Monday, February 07, 2011

On Omitted Pianists (Cont'd)

This morning I received the following anonymous comment on yesterday's omitted pianists posting:
I started accompanying choirs when I was a high school student. I was always acknowledged in the middle school concert program and the director even paid me a small amount. My own high school choral director rarely included me in the program and as I was a student at the school, there was certainly no payment. I sang in a church choir around the same time and was often called upon to help plat parts- for free- while they searched for someone they could pay $100/week to accompany the choir. I felt used.

On the other hand, the youth choir I've been accompanying off and on for over 10 years has always included my name, and I am usually recognized before the audience when we perform outside of church services. Then again, I recently played for a school district choir festival in which my own [choral] students were involved. In the program, my name was misspelled and I received no compensation for HOURS of my time spent on hosting the event and accompanying one of the two choirs, even though I had been paid the year before. (Note: I will not be volunteering to play or host again next time unless I have a written contract outlining my payment- especially since I lost time/pay from my regular gig in order to play for my school district!)
I can't emphasize this enough: we're not volunteers (except if you're a student and you take on something with the understanding that it is for experience). Make sure that the terms of compensation are properly outlined. If you're a professional and someone doesn't pay you or properly value the work you do, move on. If you're spending an inordinate amount of time working with a choir for no compensation or acknowledgement, you're being used. Take on more students, start your own series. We're under no obligation to keep on doing work that doesn't give back to us what it gives to others.

And who knows: maybe when you tell the organization that the reason for your leaving is because you're not getting enough out of the working relationship and don't feel valued, they just might get it the next time around.


  1. Anonymous11:43 AM

    If you consider yourself a professional and work for no pay or very low pay, you are not only doing a disservice to yourself, but are also undervaluing the work of your colleagues and the profession in general. If a school district knows it will always find someone to play for $30/reh., it will never make any attempt to increase the budget.

    All pianists have the right to take on whatever work they want or need in order to make a living. At the same time, I hate seeing wonderful young pianists fresh out of school who agree to absolutely everything (including terribly low pay), simply because they don't know any better. I was one of these only a few years ago, and it is a serious problem.

    Do you know of any communities where pianists have professionally organized as collaborators (not as teachers)? Has anyone met with fellow pianists as a group to discuss things like contracts, pay, and other working issues (i.e., extra compensation for extra rehearsal time, scheduled breaks for the pianist in marathon staging rehearsals, etc.)? Many pianists are members of the AFM (or the Canadian equivalent). This is useful, and sometimes required, if you play a lot of musical theater shows, play in opera orchestras, or other ensemble work. But I don't know of any organization that addresses the unique needs of pianists as collaborators, and provides support to young professionals in this field.

  2. I also played for my church choir through high school and university. At first it was an unpaid position, but when a new director was hired, he was able to persuade the church board that I deserved some compensation. He tried to convince them that it was because of my talents, but they only agreed when he used the argument that I was a student and needed the money! Whatever, it was a start.

    One of my favorite arguments against paying church musicians is that we should be using our talents for the glory of God. After all, we don't pay the Sunday school teachers, or the deacons or ushers. To this I say, True, but they don't have (or need) University degrees in teaching or deaconing or ushering. Do you pay the minister? The church secretary? The janitor? Then you should be paying me too.

    I continued to play for this choir during my first year out of school, when I was also doing a lot of studio accompanying work. At the end of the year, I let the music committee know that I would not be available to play for services during the summer (the choir also did not sing at summer services). Their response was, that was fine, but it was up to me to find a replacement for every Sunday in the summer session. Uh, no. What is the music committee for, other than to find musicians when needed? That was what finally convinced me to take my talents elsewhere.

    I have also played for numerous weddings and receptions. One of my favorite rationalizations: We can't afford to pay you, but you're welcome to help yourself to the buffet... after all the other guests have eaten. Thanks but no thanks!

  3. I agree that we're not volunteers, but there have been some organizations I've been involved with in the past where I do volunteer, because I believe in the cause of the group and can support them via accompanying, rather than through a monetary donation. Unfortunately, this gave others the impression that I would work for free or very cheap for other events or organizations.

