Monday, November 07, 2005

Required and Preferred Skills for the Collaborative Pianist

Please note that this list is part of an ongoing process to determine just what one needs to know in order to work as a collaborative pianist. Feel free to post your comments, additions, or corrections.

*** Essential skills
** Preferred skills
* Non-essential but a definite plus


*** Must be reachable via land line or cell phone equipped with answering service or machine
*** Must be reachable via email
*** Text capability on cell phone
*** Must return messages as promptly as possible
*** When committing to an engagement, must follow through on commitments
*** Must keep an accurate and up-to-date schedule
*** Must show up on time for rehearsals
*** Must show up reasonably early for recitals, auditions, or competitions
*** Must be prepared for all commitments
** For professionals, elementary knowledge of billing and invoicing
* For professionals, elementary knowledge of accounting and tax issues

Pianistic Skills

*** Ability to play at a consistently high level
*** Ability to learn music accurately
*** Ability to learn music quickly
** Ability to improve quality of playing in the lead-up to a recital
*** Ability to read solo line(s) in addition to piano part
*** Ability to sight-read at a level close to that of prepared material
** Ability to sight-read at the same level as that of prepared material
** Ability to sing solo lines in addition to playing piano part
** Ability to read orchestral scores
** Ability to read figured bass
** Ability to transpose music after some preparation
* Ability to transpose at sight
* New opera: ability to sight-read, singing vocal lines at sight
* New opera: ability to sight-read from orchestral score
*** Ability to play selected solo material at a high level

Skills for Vocal Collaboration

*** Ability to follow a singer
*** Knowledge of basic repertoire
** Wide knowledge of songs and arias from opera, art song, and oratorio
** Knowledge of entire operas, song cycles, and oratorios
*** Ability to adjust playing to the needs of individual voices
*** Ability to point out obvious mistakes, i.e. notes, rhythms, and entrances
** Ability to coach lyric diction
* Deep knowledge of literature and poetics
** Ability to talk about poetic and dramatic issues
* Ability to speak several languages
** Ability to make some basic remarks on use of voice, i.e. Intonation
* Ability to teach voice
** Ability to suggest basic repertoire
* Ability to suggest a course of repertoire for future development

Skills for Instrumental Collaboration

*** Ability to follow an instrumentalist, picking up on both visual and auditory clues specific to each instrument.
*** Knowledge of basic repertoire, including both concertos and sonatas
** Knowledge of encore repertoire for strings
** Wide knowledge of all standard works for a specific instrument with piano
** Wide knowledge of all standard works in one genre, i.e. piano trios, strings with piano
*** Ability to point out obvious mistakes such as notes, rhythms, entrances
** Ability to make basic remarks on instrumental playing
* Ability to play second instrument
** Ability to follow a conductor in larger ensembles

Personal Skills

*** A positive attitude
*** Ability to get along with most people and to develop working relationships with a wide cross-section of people without confrontation
***Ability to remember faces and names from the entire extent of one's professional network (ie. usually about 100-200 people)
** Ability to develop working relationships with difficult people
** Ability to connect well with people in a limited time-span, ie. a 3-day rehearsal process
* Ability to work in more than one language
*** An open-minded attitude, and a willingness to try new ideas
** A sense of when to compromise and when not to
** How to navigate within a given political situation, ie. opera company, music department
*** Ability to become a trusted and respected colleague, with the ability to inspire confidence in others

Other Specific Skills:

1) Dance Accompanist

For the following, I would like to express my gratitude for the ideas and assistance of Emily Tench, a graduate of the Toronto Dance Theatre School, whose experience and insight were instrumental in compiling this list.

