Monday, August 20, 2007

The Doctoral Piano Degree: Solo or Collaborative?

This evening I received the following anonymous comment on the What is Collaborative Piano? posting:

Thanks for the informative website. I enjoy your insights. I'm a pianist with a Master's in performance. (neither degree is collaborative) As you know, most non-collaborative programs require a certain amount of chamber playing and possibly vocal accompaniment as well (or might at least offer vocal accompaniment as an assistantship, etc.) In fact, my graduate assistantship was vocal accompaniment. I'm considering a doctoral program in collaborative piano. What is the difference between pursuing a collaborative degree and simply immersing yourself in chamber and vocal music on your own while in a non-collaborative program? Is it simply that there is more chamber/vocal music that is actually required to graduate? I know that languages and other things are emphasized more, but again, some of those things can be pursued on your own if you really desire. I guess my real question is this - if I'm in a great "solo" program with a great voice and string department and I actively seek out these other musicians on my own, continue language studies, etc, what separates the collaborative program from what I'd be doing anyways? What are the main advantages? Perhaps I wouldn't get the vocal coaching training, but I'm not sure that appeals anyways. Any more insights?

First of all, thank you for such an intelligently written comment, anonymous poster! You raise some important questions about which I feel rather strongly.

Yes, it is entirely possible to amass some experience playing chamber and vocal music while in a solo piano doctoral degree. While majoring in the solo repertoire, there is nothing wrong with expanding your horizons learning and performing music in ensemble. Fifteen to twenty years ago, there was a line of thinking that if you wanted to make a career as a collaborative pianist, you should get a degree in solo piano, since faculty and administrators in universities valued a solo degree more than a collaborative one.

Times have changed since the early 90's. There are an increasing number of first-rate collaborative pianists in the music field now with degrees in that field. Taking a collaborative piano degree will give you course work essential to working in the field that you probably won't have time for in a solo degree, such as:
  • Opera Repertoire classes
  • Opera Coaching classes
  • Opera Assistantships
  • Song Repertoire classes
  • Instrumental Repertoire classes
  • Lyric Diction classes
  • Advanced Keyboard Skills
  • Pedagogy of Collaborative Piano classes
Not to mention the experience of learning a large number of songs, arias, sonatas, and concertos that can only be learned through working in the trenches in a collaborative degree with a recognized teacher in the field. It's not enough any more simply to be a "well-rounded" soloist that just happens to know a few sonatas and chamber works. In today's market, you have to know dozens of concertos and sonatas and hundreds of songs and arias if you're ever going to be taken seriously in anything other than the simplest studio accompanying. The level of collaborative graduates at the doctoral level is so high now that competing against them for the same jobs with only a solo degree might get you perceived as merely "dabbling" in the collaborative arts.

But it all depends on what you want to do after graduation. If you want to be primarily a soloist and teacher of piano that also is able to play chamber music, go ahead with the solo degree. If you want to really specialize in the art of making music with others and learn the skills and repertoire to do it at the highest level and then be able to apply and teach it, perhaps you should opt for a collaborative degree.

Note to faculty and administrators of collaborative piano programs
: If you want your school's CP degree program info posted on this blog, see this post.


  1. Anonymous12:33 AM

    I suggest a friend to apply the collaborative piano program, because I love listening to her playing when I sing. However, she said she is too old for the program. Is 30 something too old for a master degree in collaborative program???

  2. Not in the least. Maturity and quality of judgement don't happen overnight, and for this reason, many graduate degree candidates in collaborative piano tend to be a little older than those in solo piano. The situation is often the same in piano pedagogy.

  3. Very good post. I've been meaning to write one about this topic myself and I may do that anyway because I had an interesting experience myself with this whole issue that I thought I should share.

    I have always wanted to be a collaborator/chamber musician. I never had a desire to do solo piano. In my undergrad I did tons of collaborating, took the required accompanying course, and attended music festivals in the summer where I worked and studied as a collaborator. I had no doubt in my mind that I would get my master's degree and possibly my doctoral degree in the field. When it came time to apply, however, one collaborative piano professor refused to take me into the program and another strongly pushed me into getting another performance degree. This was completely devastating to me but now, looking back, I think I understand why they did what they did and I don't regret the path I took. Now I feel like I can collaborate at a high level and also perform solo when I want or need to.

    I don't believe I was turned away from the collaborative degrees because of negative reasons like I was a misfit, totally inept at accompanying, least I hope that's not the case, so I find it food for thought that two collaborative pianists would urge me in another direction even though they knew that ultimately I was a chamber musician/collaborator at heart.

    Anyway , there's my story.

  4. I want to learn!12:19 AM

    1. This is a wonderful and helpful website!
    2. Your last sentence ("If you want to really specialize in the art of making music with others and learn the skills and repertoire to do it at the highest level and then be able to apply and teach it, perhaps you should opt for a collaborative degree") describes exactly what I want to do for a future career. My question is, though, how?
    I thought about doing a collaborative degree for my masters (right now I am going into my fourth year of my undergrad), but I don't think I could be accepted anywhere because I don't have enough experience or a large enough repertoire list to pass the auditions. Same goes for summer training programs (I tried applying to some but I wasn't accepted). It seems like schools want you to have experience and knowledge before they accept you (which I understand, especially for a graduate degree), but where do you start? I have learned some things from reading books, etc., but obviously that is not the same. Do you have any advice? Thank you in advance!

    1. Thanks for the comment, IWTL. There are several schools that have diploma programs that are perfect for your situation. Two that I can think of are the University of British Columbia and the Brooklyn Conservatory (which I'm not sure is continuing after this year - check their materials). With a one- or two-year diploma program, you will have built up the skills and rep necessary to competitively apply for most Master of Music programs on the continent.

  5. Anonymous5:58 PM

    Couldn't resist adding to this thread. I entered an MM program in Collaborative Piano at age 51 after many years of collaborating with singers and choirs. I wanted mainly to improve my piano technique. My undergrad and first MM are in organ. I was freelancing as a collaborative pianist to earn extra money and realized that I had built up an incredible repertoire of vocal lit and really enjoyed it. My MM in CP didn't have any course work in lyric diction or coaching practicum though, but working in voice studios and with choirs gave me lots of experience. Now I want to do something else to bring my skills to a higher level. Question is, what? A doctorate isn't practical now, and YAP's probably are out for obvious reasons. Any suggestions for a post-master's something or other to build on what I've done?

  6. To the commenter above me--

    The Specialist in Collaborative Piano program at Michigan sounds like just the thing you're looking for. Additionally, you have the option of choosing a vocal or instrumental track (sounds like you'd be more interested in the former). This way, you'll be getting a terminal degree but won't need to go through the full PhD process--and you could work with Martin Katz!

    (Disclaimer: I'm a Michigan alum but my degree is in music theory, rather than piano. I have several friends who've been through the collaborative programs, though)

  7. Anonymous11:59 AM

    Hi I just found your blog. It's very informative and interesting! I wish I could have found this earlier. So I'm looking for a doctoral program in Collaborative Piano and I feel it's very hard to choose from. I have a MM in Collaborative Piano from NEC and now I'm in the struggle of continuing my study in the east coast or move somewhere else. Also, in terms of conservatory or university studies, I hope to be in a bigger campus but the teachers here are really good. And I'm a international student, so there's also language requirements, getting a job afterwards and such to consider.. I know it might not be the right place to post a question like this, but it seems that most of the topics are about MM programs.. Any insight about this? Thank you!