Thursday, May 29, 2008

Is There Value in an Undegraduate Collaborative Piano Degree?

Earlier today, Rebekah asked the following question on the Degree Programs in Collaborative Piano comment thread:
Just wondering if you know of any good schools that have undergraduate degrees in collaborative piano?..

My reply:

My opinion is that pianists should get a Bachelor of Music degree either as a piano major or piano concentrator, then major in collaborative piano at the Master's Degree.

My main concern with undergraduate collaborative piano degrees: there is a perception that pianists in these programs are merely cheap labor pools for voice and string departments, with a very real danger that they will complete their degrees without adequate skills to prepare them for either graduate programs in the field or professional life.

Was I too harsh? Is there value in an undergraduate degree in accompanying/collaborative piano? Could such a degree a) prepare a pianist for graduate level study in the field, and b) still provide proper pianistic training so students could actually compete on a level playing field with soloists? Why is it that almost none of the first-tier music schools offer these types of undergraduate degrees?

Your comments are welcome on this subject, particularly pianists who are enrolled in undergraduate CP programs and the faculty who teach them.


  1. Chris---
    You put it well. I can't address the cheap labor pool point, since my degrees are in a different field. But it does seem plausible from my field, where graduate students are cheap labor pools for professors who don't want to do their own exam grading.
    But I can address level playing field matters. The piano part of the Brahms Quintet is at least as tricky as the D minor concerto, albeit minus those nasty octave trills. The piano part to Schubert's Erlkoening is arguably harder than Liszt's none-too-easy arrangement.
    Of course you know this, but some of your readers may not.

  2. I just finished a BM in collaborative piano at Arizona State. I'm headed to Michigan in the Fall to study with Martin Katz. (who, from what he told me, also has a Bachelor's degree specifically in collaborative piano.) I feel lucky that I was able to discover my interest in collaborative work at a younger age. I don't think I am worse off than someone who has concentrated on solo piano in their undergrad.

  3. Robert, good point--graduate students are also a source of low-cost labor in numerous CP programs and are also open to departmental abuse.

    Patrick, congratulations on getting into Michigan. Arizona State's CP program has a long tradition of excellence going back decades. The challenge of CP undergrad programs is for the teacher to make sure that students are on the path to pianistic accomplishment that includes learning works of a comparable technical level to equivalent works studied in solo piano programs.

    Keep the comments would be great to hear from more people that have first-hand experience with these programs.

  4. Anonymous6:12 PM

    I was, rather unsuccessfully, a piano major in an undergrad program about 25 years ago. I knew I wanted to pursue accompanying (we didn't call it CP then) so after months of struggle, I switched to the general music program so that I would have the time and motivation to pursue that - yes, as a cheap labour source, but also at great benefit to myself. I took what accompanying and chamber courses I could, then want on to do a lot of accompanying for over 10 years, before settling in to teach piano and theory. I've played all the difficult string rep and a lot of the nasty vocal stuff.
    So - if I was a student now, I would certainly embrace an undergrad CP degree.

  5. As a singer I'm highly in favour of them....

    I think I just made your point....

  6. Gerrit, you certainly did and I'm totally okay with being proved wrong on this point. The catch-22 is that a) there is a huge demand for committed pianists to work with singers and instrumentalists at the undergrad level, b) there is a perception that undergrad cp degrees are somehow lesser than traditional piano degrees, but on the other hand, c) it's an uphill battle to get pianists interested in the collaborative piano life, especially in Toronto. Which is why the majority of pianists who play for students at U of T and the RCM are pros.

    LaDona, would that school in question be UBC? There is a lot to be said for the general music program there, and many of the top collaborative pianists from UBC (including Stephen Philcox, Ron Sat, Emily Hamper, and myself) were general music major/piano concentrators. What I found useful about the program is that I was able to have a minor field in linguistics at the undergrad level, which helped me tremendously in subsequent years of study.

  7. Anonymous10:48 AM

    Yes, it was UBC. We were there at the same time, weren't we?

  8. I think so. Mid-80's?

  9. Well, aren't we all good UBCers....! I should, I guess, elaborate on my response.

    When I was there, 98-03, I don't think that there was an undergrad CP program available but there was a course that had both singers and pianists in them that had them working together in art song rep.

