Sunday, April 01, 2007

What collaborative piano is not

It has recently come to my attention from various circles that there is a mistaken definition of collaborative piano. It is this:

Collaborative pianists distinguish themselves from the common accompanist by being able to bring a wealth of experiences and skills to the table, such as knowledge of poetry, diction, or style. Being able to draw on these related skills as well as having a higher standard of playing and working with other musicians is what sets apart collaborative pianists from mere accompanists.

This definition is wrong.

Although it seems to be a good explanation of what collaborative piano is on the surface, I must disagree for the following reasons:

Having a distinction between collaborative pianists and accompanists creates an apartheid system in the profession where:

Accompanists=hack pianists that suck

Collaborative Pianists=really good accompanists

If this nomenclature is used, then usage of the cp term denotes nothing more than a "premium brand" of accompanist. Worse yet, it can easily become used only as a politically correct term in academia, which is something I've definitely felt and is one of the reasons I started this blog in the first place.

So what is collaborative piano?

Nothing less than the field of pianists who choose to work and perform with other musicians. Period. It is not a service industry as so many people seem to think (see NFCS discussion thread on the topic), but a genuine field of artistic expertise and a profession that seems to be more viable than most in the piano field these days.

The idea of the collaborative piano nomenclature, as exemplified by Samuel Sanders--who invented the term--and those who worked to spread its usage in the early 1990's is that it would subsume and rename the entire profession formerly known as "accompanying", bearing in mind that accompanying does not really take into account all the activities of those who work in this field. For further explanation, please read my career options posting from last year, especially the angry anonymous comment (I actually have a pretty good idea who posted it thanks to my Sitemeter stats) that came in not long after, for the crime of suggesting that a collaborative pianist could also be hired as a singer (and they are--I now know of three in Toronto alone).

There are also those who take offense at people mentioning the word "accompanist" and will angrily correct those who utter the word. I'm not one of those people, and for now I'm okay with both terms being used interchangeably. However, one of the great ongoing battles in both the freelance world and academia by practitioners of this art is simply to be recognized as a pianist, nothing more, nothing less.

Further reading:

What Is Collaborative Piano?
Career Options in Collaborative Piano
Some Ideas on How to Learn a Song or Aria
10 Ways of Improving Your Sight Reading Skills
Degree Programs in Piano Pedagogy
Degree Programs in Collaborative Piano


  1. Hmmm. I really thought a collaborative pianist was one who would help me with my yard work, and I was just about to ask for your phone number.


  2. Amen.
    Actually, I've never really objected to the term "accompanist" when used correctly and respectfully, though "pianist" is certainly preferable.

    But I'd LOVE it if nobody ever called me an "accompany-ist" again ;)

  3. Note to pattyoboe:

    Actually, we are more well known for our expertise in the kitchen, as well as our ability to recommend outstanding novels and fine wines.

  4. Well okay, then ... the kitchen is open. Come on over! ;-)

    On a serious note though ... I'm wondering if all musicians should have "collaborative" before their names unless they are soloists? I never work alone, aside from when I play at church (it's just easier to not have to deal with a pianist there, as I don't know what I'll get ... is that mean to say?).

    Of course I've met plenty of musicians who are playing IN a group but certain don't collaborate!


  5. Anonymous3:39 PM

    Hello Chris!
    I like what you have to say about the terminology. Actually I never had a problem with the term "accompanist"-- after all, if you are accompanying someone on an outing, you are not following that person. But I do think that collaboration is a much more descriptive term about what we do.
    I want to go through your site more thoroughly. Look for more posts at my site over the next few weeks.

  6. Ah yes, the kitchen! I have found that getting my musician friends to mingle with their audiences (my non-musician friends) requires major skill in the kitchen.

  7. Anonymous1:36 PM

    Amen! I agree totally with this. I don’t think that to be a good “collaborative pianist” I have to be able to sing an aria and be fluent in five languages and do really good yard work, too, and just because I can’t sing an aria and am not fluent in five languages, doesn’t mean that I should resign myself to be a lousy “accompanist.” I have, although, been referred to as someone’s “accompamist,” “accomp-nee-ist,” and “pee-anna player.”

  8. George Cummings3:29 PM

    I just found your blog from a recommendation on Facebook.

    Thanks for setting the record straight Chris. I was rather confused when recently introduced as a collaborative pianist ... I had never heard the term before and, being a non-pro, I was pretty tickled. Likewise with yourself and Steve H, I have no problem with "accompanist" since the musicians and audience I know, pro and otherwise, have always been courteous and involving.

  9. Thanks for the comment, George. Personally, I always preferred being called a pianist.

  10. Hello, how are you? I have read your blog about Collaborative Piano, and wanted to thank you for spending the time to write about the art of collaboration! I am a first year student at Wayne State University and I am currently working towards a degree in piano performance. I was a bit skeptical about pursuing this degree since I do not intend on being a famous soloist and performing around the world, but I just wanted to learn everything there is to know about performing (and eventually apply this information to future students). Being enrolled in the program really has helped me grow as a musician; I take every opportunity that comes by whether it is accompanying an instrumentalist, vocalist, playing with the university's band/orchestra/choir/theatre program. I have noticed that once I would take on one offer, another offer would be handed to me through some 'connections', and I have fallen in love with the idea of helping out others with my skill! Recently, I have heard of Collaborative Piano, and I am not too familiar with the degree, but I am very interested. I have a ton of experience of working with others and my sight-reading is pretty good. I was wondering if you have any advice for me? I was also wondering what the job outlook is like and if it is a good path to take. My plan for the future is to have piano students, accompany other instrumentalists/vocalists/choirs/theatres, possibly teach at a college (if I get lucky!) maybe theory, ear training, music history, or keyboard skills.. Is Collaborative Piano a good degree to pursue for a Master's Degree? Thank you for your time!
    -Vanessa Kwiatkowski

    1. A Collaborative Piano degree is always good to pursue if you have a genuine love for the repertoire (be it art song, opera, or chamber music), working with others, and forging a unique path through the musical field. And while many might say that this is a tough time for getting a position in the college field, times have never been better for those willing to hone their entrepreneurial skills in order to create new opportunities for themselves and others.

      BTW might you in any way be related to the well-known recording engineer Anton Kwiatkowski?

  11. Thank you for the advice!
    P.S. Not that I am aware of.. That would be very neat if somehow down the line we were related. :-)

  12. As long as it's not "accompany-ist," I'm okay being called an accompanist. Thanks for this clarification!