    Also, for the last year I've been in a new city, trying to break into the accompanying scene. I've taken a few free gigs, with little recognition, in the hopes of networking and getting my name around. I'm worried now that I've taken too many free or low-paying gigs and that my name is going around town as someone who's cheap.

    It's a tough line to balance, for any musicians, as to where to draw the line. I'm afraid that if I'm too strict that I'll lose jobs, but at the same time I can't keep taking low-paying gigs.

    How does one find a good balance?

  4. Anonymous: I know of several organizations, but they are in Australia:

    You should also join People for the Ethical Treatment of Accompanists on Facebook (where a lot of these issues are raised, with fingers pointed at offending organizations). Many of its members are extremely helpful in finding solutions to problems faced by collaborative pianists.

    Other than that, you should definitely try to attend one of the major meetups among CP's happening in the next few months, namely the MTNA conference in Milwaukee and the VISI collaborative pianists' retreat in Vancouver this June.

    Pam, the argument that compensation for accompanying services is payable in the hereafter is not without merit in some circles, but most of us would prefer to eat regular meals...

    Andrei, take the plunge, raise your rate. In corporate parlance: realize the true value of your product.

  5. Anonymous9:06 PM

    Chris - Thanks for the links to the Australian websites. I am a member of the PETA facebook group, and have found a lot of good advice about general issues. I would love to find a way to address more local issues in the large metropolitan area where I work.

    I would like to share a story that demonstrates a certain "conflict of interest" I often come across--and would appreciate your thoughts:

    Recently, I worked as a repetiteur for a production put on by a small opera company. I enjoyed working with the conductor, a wonderful young opera conductor just starting out her career. After the production was over, we went for coffee to shop-talk and discuss opportunities in town. She told me about a bad experience she had once had with a different small company: she had waited a week to deposit her paycheck. It ended up bouncing due to lack of funds in the account, and she got saddled with fees, as well as having to wait a very long time to get paid. But when I asked her the name of this company, she declined to tell me.

    Many times, I have heard pianists in town describe bad experiences--and then refuse to name the organization that treated them this way.

    There are many reasons for a musician to remain tight-lipped about these things, and I certainly understand and respect those reasons:

    1) Saying negative things about another person or organization generally reflects badly upon YOU. No one wants to develop a reputation for being the person who always complains.

    2) Even if you've had some problems, you want to preserve the (basically) good working relationship you have with a particular organization, especially if you plan on working there again or rely on your contacts there to recommend you for other work. The music community is small, and you never know what might get back to whom, or how your words might be twisted.

    3) A lot of organizations (especially small ones), are run by good people with good intentions who simply have no idea what they're doing. If you believe in the company's mission, you naturally it to succeed. It seems unfair to punish these organizations with a bad reputation for what is obviously only lack of experience. (I.e., they didn't MEAN to add three extra rehearsals without asking you or offering extra compensation--they simply FORGOT. Why? Because they are a bunch of singers who decided to start their own musical theatre company).

    4) Finally, we make our living in the arts, and the arts are always in a precarious situation (at least in the US, in this economy). We want arts organizations and school arts programs to flourish, we want the general public to keep buying tickets, and we want board members and donors to maintain or increase their donations. Even if it's true, saying something negative about an arts organization in the press, on the internet, or in any forum accessible to the general public, is contrary to these goals, and hurts everyone.

    However, NOT being specific and refusing to "name names" also has consequences:

    1) Organizations have no incentive to change their behavior, and may feel that they are able to "get away" with certain things. Over time, this is bad for every pianist in town, including you.

    2) Trust and communication between colleagues is lost. We all have mentors without whose experience and advice we would never be where we are. All of us benefit from open and honest communication between pianists, and from advice from the more experienced among us.

    So how do you create a safe and closed environment (even on the local level), where pianists feel protected enough to be honest and specific--to name names and discuss details--solely for the benefit of other pianists, whom they trust? Is this possible? How do we balance loyalty to our organizations with loyalty to our colleagues? I would really appreciate everyone's thoughts on the matter.