    1st and 2nd year performance majors were also required to be assigned to singers and, truly, it was hit and miss. I know some pairs that worked together all through their undergrads and into grad school, and other pairs where the pianists were not at all interested in even learning about the CP process and totally butchered the experience, for them and for the singers (in some cases not even showing up to play for singers' juries!).

    So from a singer perspective, a full program that would be great, but maybe not the best system for young players who haven't decided on their artistic path. Having that aspect open to those that actually want it however - having fewer players take on a greater number of singers each - is a much better option than only having performance majors around and trying to use them as the "cheap labour."

    On a related note, you'd mentioned that "there is a perception that undergrad cp degrees are somehow lesser than traditional piano degrees." By who do you mean? If you mean by the non-vocal community, who cares? I would love to have a CP who've had as much exposure and training as possible in the non-piano-playing skills. If a fresh graduate can walk in the door and tell me how Rossini recit's supposed go, I'll book with them right away and tell all my friends! If they play the most beautiful sonata in the world but won't let me insert performance practice coloratura because it's not in the score, I'm likely to pass that word along as well.

  10. "It's an uphill battle to get pianists interested in the collaborative piano life, especially in Toronto. Which is why the majority of pianists who play for students at U of T and the RCM are pros."

    I think this is a very interesting point. I'm an undergraduate at Princeton majoring in mathematics and getting a certificate in collaborative piano, and I think I'm the only one in the recent history of the school who has genuinely been more interested in collaborative work than solo work.

    It was hard to get the attention of most serious musicians here, because they were so used to hiring accompanists. Even now that I've been here for a few years, some of my good friends who I've worked with before hesitate to approach me again, because they think it's a burden on me to accompany them. In fact, I even get requests along the lines of, "I know you're really busy, but could you recommend anyone who could accompany me for ________," to which I sometimes somewhat awkwardly reply, "Actually, I would be happy to do it myself."

  11. Anonymous10:36 AM

    I'm interested in both teaching classroom music and collaborative piano. I don't really want to major in performance (I'm a second-year music major at a community college and will be transfering in two years). Would a music education degree, with piano as primary instrument, be of much value to a collaborative pianist? Thanks.


  12. Thanks, Laura. I'll be addressing your question in an upcoming post...

  13. Zachary12:16 PM

    I am currently majoring in Collaborative Piano at Hastings College in Nebraska. There is still a Solo Piano Literature requirement that must be met each semester as well as a half recital in solo work. I love being a Collaborative major, but also love solo work, therefore will give another recital and also earn a performance degree. I couldn't imagine having a program where you don't play ANY solo work.

  14. Thanks for the info, Zachary, but I can't add Hastings College to the list of programs offering degrees in Collaborative Piano, as their site doesn't appear to have any online documentation of a collaborative piano degree.

  15. Leave a link if I'm wrong on this, though.

  16. Zachary6:29 PM

    Chris, go to this link:

    Go to page 19.

  17. Hey folks, so I read a few comments and am quite happy that Chris mentioned that ASU has a good long standing program. That is actually where I plan on going to finish my undergraduate (percussion major didn't work out so well at UW-Madison...just wasn't my cup of tea). Since I started playing piano I have been accompanying. I can't fathom learning large piano works for the sole purpose of a solo piano degree. But, I certainly can fathom learning big piano works for the purpose of broadening my musical views while obtaining a bachelors in collaborative piano. I think Chris is right in the sense that those who go into a bachelor of collaborative piano risk the chance of limited skills. That is not my goal though. My goal is to NOT get caught up in big solo piano works as a solo degree major. I don't need 3 or more years of solo piano work under my belt. I sure wouldn't want that to happen. I feel I would "click" a bit better if my degree concentrated on what I was concentrating on. My heart doesn't beat when playing percussion or solo piano works like it does when I'm accompanying other musicians.

    1. Thanks Cobrun! I understand how important it is to find music that speaks to you in the undergraduate setting. Nonetheless, you just never know when solo piano music is going to potentially be a part of your career, both as a player and as a teacher. Since I made a major career 180 a few years ago, I'm more thankful than ever that I also have a background in solo piano, as knowledge of both the solo and collaborative rep is critical for the work I do these days.