Thursday, November 05, 2009

How To Become An Accompanist?

Ever wonder about the exact nature of the accompanist stereotype that caused pianists from Gerald Moore onwards to react so violently to the traditional image of the meek and docile assistant at the piano? A quick look at the entry on How To Become An Accompanist in the 1910-12 Everywoman's Encyclopaedia offers a rather disquieting glimpse. The most egregious passages are quoted below - readers on mobile devices may wish to sit down before reading:
To many girls the work of an accompanist appeals in several ways. It does not entail a quarter the strain of solo work; it does not need the big memorising feats expected from a pianist proper; and it gives nervous workers a feeling of security.

An accompanist, once she takes her place at the piano, is working not for herself, but for somebody else; and the whole of her mind and ability has to be concentrated on the person whom she is accompanying. The accompaniment of a song or instrumental number is, after all, a secondary thing; but it needs perfection in its execution or it becomes unbearable. The perfect accompanist - of whom England numbers very few - is an artist who gains little credit from any save those who know. For her art lies in the utter subjection of herself to her principal. The accompaniment that thrusts its presence at an audience is invariably bad.

A good accompanist is soon discovered, especially if she has that wonderful feeling of sympathy and self-obliteration, that is as welcome as water in the desert to singers...for many singers are thankful to practise out of hours with a sympathetic assistant.
What a distance the profession has come in 100 years. You can read the entire article here.


  1. dear God that's not good. The Dresden Dolls wrote a song about it called Lonesome Organist Rapes Page Turner. I myself have been an accompanist a few times and it's been something I've really enjoyed.

    I added a link on my blog to your blog, as I think it's a really useful resource for all things piano.

  2. This could be the handbook to being a good wife and mother too! Think only of others, sacrifice yourself for the sake of your kids, etc. Not only have CP's come far but WOMEN, too! And yet we all continue to work at shedding the cloak of inequality.

  3. Anonymous3:21 PM

    i am currently conducting a series of interviews with some of my collaborative colleagues and i asked one of them why scholarship hasn't paid more attention to the accompanist. his reply was: if we are in the spotlight, then we are taking away from the person on whom the focus should be-- the singer who is delivering the text. i must say, i've never thought of it that way, and i can't help but agree. even my mother tells me to this day that she can't help but pay attention to the singer when she sees me perform. i think that's because i am doing a good job, i don't think of that as a slight.

    further, when i'm performing at my best, i really feel like i am wrapped up in my singer's sound. i'm playing right along with the singer as s/he sings it. i do alter my playing to suit the person i'm performing with. maybe i think a phrase should pull back, but the singer moves forward on it. well, if i want that job, i'll move forward at that moment, convincingly with him or her. that's our life. take a listen to dieskau/horowitz dichterliebe if you want to hear two people who are brilliant musicians but not interested in making music together.

    "it doesn't involve the strain," well, most of the piano parts i play are not as difficult as the rachmaninov concerto, although i certainly have played some really difficult pieces, but MOST aren't. i'm not memorizing whole pieces, just passages as needed. being able to see the score does make me SO much more calm.

    i'm not saying i agree whole-heartedly with the self-obliteration and secondary thing. i'm completely necessary! nobody wants to hear an accapella singer for 90 minutes. but i think there is something to be said that the singer does get the most notice, the biggest fee, and is in the spotlight. that's how the entertainment industry works. i'm always struck at popular concerts at how loud the audience applauds for the band-- for the 30 seconds they are acknowledged. people appreciate all the parts that make the concert come together.

    i read the whole article, and i'm struck by how relevant the advice is. good pianists are a dime a dozen. it may be dated, but much of it strikes me as still true. there are many aspects of the article that you have agreed with in your own blog over the years. sadly, it is more exciting to pick out the ones that make people's skin burn than to present a balanced assessment.

  4. Anonymous10:38 PM

    As an active collaborative pianist, I don't think that this is entirely off base.

    There exists repertoire when the accompanist is not an equal partner, like show pieces, or even many arias. There is repertoire which contains give and take, and repertoire where the pianist is primarily supporting the soloist. In such music, the accompaniment IS a secondary thing.

    Furthermore, I think self-effacement is a necessary CAPABILITY of good accompanist/ collaborative artist (this includes other chamber musicians as well) and that sympathy is of the essence.

    Disquieting when applied to sonata repertoire, perhaps, but certainly not egregious. Accompanist and collaborative pianist are not synonyms and it is important to make this distinction before dismissing this dated, but still relevant entry.

  5. Anonymous commenters:

    First of all, I plead guilty to excerpting the parts of the article that would make people bristle. I also admit that there are elements of the article that still ring true.

    However, one of the things that feminism has taught us is that the language in which a message is wrapped can say as much as the message itself. In this case, the language that is used to describe both accompanists and women in the article is condescending. Partnership, team-playing, and collaboration are entirely different way of framing the experience compared to servitude and self-obliteration, and result in an entirely different dynamic of music-making.

    And for the record, I often make more than the singers I play with, esp. on radio and television.

  6. Typo. I meant "different ways of framing".

  7. Anonymous10:20 PM

    Well, the article isn't THAT bad overall, but the bad parts are TERRIBLE.

    "It does not entail a quarter the strain of solo work." I think that's pretty funny. From everything I've seen in life so far, accompanists are some of the hardest working people in showbiz, playing through more music and dealing with more personalities than any other type of musician. It is the accompanist's responsibility to read the entire score (most other musicians get away with just reading their own part) and often to coach other musicians involved. And while the "piano part" is often technically easier than most solo music, it's at least as hard to do a really good job with, because subtleties of tone suddenly matter so much more on every note. It's a strange phenomenon. I think the following two performances of Strauss' Allerseelen (not a technically difficult piece, and both performances with accompanists who are BEYOND fantastic musicians) define that extra layer of subtleties that most accompanists forget to add: (James Levine and Kathleen Battle; a musical and polished performance; difficult to criticize...or is it?) (Geoffrey Parsons and Jessye Norman; you'd never have thought anything was lacking in the Levine one until you heard one like this)

    Any musician can see that it is the accompanist who makes the difference in these performances, NOT the soloist.

  8. A good accompanist excels in many areas, including good sight reading skills. As part of the performing ensemble, he or she is an integral part of the musical performance.

    Barbara Ehrlich
    New Jersey Piano Lessons

  9. Anonymous10:40 PM


    Nice plug, but may we have a live link?

  10. Anonymous1:13 PM

    This has nothing to do with any article. I'm just needing some feedback here. I'm a collaborative pianist at a university (adjunct) and has the most embarrassing moment at a concert last night. The xylophonist I was accompanying and I never really discussed how he was bringing me in at the beginning of the piece. He started.....without me......and I jumped in after he played solo for about 8 beats. My husband (who is not a musician) said you really couldn't tell anything went wrong. It was seamlessly well-covered, but I'm devastated. Noting like this has ever happened. Anyone else have a similar experience. It was, of course, both our faults for never actually settling on the technique for starting together. With vocalists, I usually just watch their breath. He was from the "jazz" tradition which does the "1 and-a 2 and-a 1,2,3,4" business When we practiced that's what we did, but I just failed to doubl-check that he was actually going to do that in the concert. My bad......!!!!

  11. Not necessarily. You would need to discuss how to start with the xylophonist. Prior to the concert, you would also need to figure out where he/she would stand, as well as resolve line-of-sight issues. Then again, some soloists simply start right away without bothering to consider the rest of the ensemble.