All in a Name Tag

Back in January, I attended the 2nd annual Online Music Business Summit, hosted by Garrett Hope. I had a great time, learned a tremendous amount, and came away with some very practical, implementable ideas on how to grow my career and business as a freelancing musician.

At a couple of points during the conference, we had a “speed networking” session, where we were randomly paired up with another attendee for five minutes and able to video chat in a private online room about what we do. Each of us had a caption of sorts for our profile that summarized our work. Mine said, “composer, collaborative pianist, teacher.”

To my surprise, about half the people I met with asked me what a collaborative pianist is.

Because of my name tag, I was able to explain this “new term” which has been around for at least twenty years, though I don’t remember hearing it in college. Back then, pianists who accompany were simply called “accompanists.” Now, in the days of updating all sorts of terms to make them more accurate, “accompanist” has become “collaborative pianist.” It is a much better term, for a couple of reasons.

First, collaborative pianists are often expected to be able to coach singers and other soloists. They may also help run rehearsals or sectionals. In a couple of the choruses I work with, the directors have even asked me for input regarding programming or troubleshooting difficult spots in pieces.

Second, the music the pianist plays is often more complicated than playing a single chord over and over again in the background (though some pieces are like that.) In some of the most complicated situations the pianist will play a score reduction of a concerto, in essence taking the place of the entire orchestra, while playing with a soloist. The piano part is absolutely integral to the piece, and the pianist is absolutely integral to the success of the performance.

Another reason I like the term is connected to the root word, collaborate. When I was five years old, I told my parents I would never be a concert pianist. What I meant was I didn’t want to be a soloist. I still don’t. I prefer playing with others, in all sorts of situations: choral or chamber groups, musical theater pits, or improvisational groups, etc. Making music together is what it’s all about.

When I was growing up, a pianist who wasn’t a soloist was just an accompanist. The piano riff on “those who can, do; those who can’t, teach” was “those who can are soloists; those who can’t are accompanists.” As if those pianists who aren’t soloists are only able to play at a level on par with those who barely passed their piano proficiency tests in college. This line of thinking doesn’t take into consideration pianists like me who don’t want to be soloists.

The term “collaborative pianist” elevates the work of a non-soloist pianist. It communicates a level of professionalism and musicality, as well as an appreciation for a skill set that goes beyond being able to plunk out the notes in time. It communicates that the collaborative pianist is part of the team, not just an add-on.

Being called an “accompanist” feels a bit like being the nameless “+1” on an invitation.

In explaining the term to the individuals I met at the conference, I was also able to share how this perspective affects my composing. When I write an art song, for example, the parts for both singer and pianist are intertwined. I like to think of them as two characters in dialogue. It is important to me that the piano be an equal voice, not just pushed to the periphery and told to be quiet and supportive. In my pieces, sometimes the “solo” instrument becomes the accompaniment, and the “accompaniment” becomes the prominent part.

I know that piano can easily overpower some instruments, so special care needs to be taken to give each instrument the necessary space to be heard well. How does one write an equal part for piano without it taking over? That is one of the problems for me to solve in a composition.

I recently spoke with a high school string orchestra preparing to premiere my piece Daughter of the Stars in Texas. I added a harp part to that piece back in December at the request of this ensemble. The harp players expressed gratitude for having a part that felt integral to the group. I explained that that came from my perspective as a pianist. Too often, the piano is only an “accompaniment” to string groups, playing the chords to fill out the sound or cover some missing (ie. more important) parts. If I don’t like that as a pianist, I know harpists, who often receive the same fate, don’t either. So, I purposefully gave them an independent part which added a special quality to the piece. (You can read about how I wrote the harp part here.)

I recently came across a competition for flute and piano to enter, and the pieces that were given as examples had repeated chords in the piano part all the way through the entire piece. Boring. I was so bothered by this that I emailed the competition organizer to ask if that was the style of piano part they were looking for. Thankfully, the answer was “no, the pianists will be professionals. You can write whatever you want.”

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