Saturday, January 20, 2007

The Young Collaborative Pianist Part II

What time in a pianist's development is the best to introduce the rewards of working with others? I have always argued that the earlier collaborative experiences are offered, the better, even if a pianist never intends to follow a career in the collaborative arts. I know I hold the minority opinion among piano teachers, but I've always felt strongly about the value of making music with others of similar interests.

Nancy O'Neill Breth, in her presentation to the 2005 MTNA National Conference in Seattle, argues for the importance of finding appropriate collaborative repertoire at an early stage in a pianist's development:

Typically, piano students begin playing chamber music only after they have studied for years and are ready to attempt Mozart or Beethoven trios. Yet practicing with other people can be a lot more fun than practicing alone. When pianists start playing chamber music, they gain an additional reward for their hours of solitary practice. And in turn the ensemble playing deepens their musical skills and understanding.

She goes on to list high-quality repertoire at various levels (although only of the chamber music variety rather than vocal), as well as info on publishers and websites.

I disagree with Breth's statement that "the difficulty of finding interesting chamber music pieces appropriate for early level players is an important reason that teachers hesitate to introduce young students to ensemble playing." No need to be diplomatic--the reason that most piano teachers don't introduce their students to chamber or vocal collaboration at an early age is that they don't know of its importance or simply don't care about introducing it, content to have their students play solo repertoire only. The teachers who recognize that playing with instrumentalists and singers is important at a young age will find appropriate music, get an ensemble together, and have their students reap the benefits of these activities.

Nevertheless, Breth's MTNA paper is part of a growing corpus of information on the importance of finding ways of introducing pianists to ensemble playing, as well as the repertoire and process to make it happen.

The Young Collaborative Pianist Part I


s55ael in St. John's writes about setting up a studio with the long-term goal of introducing collaboration:

Having only set the studio up recently (less than 18 months ago) I don't focus on yet on having students work with each other due to the majority of my students being 8 years of age or so and in the first two years of playing. However, when they bring their pieces back to me prepared well, we *always* perform it as a duet. I have found the Faber Piano Adventure series have beautiful and creative duet arrangements. I'm looking forward to when the studio has developed enough in skill level and number of students to start pairing them and I will certainly use my contacts from all my accompanying to pair instrumentalists/singers of other teachers. And lastly, it makes a huge difference, I strongly believe, for the piano teacher to be an active performing pianist.


  1. Anonymous12:38 PM

    I have been astonished, over the years, to find that university level piano professors actually resent the idea that their students should be assigned accompanying duties for voice or instrumental lessons. Just where do they think all of their students are going to work as soloists when they graduate? The flip side to that is that I hear many groans from professional singers who, for one reason or another, have been forced to share a program with a "soloist" who then accompanies them for one or two numbers. And this with disasterous results. My friends, collaborative piano is an art. There are some of us who always conceived of making music more interesting through collaboration, but even the most determined soloist can, and should, be taught how to collaborate. And those of us who love our roles as collaborators should feel it is a duty to teach other pianists. My own teacher, a wonderful Italian maestro named Paul Vellucci, used to call us "accomplices" instead of "accompanists".

  2. I agree, Mary, it defies reason why so many piano teachers would steer their students into the solo piano track, where their prospects are limited at best.

    I prefer to look at the situation another way. Learning marketable skills as a pianist means not just learning the solo repertoire, but other elements of the art such as the collaborative repertoire, keyboard skills (such as playing from scores, playing from charts, transposition, and sight reading), piano pedagogy, self-promotion, and administrative skills. University programs that can offer this are few and far between, yet it is accessing the diversity of interests, knowledge, and activities in the piano world that can go farther to ensuring that piano graduates will one day be able to make a living.

  3. Anonymous10:45 AM

    My daughter, 15, prefers playing in collaboration, dislikes much 19th century solo repertoire, and wants to work on piano with other musicians. Yet there are fewer and fewer opportunities to do so: the competition and honors recitals honor the kids who learn the solo stuff best, leaving my daughter trying to compete in piano skills she doesn't value. I see her losing piano interest weekly, as other opportunities for chamber at school and church present.