Monday, October 05, 2009

Professional Pianists vs. Cheap Pianists

Why, even in 2009, do audition organizers insist on hiring cheap pianists who don't know the rep? These lines from Susan Eichhorn Young's Is It Asking Too Much for a Decent Pianist? made me stand up and cheer:
Good and great pianists are worth EVERY PENNY they charge!!! They provide knowledge, support, understanding, musicality, sight reading skills, improv skills, and an incredible asset to both the singer auditioning and the people sitting at the table!!!

Don't just look at what something costs people - but look at what it is WORTH!!!

A good and great pianist is worth far more than what they charge for a day of auditioning. The difference between a poor pianist who doesn't play for singers or for auditions regularly or doesn't coach or know the repertoire and a great pianist is worth their weight in GOLD!!! It can make the audition day go smoothly - singers are happy and can relax and do their best work; the audition panel can sit back and really hear what the singer is capable of instead of guessing around the incompetence of a poor pianist...
But remember, singers, if there's a house pianist playing at auditions that you would rather not work with, you can always pay and bring your own, especially if you're auditioning with difficult songs or arias. Money spent on high-calibre pianists is always money well spent...


  1. YES! I have a very precious list of pianists in various cities. These are people who are not only marvelous technical players, but who know how to listen, and just as importantly, who act as my own personal cheering squads right when I need it the most.

  2. Knowing pianists of high quality in whatever cities you may be in is important. I have had the misfortune to sing concerts with organizations who should know better where, for example - I sang an opera concert and the pianist provided was a Broadway pianist (this in NYC). They should have known. I have also been privileged (at the exact same conference) of having a FABULOUS pianist work with me during a masterclass - I made sure to get his card & he's now in my database. If I don't know pianists, I have pianists/coaches who I trust (like Chris Foley and Susan Eichhorn Young!) who I will not hesitate to ask for recommendations. If you go into an audition without knowing anything about the pianist, you may jsut get an excellent pianist - but one who knows the Broadway rep & not Opera, and therefore is a liability to your presentation.

  3. Anonymous1:44 AM

    i've played a lots of music, but i haven't played it all. repertoire, in my experience, is regional, and a pianist who knows many of the standard arias used in one area of the country may not know as high of a percentage in another. the same is probably true of pianists who work primarily with certain age groups (college, young artist, regional companies, A houses, etc). as you mention, when one begins to traverse genres (opera, musical theater, pop, etc) unknowns more quickly arise. some folks successfully have a foot in many areas, though.

    i don't like the idea of being pigeon-holed into one genre, even if it is a practical reality that we all have more experience in some ways than others. how would one ever gain new experience, then? those "bad" pianists might be your new best collaborators with a few years of experience, if we aren't too unwelcoming of them as they peek into this profession.

    i've had singer friends tell me a pianist played terribly for them, yet they still won the audition. like any pianist who has worked for years, i've played both well and poorly for others who have won or lost auditions. there never seemed to be much correlation between MY performance and the resulting decision. i don't mean to say that having a bad accompaniment is acceptable or that it isn't unnerving for the collaborators. just that the win or loss is probably more about the singer and how s/he handles that moment. i have to keep my cool through plenty of poorly marked cuts and chopped off photocopies.

    while i would agree with you that bringing your own pianist ensures the best audition, some singers i work with PREFER to use the pianist on call. i would say more often than the trumpeted horror stories like this, THINGS GO FINE. even if not, some singers like the chance to rise above the possibility of a bad accompaniment. one singer i know thinks that shows the strongest audition. and, if you bring a really good pianist along, there is always the embarrassing possibility that the interview could suddenly turn into one for him or her and not for you! awkward, but it happens to good pianists!

    using the on-call pianist can also blow up in your face. if you are taking a really hard and unknown piece to an audition: THAT IS A RECIPE FOR DISASTER. it's nice to think that you can sing anything you want anytime, anywhere, but singers should also size up the situation and be realistic. if your pianist friends can't sight-read it cold, don't expect that someone else can! the "standard rep" envelope is bigger than ever.

    and i don't mean to get pianists out of the target area, either. i had the most uncomfortable situation recently when a singer called me to play for an audition. her regular pianist who had prepped her was unavailable the day of. i noticed in our one rehearsal before the audition that she was mis-pronouncing about six words in the aria. SIX. when i asked her about them, it turns out her regular coach had said nothing. the circumstance really changed my perspective of my friend. we can all miss things, sure, but at some point it's clear that the pianist is just not listening to his/her partner. unfortunately, that can happen whether the pianist is cheap or professional. that's the sort of thing people ought to be railing against, i think, rather than these practically cliche sight-reading audition mishaps.

  4. Michael9:19 AM

    Hm, I'd hate to be considered a "cheap pianist". For those of us without much experience yet, how can we avoid this? How do we know how good our sight-reading skills are? How about a step-by-step guide to becoming a great collaborative pianist?

  5. I agree with anonymous that the responsibility lies with the singer! I have had my share of horror-story accompanists at auditions (including the one at Julliard where she started to call out "i can't play this.." while playing the postlude to a Poulenc bad, should have brought my own BUT...seiously!) That being said, I have nailed auditions with someone having never laid eyes on them before!

    Ultimately the SINGER needs to be better prepared musically to move along a tempo or indicate what their needs are.

    And if you are a pianist who can't sight read ANYTHING then don't take those jobs!

  6. Thanks for the great comments everybody!

    Michael, I was once a "cheap" pianist learning the ropes. I made my mistakes and learned from them. Alas, there is no other way to become a fine audition pianist than being thrown into the fray and trying to swim.

    As for a step-by-step guide to becoming a great collaborative pianist:

    I can't presume to have a catch-all solution, since every single student is unique and has their own needs. However, I do endeavor to assist people in their quest by giving them access to educational websites and proram resources. With the occasional how-to post thrown in...

  7. Chris - well said. This is *exactly* how I feel about photography. As a publicist, I can't tell you how many awful pics I've seen slide across my desk (back then) or hit my inbox (email, now). I've seen more average or bad photos than good, unfortunately. That's why I get borderline hard-ass when I explain the value of good photography for musicians ( If I didn't know this for FACT, I wouldn't harp about it endlessly in the PR chats I give to classes. Unprofessional photos are a waste of time and money, as they simply won't be used. Your posts are great - keep 'em coming.