Tuesday, June 21, 2011

An Angry Letter to a Pianist

Yesterday I got word of a public letter to a nameless pianist who had charged for rehearsals (Update: and performance too) but neglected to learn the music. Although the person who wrote the letter gave me permission to publicize their name when posting the letter, I've decided not to. Here's the letter:
Dear Pianist(s),

If you can't play the rep, don't have time to learn the rep (and can't sight-read to make up for it), then have the courteousness to let the instrumentalist/singer know more than a week (or in this particular case, a day) before their performance. They have spent hundreds/thousands of dollars and countless hours preparing for it; have, and show, an iota of decency and self-respect.

You are so sadly fortunate that the classical music community will always need pianists, and there is no established system of peer review, or similar, in the accompanying world that will hold you accountable for your incredible behaviour.

It is a low down rotten dirty shame that you can get away with this.
Pianists: it's important to learn your notes before rehearsal and coaching sessions!  The actions of even one pianist who charges a full rate without being able to play the rep can reflect badly on all of us.


  1. Anonymous8:34 AM

    For the local music festival this year, a woodwind teacher used a new accompanist, and we were all excited about another pianist in town to share the load since we're all over-booked for festival.

    Well, one week before the festival, she handed him back all the music and skedaddled. Another pianist had to take over at the last second for all his students and it was stressful for everyone.

    At least she had the decency to hand back the music and not, you know, just not show up. But still, a week?

    On the positive side, though, it reinforced the value of the rest of us, who may charge more than "new" pianists or "cheap" pianists, but we're proven reliable!

  2. Anonymous, that really sucks. Every year, I get at least a dozen calls from musicians left in a tight spot after a pianist bailed at the last possible moment.

  3. Anonymous8:52 AM

    My first thought after reading this was: how come you didn't have a clue that the pianist wasn't prepared until the day before the concert? Weren't you rehearsing?

    Something about this doesn't add up. Of course I don't know the facts of this particular situation, but in my experience these sorts of rants usually come from people who are looking to hire miracle workers, not pianists.

  4. Not being able to say a firm, 'NO!," has been the accompanist's curse since the beginning.

    This letter is very unfortunate, however, it is incredibly biting. I do not know the situation the customer was placed in, but I really hope that they wrote this in a moment of passion and anger. And fie to that pianist!

  5. Thanks for the comments. My understanding was that the letter had been considered for some time before it was written.

  6. Helen Mills11:38 AM

    Wow. I have to admit, I used to think it was sometimes an excuse when I had people call me to play for them at very short notice, due their pianist cancelling on them. I just couldn't quite believe that other pianists did that. I don't agree with being under-prepared or cancelling last minute, but I think that if a pianist agrees to play for something, then finds that they can't do it for whatever reason, they should ALWAYS try to find a replacement.

  7. Wow. I feel sorry for the recitalist, who is left in a tough spot. It's hard to say much beyond that, because I don't know the particulars of the situation. If the last-minute-discovery was due to a lack of rehearsing (like Anonymous mentioned), then the recitalist isn't entirely unresponsible.

    But if it was a one-rehearsal-then-performance type situation (which needs a pro-level pianist), or perhaps an out of town performance where they had to use a partner they didn't know . . . yes, they got screwed.

    Once I was out of options and had to use a pianist I didn't know to substitute for a church choir rehearsal. The pianist returned calls, emailed me and my choir director, behaved completely professionally - and then the 'day of' was a no call/no show and didn't even return my phone call afterwards (when I was checking that she wasn't in a ditch somewhere).

    Don't Be "That Pianist"

  8. Thanks Billie. What I tell everyone is that the experienced professional and beginning student are judged at the same standard of professionalism, however brutal that may be.

  9. Anonymous2:55 PM

    Tangential Question: When should a pianist ask for payment if it isn't clearly stated in some sort of contract?

    I guess in this situation, the pianist got paid before actually playing any notes. And I know some pianists who refuse to play anything until they've gotten paid for it. I try not to be difficult unless someone's actually refusing to pay me for work I've already done. I've worked on several musical theater and opera productions where I got paid near the end of the rehearsal period due to disorganization of the production. I thought this was more or less OK, since I was paid in full, and in cases when I was a little worried that they weren't going to pay me, I made sure there was at least one remaining important rehearsal/performance I could walk out of in case they tried to pull any crap. Generally, though, I find that somehow people are more willing to pay me once I've already done a bit of quality work for them. Especially if their budget is being stretched to hire me, which it often is.


  10. Anonymous9:15 AM

    Well, there's always my most recent experience from the opposite end.

    Me, a very professional and respected pianist on West Coast. Her, an auditioning but "professional" opera singer from Toronto. Singer emails me one month before her audition is in town. Because she is a close friend of a singer I've worked with regularly, I agree, and keep the day as open as possible, though the exact time has not been determined. I ask for specific details regarding repertoire, and get a somewhat vague answer. Three weeks go by with radio silence, and suddenly she writes to let me know the exact time has been set (one week before). I write back that in the meantime I have had to schedule a short performance that was unchangeable, but that I was available for the 6 hours just before her audition time. However I was still willing to play since she needed me. I also ask for the music, as I've searched for it and the library and my albums do not contain her songs. Radio silence again.

    Finally two days before, I send her a final email to say that I was assuming she had hired someone else. At this point, I've realized to myself that I've put myself in a bad way as one of the songs looks tricky and obviously I didn't have enough lead time, though my sight-reading is very good.

    In circumstances like these, I have been as responsible as possible, have researched and tried to source the music myself - and kept in touch.

    However, I'm aware that she might well be telling her other pianist that I "bailed last minute".

    There are indeed sadly some irresponsible pianists out there in our community, but in my experience, more often I have seen that instrumentalists and singers have been negligent, oblivious to what is involved in the piano parts, or not willing to pay for an experienced pianist.