*** Ability to understand dancers’ vocabulary
*** Take instruction from a non-musician, i.e. dance steps don’t always correspond to musical beats
*** Ability to create music that will assist the dancers’ rhythm in choreography
*** Ability to put in long hours in a rehearsal process where one is not the focus
*** Ability to accommodate and interact with the needs of dancers

2) Opera Coach/Repetiteur

*** Ability to work with a musical director
*** Ability to work with a stage director
*** Ability to work with stage management
*** Ability to put in long hours in a rehearsal process where you are not the focus
*** Ability to maintain a high standard of playing in the rehearsal process
** Ability to take notes for singers in the final stages of rehearsal (“tech week”)
* Ability to run a rehearsal when director/musical director are absent
*** Ability to sing and/or play all vocal lines in addition to playing the orchestral reduction
** Ability to coach the language of a given work
** Ability to understand and impart the dramatic sense of a work, both verbally and through one’s playing

Dr. Christopher Foley
from the Royal Conservatory of Music Art of Teaching Conference
June 2004

[1] Although many coaches have been known to give advice on vocal issues, the only time a coach can be considered completely trustworthy is if they have some record of serious vocal training (such as a B.Mus. in voice) and professional singing experience.
[2] Voice teachers might be more reliable than coaches on this point. However, experienced coaches often have a much wider range of repertoire that can yield interesting suggestions.

Update 2019-8-27 - here are a few added skills from a Collaborative Piano Blog Facebook posting:

- Playing open score - any/all combinations of voices in a choral score (from Jim Wilson)
- Ability to play on a variety of keyboards, including electronic, harpsichord, organ, etc. (from Rebecca Morgan Baker)

Accompanying Basics - sheet music at Accompanying Basics By Joyce Grill. Piano. Reference. Music Book. Published by Neil A. Kjos Music Company. (WP154)
See more info...

Further reading:
Add To Your Skills By Learning Theory
First Steps: Getting New Repertoire on its Feet
Developing an Artistic Sensibility
Add Collaboration To Your Activities

(Image courtesy of Andrik Langfield on Unsplash)


  1. Anonymous10:38 AM

    It is amazing to see such a long list of ability requirements. I think I can only fulfill 10-30%. Does every professional pianist possess all those abilities? or perhaps 50-80%?

  2. If you were possessed all those skills listed, you would probably be a superhero. I certainly don't have anywhere near all those skills listed above. The important ones to work on are the 3-star skills, which are a baseline for professional competency. After that, work on the two-star skills, which will create more demand for your abilities. The one-star skills will definitely distinguish you but aren't critical for entry into the profession.

  3. I always thought "professional" meant having to do with degrees and accolades. After reviewing the criteria, I am already a "professional" and didn't even realize it. This is encouraging, since I generaly try to keep a pretty humble opinion of my skills and services (which, I know, is not a humble statement to make in the first place). I think I tend to get humble and self-respect mixed up. I have not one degree in anything "Accompanying" but a whole truckload of experience and passion and drive for the field...

  4. Anonymous1:12 AM

    Chris, great list. I love that you included professional behavior. At the very least, the more committed to the ensemble, the greater the chance of a musically satisfying experience for everyone. Collaborative, indeed! Looking forward to reading more.

  5. "Opera Coach:
    *** Ability to sing and/or play all vocal lines in addition to playing the orchestral reduction"

    Does that include choruses with 4+ vocal lines? :O

    1. Agree! Playing open score vocal parts should be a 2- or 3-star item for anyone working with choirs or vocal ensembles. This also includes the sometimes trickier "play only the 2 inner voices" or "play 3 of the 4 vocal parts".

  6. Toto: Yes. You will need a costume, cape, and super powers in order to achieve this feat.

  7. Chris,
    Have you ever heard of students entering a masters program in Collaborative piano if they possess their undergraduate degree in a non-music field?

    Is this a possibility? Or do you think all schools will require an undergraduate degree in music/piano?

    Thank you!

  8. It's not unheard of, but would depend on both coursework and quality of playing.

  9. This is an excellent list. It says nothing, however, about the classical skills that seem to be encroaching on our professional time and energy. I resent and refuse requests to print out, collate music sent via email from musicians seeking my collaboration. Please do likewise. I did not go to graduate school and work so hard learning to be a good musician to spend my professional time doing secretarial work.

  10. I’d say this is a very accurate description of the qualities of what a collaborative pianist should possess. I’d say it’s very important to work with a fellow musician that is as competent in their instrument as you are on the piano. Collaboration is a special art and not all pianists are cut out for this work. I was never in love with solo piano, but I put my heart and soul into collaborating with fellow master degree students in college.