“You should go to a coach to get info that you don’t already have,” says Emily Sinclair, Soprano. Coaching usually entails a teacher-student type of relationship, with the pianist focusing on diction and stylistic issues. The coach should send you away with new tidbits of information.You might think that most pianists are able to wear their vocal coach and collaborative pianist hats at the same time, but I've noticed that there is a subtle distinction with the way that both types of pianist handle ensemble and tempo situations with individual singers.
With a collaborative pianist, things are trickier, because the singer and pianist make decisions as a team. Ms. Sinclair gives the example of intimating to an excellent coach she had worked with for years: “Sometimes I miss working through musical issues with a pianist who is a peer, not a coach.” “I know exactly what you mean,” said the coach. “It is a really different experience to work through voicings, phrasings and gestures with a collaborative pianist. It’s a very equal experience,” she says.
Vocal coaches who have done their time as repetiteurs in opera companies are often apt to play a lot like orchestras in that they tend to push a singer through a phrase much like a conductor would. In other words, if the singer is singing with slightly less direction than they should be, many coach/repetiteurs will simply barrel forward in tempo through the phrase.
On the other hand, a collaborative pianist with more recital experience will work at developing a mutual vocabulary of collaboration, delving into the nature of the phrase and working at how pianist and singer can both generate the phrase through a delicate dance of leading vs. following.
The above descriptions are a bit of a generalization, but I notice these differences, both in the vocabulary which pianists use and their instincts while playing.
So which type of pianist should a singer be using?
A lot of it depends on both the type of specific preparation that a singer needs (role, audition, or recital?) and the type of pianist that fits in with their musical needs and instincts, and whether they are able to bridge the gap between the many facets of what a classical singer needs to prepare these days. Above all, pianists need a sense of empathy. From Anne's article (emphasis is mine):
Ms. Maultsby loves a pianist who knows not just the diction, rhythm and pitches, but the background, emotion and story behind what the characters are feeling, and that the pianist is on his/her own emotional journey. “The most rewarding work relationships come when I feel comfortable with my pianist as a person, and when that coach genuinely likes my voice and says so,” she explains. Dr. Harris adds that both pianist and singer need to complement the music that the other produces, though always making sure that it is an honest compliment. “Let them know what their music meant to you.”And how valuable it is for singers to work with pianists who are able to understand the differences between coach/repetiteur and recital pianist in order to engage fully with both the needs of the singer and the needs of the repertoire.
Singers want really good chops, musical guts, a trust that you’re on our side, explains Dr. Patricia Thompson, mezzo-soprano. “We want to know that you have a vested interest in making the music sound great. It’s not fun to play with a pianist who’s jaded and playing for a paycheck. A singer wants a good friend and confidant and someone they can trust at the piano.”