A version of this article was published in The California Music Teacher Magazine, Vol 41, Fall 2017. It has been adapted for this publication with updates from the author.
I once saw a brilliant mock interview with Nick Canellakis and Emanuel Ax, who showed a wonderful sense of humor. Mr. Ax, in spite of his prolific and varied career as a soloist and recording artist, is introduced as nothing more than “the accompanist for Yo-Yo Ma.”
“Do you ever play the accompaniment parts alone?” asks Nick. “No,” replies Emanuel with a beautiful comeback, “you need those 5 or 6 notes from the cello.” [i]
I have pondered for many years just what it is that bothers me so much about the title “accompanist,” and I finally arrived at an answer. Simply put, an accompanist is someone who plays for someone else, perhaps in a lesson, audition, or rehearsal. Typically pianists prefer not to play for, but with others.
Why do these titles and names matter?
The answer is simple: if pianists believe their primary function is only to support the other performer and make him sound good, they are falling short in their responsibilities to the music itself. And by not serving the music, they are doing a disservice to their audiences, their partners onstage, and the composer. Pianists need to approach and perform this repertoire with a commitment and conviction that they bring to their solo repertoire.
Being More Than a Soloist
Historically, concert pianists were severely warned by their managers that once they agreed to play chamber music, that they would be forevermore branded as accompanists or chamber musicians, and their solo careers would be finished. In fact, many managers would drop artists from their rosters if they went down this path. One could not break the aura of being a soloist.
For many years, there was a stigma around accompanying—a term still widely used to encompass any kind of collaborative music making—that one pursues a career in accompanying if he isn’t good enough to be a soloist. Obviously, such an assertion is antiquated and preposterous.
In recent years, this categorizing and labeling have started to wane. With long-established soloists like Martha Argerich, Daniel Barenboim, and András Schiff agreeing to share the stage with other musicians, perceptions of these pianists’ roles have evolved.
Going Back to the Composers
In the world of art song, starting with Schubert, the pianist became an equal partner in the musical expression of the poetry to which the music was set. The pianist is no more an accompanist than the singer is; they accompany each other. Schumann further expanded the role of the piano and is well known for writing extended piano postludes to some of his songs, as in his famous song cycles Frauenliebe und Leben and Dichterliebe.
In the chamber sonata, the pianist is often the primary voice. One can look at any chamber sonata of Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms—or any Romantic composer—and see a pattern. Most of our celebrated composers were accomplished pianists themselves, and so it is natural that their writing for the piano became the foundation of the musical material.
There is a beloved story among pianists that after premiering Brahms’ own E Minor Cello Sonata, an audience member approached the composer and said, “Mr. Brahms, I had difficulty hearing the cello at times,” to which Brahms remarked, “what cello?”
The reality, though, is that musicians and aficionados often refer to chamber sonatas as the Mozart Violin Sonatas or Brahms Cello Sonatas. Unfortunately, by using this shorthand, the implications take root and gradually affect perception.
Chamber sonatas and art songs are also misunderstood by audiences. Part of it is psychological. As soon as one musician stands in front of the piano, it is natural for the eye to go to the person standing in front. I always admired Yo-Yo Ma in recital, because he positions his seat next to the pianist’s bench. This stage positioning encourages the audience to perceive the musicians as partners.
An audience’s misperception may not be due to the performers at all, but rather the presenters. Was this promoted as a “violin recital”? Did the poster include both performers’ names and photos? Too frequently the pianist’s name is not even mentioned.
Before we can expect our audiences to change, though, performers must understand their roles and perpetuate a sense of partnership and equality onstage and off.
So, what should the pianist do in a collaborative environment?
- Have conviction about the music and the way it should be performed, and don’t be afraid to share your ideas. The collaboration should be about serving the music, so if you have ideas for facilitating and improving the experience, speak up. Because you play from a full score, you have a broader picture of the music. This is probably the most important piece of advice. Simply being accommodating is not being a true partner.
- Ask your partner if there is any place where he needs more time to breathe in a phrase. Ask him if there are any places in the music where he could use more room dynamically.
- Have conviction about controlling your instrument. Educate the other musicians on what a raised piano lid does for the sound. If your partner gets nervous about a raised lid, ask if you could rehearse once with it open.
