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Adventures with Accompanists: Finding the Collaborative Pianist

My violin teacher always found a pianist for me whenever I played a recital, contest, or master class. His wife was a piano professor at the University of Cincinnati College Conservatory of Music and taught accompanying, so she supplied him with gifted pianists. I did not fully appreciate this until the seventh grade, when I had one of the music teachers in my school accompany me on one of the Rode concertos. She pounded out the beat for me, as if I had not learned the piece yet, and I felt that I had to alter the counting and phrasing that I had already learned from my teacher just to please her.

On one of my high school’s talent shows, a middle school violinist performed one of the Seitz Violin concerto movements while her mom played the piano. The girl had a memory slip and brief pause, but she quickly recovered and continued performing her solo. Her mom, on the other hand, was completely lost, and as she frantically flipped the pages back and forth, she shouted over and over, “Stop, Alice, stop!” Because of this I am wary when a parent or sibling wants to accompany one of my students, as it is not always the best option.

My high school was so small that we could not support an orchestra program, so we would put on talent shows or simply play during morning assemblies. During one of these assemblies, I performed a show piece by Wieniawski, and my English teacher, who was a fine pianist, played for me. He had copied out the entire part to spread across the piano so that there would only be one page turn. At the moment of that turn, the entire assemblage of taped pages cascaded onto the floor. I think he finally got back to playing with me a few measures from the end of the piece.

After a few rocky experiences with unknown pianists at Solo & Ensemble contests, it became clear to me that one could be a good pianist but not necessarily a good accompanist. I started playing for my own students, at least at junior high contests, so that, even if I missed notes, they were comfortable with my playing. I am not a very good pianist, but I can accompany. I used to look for pianists who played violin just to be sure they knew some of the repertoire.

When I joined MTNA and met many more pianists and teachers, I discovered that the preferred term is collaborative pianist, not accompanist. This is an exact description of the task, since there has to be communication about how the piece is to be performed. If I know the pianist is listening to my students and not just playing the notes, I have confidence that they will be able to stay with them at a moment of crisis and not have to resort to “Stop, Alice, stop!” They can be receptive to the student’s choice of tempo and their possible technical limitations, and not just tell them they are playing out of tune, and that they respect the work done already between the teacher and student.

A good sign that you have chosen the right pianist is when they keep reminding you to give them the music ahead of time, not just to know what it looks like, but to actually study it. I treasure the skills of my collaborative pianist friends whom I have come to rely on for my studio needs.

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