    Btw, I love the blog, and have probably read a majority of the posts. Thanks so much!

  6. Anonymous8:55 AM

    Very interesting post and comments!
    Pam, I've always been floored with the argument of "we don't pay the Sunday School teachers, so why should we pay you?" My reponse (although I don't know if I would ever actually say it) is, "Well, okay, since it's all the same, I'd love a change of pace .... why I don't I teach your fifth grade SS class this week, and you play for both services and accompany the choir?"


  7. Anonymous3:37 PM

    Perhaps we are not approaching this from the best angle. We all have bad experiences with people who either don't know or don't care what it's like to be a collaborative pianist. Loads of paper everywhere, scheduling nightmares every week, dealing with people with attitudes. But we take it, we deal with it, and most of us (if we're still doing it) actually love it. Perhaps instead of always telling people stories about how badly we've been treated, we should talk about the situations in which we felt like we've been treated really well. The organizations/people who don't yet know how to deal with pianists will see that it's not actually that difficult to rise to the occasion of treating us like professional employees, and perhaps seriously consider rising to that occasion themselves.

    I'll start by commenting on my good experience. I've been the pianist for the New Jersey Gay Men's Chorus for about a year now. They pay me very well (I'm young, but they probably pay me about as much as a professional of any age could expect to be paid playing for a community chorus), I don't have a car so they always arrange a ride for me for gigs, they always give me the music well in advance of performances, they always acknowledge me in the program (sometimes even with my full bio, not just my name) and the conductor always acknowledges me onstage, they're always friendly in rehearsal and I'm always invited to their social gatherings (even though I'm neither gay nor a man), they pay for my expenses if we're performing far away and staying somewhere overnight. Once, they misinformed me of a rehearsal time, and I was mildly stressed about having scheduled another rehearsal during the correct time...I didn't end up making it to that rehearsal, but they paid me for it anyways.

    Strangely, all of this is far above and beyond how I expect to be treated in a working situation, just because it happens so rarely. But would it be that ridiculous to expect cordial and professional treatment all the time? I have friends who work in offices who would have fits if they were treated any worse than I get treated in my very best working situations. And when they do have to put in loads of extra hours and things get unpleasant (which is often), they get huge bonuses. Why are pianists treated worse than businesspeople? Are we less educated? Less talented? Less hard-working? In most cases, none of the above. It's just that there's less precedent for treating us well. So let's change the stigma, people!

  8. My local choral group is still paying the same hourly amount for their accompanist that they payed in 1989. I know because I was successful in raising the amount at that time. I did the job for two years and needed to quit because of time conflicts. They called me a year ago offering me the job and I suggested they raise their hourly and they were flabbergasted! Never heard who they eventually got except I know there isn't another accompanist for 50 miles. I will bet they offered less per hour and the accompanist had to drive an hour or more to the rehearsals. Oh, they never acknowledge the rehearsal accompanist and always use solo performers "from the city".

    Interestingly they just raised their concert fee. Maybe I did have an affect.

  9. Anonymous10:54 AM

    The church comment that "you should do it for God" appalls me, though I don't have much respect for organized religion either (even as I know that most musicians would never get any experience under their belt without church choirs).

    The thing most don't seem to consider about accompanying is all of the "off the clock" hours that are put in, just for the time actually spent at rehearsals. Unless you want someone sight-reading through rehearsal all the time, going through the music on one's own time is necessary--somehow I don't think the deacons or Sunday School teachers are putting in that much extra time on their lessons. Yet if a Sunday school class turns out mediocre or a deacon doesn't follow-though with something, most don't bat an eye, but let the accompanist/organist flub some notes in the service, and boom, instant gossip about how unprofessional one is.

  10. David Boothroyd12:48 AM

    My mentor once pointed out the various reasons to do a particular gig:
    (1) what you are getting paid
    (2) what you will learn in doing it
    (3) who you will meet/learn from, by doing it
    (4) the honour of a particular gig (very rare)

    If the gig does not satisfy at least one of these criteria, then don't do it.