- Make sure you feel respected for your efforts. Don’t accept an engagement that puts you in a compromised position professionally. If your partner remembers only a week before the concert that there’s a piano part, walk away. Demand equal billing in promotion.
- Don’t wait for acknowledgment from your partner onstage. Stand up and bow with her.
- Be an active and enthusiastic participant in any pre-concert lecture. Audiences love learning more about the music and getting to know the performers. They will appreciate your performance much, much more.
What should string, vocal, and woodwind collaborators do?
- Come to the first rehearsal fully prepared. Know the piano part as well as your own, and understand how your melodic lines fit into the overall texture. Know when to make room for the pianist when they have the melodic line.
- Ask the pianist “What do you need from me?” This will be an unexpected, but welcome gesture. It immediately shows respect for and interest in the pianist’s burden.
- Be prepared that a pianist will often seek a slower tempo than you had conceived. One consideration in choosing a good tempo are all the voices the pianist must negotiate. Backing off the tempo a little might allow the inner voices to be heard clearly.
- Understand that a raised piano lid significantly increases the clarity of tone, not the volume, and this will improve your performance. If the pianist is shy and is conditioned to play with the lid at half-stick (or worse), ask him if he would mind raising the lid completely.
- Always refer to the pianist as a pianist, and encourage others to do the same. Instead of saying “my pianist,” say “my partner.”
- After the piece is over, give the pianist a handshake or hug onstage acknowledging the great experience of the musical journey you took together, and then bow together.
Ultimately, why do we have collaborative pianists, but not collaborative violinists? Are pianists the only musicians who collaborate? Warren Jones prefers the title “pianist” and points out, “We don’t think about, for example, whether someone is an opera soprano or recital baritone.” [ii]
One who sings is a singer; one who plays the violin is a violinist. Can we agree then that one who plays the piano is simply… a pianist?
When I take my bows after playing a huge sonata program with a violinist or cellist, and I see that most of the audience members’ eyes are on my partner, I can get disheartened and even feel invisible. And yet I keep pursuing these performances because this repertoire is among the most sublime in all the literature, and with the right partner, there are few musical experiences more gratifying.
It has been a over year since this article first came out in CMT Magazine. Have you seen anything change since then?
Something is changing gradually, but it takes a long time. Some folks wrote and thanked me for expressing thoughts and concerns that they have shared and experienced for years. I worked with a cellist last month who told me a story. He mentioned how he once played with a very fine “collaborative piano” major, but he found the experience most frustrating, because the pianist offered no ideas as to how the music should be performed, and expected the cellist to call all the shots. As a result the cellist didn’t really feel like it was a collaboration at all.
The tradition of being a loyal “accompanist” and the term itself came from opera singers early in the 20th century. Unfortunately some pianists carry these practices into their rehearsal and performance of instrumental music: sonatas, in particular. The collaborative pianists need to have conviction about the music they are playing, and share those ideas in rehearsal. Only then will a partnership truly form, and eventually something will change in musicians and audiences’ perceptions of the pianist’s role.
What have you been working on recently, and what lies ahead?
I just returned from Mexico where I played a Rachmaninoff Concerto. For the past few months I was touring nationally with a gifted violinist and singer, Lucia Micarelli. And in between those concerts I was playing chamber music concerts and solo recitals. The reality for most professional musicians is that we are involved in a variety of activities, and this is true for me too. I actually thrive on it as it keeps my creative energy moving in a positive way, getting to work on different projects with various people.
Over the next few months, I will be perform two Beethoven concertos with orchestras in California. In March I will fly to Denver to make a recording with a violinist. I will also play some solo recitals and present master classes around Los Angeles. Perhaps most exciting for me will be releasing my third duet album of improvisations and original compositions, Blue Landscapes III: Frontiers, with my musical partner and dear friend, Damjan Krajacic. We look forward to sharing this after the encouraging response of many glowing reviews and Global Music Award we earned from our second album, Blue Landscapes II: Discoveries.
[i] Nick Cannelakis, “Conversations with Nick Cannelakis: Emanuel Ax,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QKCpCzntriE.
[ii] Brian Wise, “Revenge of the Collaborative Pianist,” https://www.steinway.com/news/features/revenge-of-the-collaborative-pianists.