Thursday, February 03, 2011

Unsung Heroes?

Numerous are the concerts I've played when an audience member would come up to me after the concert and say something like "Oh yes, you played well too" or "You know, not every pianist has what it takes to be a good accompanist". Following these inevitable drab comments* I'm always left this it? Is this what we spend all these hours for? Fortunately, the experience of many of us has shown that the field of collaborative piano is a rapidly branching profession, with activities now encompassing curriculum creation (Jean Barr, Jennifer Snow), artistic direction (John Hess, Kim Pensinger Witman), and textbook writing (Martin Katz, Robert Spillman) to name only a few.

Therefore, it was not without some reservations that I read Jing Li's Unsung Heroes in the WQXR blog. Have major collaborative piano programs been around only since the 1980's? I think not - the world's first accompanying program was started by Gwendolyn Koldofsky at the University of Southern California in 1949, with many others following suit in the ensuing decades (ASU, Cincinnati, and Illinois come to mind). Are there only a handful in the United States? Hardly. My own research into the field yielded well over 80 schools granting collaborative piano degrees and diplomas available in the United States alone.

What I also disagree with in Li's article was the assertion that "behind every brilliant soloist there is his or her accompanist". There are very, very few of us these days who are able (or willing) to work with only one soloist. For the most part, collaborative pianists are doing a lot of different activities, and the sheer diversity of all that they do is one of the main drawing points of the profession.

Which brings me back to one of the reasons I started this blog in the first place: I feel that there is a media bias against people in the collaborative piano profession, and that they are often portrayed as obedient flunkies. I've spent over 5 years on this blog proving that bias wrong, and it is often disheartening to see that our field is still perceived as only having "sprung up" in the last few decades.

So while I applaude Ms. Li for writing an article about the valuable work done by those in the profession formerly known as piano accompanying, I nevertheless urge her to look a bit deeper at the incredible depth of what this field now entails, and of the imagination, perseverance and ingenuity of those who work in it.

*Or worse! My two favorites are "Do you intend to continue with your music?" and "You Canadians always were very musical."


  1. In a way, it's similar to the adage "If you can't do, teach." (And, as Woody Allen added, "If you can't teach, teach phy ed.")

  2. Anonymous12:11 AM

    Dear Chris:
    I appreciate your thoughts and comments on my blog post on WQXR. I’m actually a working accompanist myself so I do agree with you that today almost none of us work with just one soloist. In my article I merely meant that on stage, a successful performance takes more than just the soloist.
    I was not aware of the USC 1949 program and I appreciate your comment on that. I wanted to write the article exactly for the bias against people in the collaborative piano profession, and that they are often portrayed as obedient flunkies. Many people have the concept that collaborative pianists are former solo pianists who “couldn’t make it” and I think they couldn’t be more wrong. And while obviously I should have done more detailed research to get some numbers right, readers seem to have come out and agree with me and voice their appreciation for collaborative pianists.
    To answer the last part of your comments above, I do look very deeply in our field, because I have been making a living in this profession proudly for years now.
    I’m a subscriber of your blogs and needless to say, I do appreciate them. Frankly, I’m flattered you even commented. And by the way, I’m a girl.

  3. Thanks for the comment, Jing - I changed your name from Mr. to Ms. in the article!

  4. An article I wrote on the history of accompanying was published this month by American Music Teacher, I think it complements this blog spot.

  5. Thanks, Rick. I'll take a look at it.

  6. Darn - make that "complements this particular blog POST." Thanks for keeping up this great blog; I've been a longtime lurker and have picked up lots of interesting ideas here.

  7. There is a printed program exhibited in a display case at Westminster Choir College. The soloist is Jascha Heifetz, the location Princeton University. Although the rep is clearly written for violin/piano, there is no pianist listed.

    Just a little while ago, a famous singer did a recital at Carnegie Hall. Also a program with piano. She was VERY famous, and performed VERY well. But no pianist was listed. I wrote to the reviewer in protest.

    In January, I was hired to play for a choral festival. Every high school music teacher in the area was included in the program, but I was not. The reason? They called me at the last minute, and the program was already at the printers.

    The old prevailing attitude toward collaborative pianists may be less prevalent than it was years ago, but I don't think it's going to go away anytime soon.

  8. A great comment, and one which deserves a response in a separate posting.

  9. Karen1:46 PM

    I have not had a problem with getting my name in programs, but getting into the pre-recital advertising does not always happen. Now when I'm asked to play I request to be listed in the advertising promotional material. Unfortunately what we feel others should be aware of, they just are not. I am very thankful of the great strides this profession is making. There are so many talented and well educated collaborative pianists in the field today, thanks to our great teachers.