Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Open Comment Thread: Should Freelance Collaborative Pianists Be Regulated in Universities?

I've received a number of emails over the last while regarding initiatives at several universities to regulate the activities and business practices of freelance collaborative pianists who work there. Some of the issues at stake include:
  • the right of universities to determine who is allowed to freelance in a school of music
  • caps on maximum hourly rates and flat fees
  • types of services which can and cannot be billed
  • the right of collaborative pianists to determine contractual terms, such as billing for missed coachings
The perceived rights of freelance collaborative pianists to work on a self-employed basis at universities which cannot provide staff accompanying services for all their students can be a contentious issue, and I can think of several arguments both for and against granting pianists a free market in the college setting:

  • having a freelance pianist market can literally save schools of music hundreds of thousands of dollars per year in accompanying fees and staff pianist positions
  • excessive control of pianists by university administration is not always in the best interest of maintaining a high artistic standard at the school
  • students might not wish to work with pianists mandated by the university
  • pianists should be allowed to charge fairly for their work, and will go elsewhere if this right is denied
  • freelance pianists work on the property of public and private institutions, whose administrators have every legal right to manage labor standards, and whose departments and faculty have every right to manage academic standards
  • freelance work by piano students on student visas may jeopardize their legal situation vis-à-vis allowable employment
  • non-student freelance pianists might not be working legally in the country, and liability for any immigration laws being broken may lie with the institution who allows them to work there
  • students need to be protected against unscrupulous billing practices by pianists, especially at peak times of the academic year
Your comments on the subject are welcome. I also respect your right to post anonymously. Just remember that if you comment on this subject on Facebook, your views will most certainly not be anonymous, since people on both sides of this issue have a stake in the outcome and may very well be viewing the comments.


    1. Anonymous3:13 PM

      Since the universities provide the facilities, they can have impact on student-pianist relations. As of international students, let USCIS decide who can work what - that's what they are paid to do. This is not an academic problem.

    2. Thanks, anonymous. What makes the waters murky is a situation where pianists (who are often neither admin, faculty, nor students) are needed to rehearse and perform on a freelance basis in an academic situation where it is perhaps beyond the purview of academic governing bodies to dictate policy on a labor issue.

    3. Anonymous9:32 AM

      I went to a university without any staff accompanists. However, we did have a "coordinator" of accompanying who managed the list of freelancers and teachers (who technically did their accompanying work freelance). In my first year, there were a number of freelancers who basically worked full time: 9-5 every day playing for lessons and rehearsals. However, as the years went on, the availability of freelance accompanists became less, and there were barely enough for the school to function. Thus, some burden was put on students (all undergrads, mind you) to accompany a good amount of people, because all of the "professional" freelancers would say no once they became too busy. It became a very tender balancing act because of the lack of supervision of accompanying in the school. As an addendum, the supervision for students in the school of music handbook was that one may charge "10 dollars per hour before taking the accompanying class, and 12 dollars per hour after completing the accompanying class." That was laughable to me, even for a college freshman. I think it is most important that accompanying is regulated for the sake of the piano students at the school.

    4. Some pianists work around hourly rate caps, as there's nothing stopping pianists working for the minimum rate plus a barter item, such as an iTunes or Amazon gift card.

    5. Anonymous3:48 AM

      Collaborative pianists are professionals with a huge skill set...I have several degrees, work at a university as a faculty pianist and have more experience, knowledge, skill set than some of the instructors whose students I coach.
      This should be paid as a faculty position.
      In Europe at the music universities often every class has a faculty pianist who specializes in the rep. they play for, ie cello rep, or song or opera, or violin etc. and becomes a specialist. Each student gets a coaching per week with the pianist, and the pianist is at the lesson. I find such a system helpful....there is a team working with the students, a team likely on the same page...

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    7. Anonymous10:08 PM

      I am a graduate student, pursuing a collaborative piano degree. This also makes me an unofficial staff accompanist. I do about 15-20 hours a week of voice lessons and master classes playing at the university. I do all of this for $15/hour, which is the school's mandated fee for "student accompanists".

      Of course, I charge much more outside of the university for my services. I don't have an office, so I haul all of my music around with me everywhere. It can be exhausting. I also play in orchestra pits, and work as a coach/rehearsal accompanist on operas and musicals.

      As the talent level of student accompanists, freelance accompanists, and faculty vocal coaches varies GREATLY, I find that I have to turn a lot of people down, even though they are unhappy with their provided pianist.

      I think that if I were doing this full-time, I wouldn't be happy with anything LESS than a faculty with full-benefits position.

    8. I work as a collaborative pianist at a University that provides a great atmosphere for the freelancers. Professors are encouraging and respectful of the freelancers at large and the freelancers have a sub-community at the University.

      The University keeps an official, up-to-date accompanist list. Anyone on it can charge for their services, and they must go through the collaborative piano department and be interviewed to ensure they are qualified to work with students. Fees are set by the accompanist and not capped.

      It's always a tough call - I love playing piano but in Canada the performance work is very, very difficult to find. I am incredibly underpaid - works out to roughly minimum wage - but on the other hand I always have more work than I can handle. If I didn't have this, I wouldn't be performing anywhere else. Foreign students have been able to work as well, which I see as fine. Our school is always in need of good accompanists so anyone is more than welcome.