.

    I prefer to just use the title "pianist" since that's what I feel I am.

    Bob Koenig

  12. Misha1:08 AM

    Does it really matter what we are called? The ones who view us as mere accompanists don't have the ears to tell the difference anyhow, so why waste energy that should be spent making music splitting hairs?

  13. Jim Douglass5:35 PM

    I've been in many discussions regarding this issue - there are many tangential aspects. I'm interested in presenting a concise summation. "Collaborative" is a term intended to simplify the areas within which a pianist may work under one umbrella - as opposed to "pianist" for chamber and "accompanist" for vocal, choral, or other miscellany. A secondary concern/goal would be the respect issue.
    On programs we should simply use the term "piano" in the same sense that our recital partners are referred to as soprano, violin, etc. They are not referred to by their field title or academic classification (voice performance, string performance, etc.).
    We will rarely be seen in the same public light and focus as most of the partners with whom we work - it is simply part of the package of choosing to work in this challenging and very fulfilling field. The tricky balance is to create respect for us and the field through the quality of our work and demeanor while tactfully standing our ground artistically and professionally.

  14. I've never liked the word "accompanist" either. It confuses non-music people, whereas "collaborative pianist" makes sense to say the business world.

    Having said that, I'm in the same camp as those who just prefer "pianist". Really, everyone in an ensemble is a collaborator, so unless you're going to list "collaborative" before each musician, just list the instrument. Keeps things simple.