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Collaborative Pianists

March 7 2007 at 10:36 PM
Restless  (Login tm4soprano)
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Having had some interesting experiences lately, I am wondering what your thoughts are. What makes a good collaborative pianist? A bad one? What may help or hinder communication between yourself and a collaborative pianist? Any other thoughts?

 
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Jeffrey Snider
(Login snide76258)

This will be long...

March 7 2007, 11:24 PM 

Since I deal with the good, the great, and the terrible on a pretty daily basis, here are my thoughts:

What is absolutely required:

Play the damn piano.
Be able to read.
Be able to follow.
Have a brain and have your own ideas.
Know what NOT to play, especially in reductions.

What is very nice: (At the pro level, these are required as well, but I deal with student pianists a lot.)

An understanding of style, including ornamentation.
A sensitivity to breathing.
An ability to improvise where appropriate (like Baroque and Broadway.)

What is amazing:

Making every prelude and postlude a great musical experience.
Helping put together a recital.
Understanding basics of vocal technique so you can help the singer if he or she is having problems.


Fortunately I get to work with people who can do all of these, and more. Our retired vocal coach, the AMAZING Harold Heiberg, tells pianists that there are "Three b's of playing with singers":

BE with the singer
BREATHE with the singer
Provide the BASS LINE for the singer

It is amazing how many very gifted pianists can't do these things!


 
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JennieJ
(Login JennieJ)
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Well, I think being a "team-player" is an different animal than simply being good...

March 7 2007, 11:49 PM 

Being able to work with another musician requires a certain type of personality when you are talking about a trully collabrative project. It is one thing to be able to do what sounds pretty on your own, but an entirely different thing to be able to enhance another musician's performance. I don't think of a true "accompanist" when I think of a collabrative pianist. I think of a more instrumental use of the voice, so that it is truly a duet between 2 instruments. I'm at a loss for an appropriate example, but I hope that's kinda clear.
Oddly enough, I don't think a pianist needs to know everything about the rep to collaborate as they would as an accompanist. Maybe I am mis-understanding, but collaboration makes me think creative, which makes me think new music for which you are creating a "style". I love the idea of getting together with a pianist in this way, rather than the feeling of "teacher-student" that can often be there with a pianist that also coaches. Does that make sense? I dunno, it's late. I need sleep. Don't really know why I posted, but there ya go.

 
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Saustal
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Thank you, Jeffrey Snider

March 7 2007, 11:36 PM 

Absolutely most important NUMBER ONE:

Play the piano well. Like, really, really well. Translation: have excellent musicianship skills and high level of technical skill.

I cannot tell you the number of (albeit young) pianists I have worked with who, when I have missed an entrance, have launched into some kind of lecture about "feeling the entrance" or "breathing the mood," and all I could think was "play all four beats in the previous bar, and I will have no trouble with my entrance!!"

Honestly, I have given up altogether working with several pianists I know, and now, always, for everything, hire more experienced musicians than myself. I would even rather work with a good solo player who has zero collaborative experience who is a an all-around good musician than work with a self-acclaimed coach who is so concerned with pandering to "uninformed singers" that they no longer can effectively play the music in front of them.

Saustal

-Ha ha ho ho and hee hee.

 
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engelein
(Login engelein)
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if you have to sacrifice one of pitch or rhythm...

March 8 2007, 12:33 AM 

(as I realise may be the case when I throw something icky at you to sight-read) please sacrifice pitch

9/10 (or more, probably), if you miss a note pitch-wise I'll be just dandy, especially if this is not a new piece for me, but if you miss rhythms or major beats, I'm out very soon trying to figure out where you are in the measure.

That's probably just me But I'm getting better at coping with mis-rhythmical pianists.

Otherwise, I think Jeffrey's list is good. But then he has a great frame of reference in HH

Probably the above applies more to a pianist in an audition situation.

Under "collaborative pianist" I'd understand e.g. a pianist in a recital situation where the pianist and the singer have worked together on the program and rehearsed together, so that both of their thoughts and expertise have been brought to bare on music, interpretation and programming.

---------------------------------
"I'm going to milk it 'til I turn it into cheese" - Robbie Williams, Handsome man

 
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Saustal
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Sadly, no,

March 8 2007, 9:53 AM 

the above did not apply in an audition situation. There are pianists out there who, because they have an undergraduate degree in piano and took a semester of French, have decided that they are qualified to COACH advanced singers through advanced rep, probably so they can make a buck.

They do not have the aural, piano, language, repertoire, or musicianship skills to coach any level of singer, except perhaps the absolute most beginner, yet their egos do not allow them to consider ever working as equals with a singer in a collaborative process. It is sad, really, because the ideal relationship is one where both parties have ideas, can communicate them, try things out, etc., so that everyone learns from the experience. Somewhere along the line, it is being bred that singers are not capable or interested in this (both untrue), and my great fear is that a new generation of pianists who work at a much lower level will be coming of age soon. Frankly, this terrifies me because I fear it only contributes to the further dumbing-down of our profession, but that is for another thread.

I don't mean to sound like a big bitch about this, but I have experienced it and witnessed it with my friends and my students, and it is something I really get riled up about. This and the post office, apparently.

My solution: when given the opportunity, I always work with pianists who I know work at a higher level than I do. I find that I grow more in the experience, their egos are healthy, and we usually have fun, too, scanDAL, I know. Fun? Unheard of.

Again, kudos to Jeffrey Snider. His list is right on.

Saustal

-Ha ha ho ho and hee hee.

Edited because rants should be grammatically correct.


    
This message has been edited by Saustal on Mar 8, 2007 9:56 AM


 
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Shrill
(Login freakishlyhighsoprano)
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the "dictation" thing really annoys me too

March 8 2007, 10:04 AM 

A lot of pianists do seem to assume that all singers are simply bad musicians and therefore should have everything dictated to them: musical style/ interpretation etc. and can't actually say anything that contributes.

The good collaborative pianists (and coaches for that matter), realize that singing is just very different than playing: for instance getting a note isn't always that simple. And they will say "hmmm..she didn't get that note, I wonder why: let's figure this out together" rather than "hmm, she didn't get that note: she must suck".

Shrill

 
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-lyger-
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hmmm

March 8 2007, 10:45 AM 

"It is sad, really, because the ideal relationship is one where both parties have ideas, can communicate them, try things out, etc., so that everyone learns from the experience. Somewhere along the line, it is being bred that singers are not capable or interested in this (both untrue), and my great fear is that a new generation of pianists who work at a much lower level will be coming of age soon."

I hate to rain on your tirade but I've worked with a LOT of singers who weren't interested in (or capable of)collaboration or taking feedback. There simply are a lot of really stupid singers out there dragging the name of your profession through the mud, just as many as there are hack pianists/coaches who give my profession a bad name too (and just for clarification, I'm not one of the aforementioned coaches with an undergrad piano degree and a semester of french. I kind of liked that, btw!)

I'm more curious about your fear about the new generation of up and coming pianists. On the one hand I do see your point - many of my colleagues get caught up playing too many auditions/recitals while never spending time in the practice room. I've been caught in that trap more times than I care to mention, and it's definitely part of the learning experience when one is transitioning from the solo world you've lived all 20+ years of your life to the world of singers and opera. Unfortunately many pianists, like you said, think that it's the way to go for easier money, without realizing what they're biting into.

On the other hand, I've heard a LOT of hack pianists who were well over the age of 30. I can't tell you how many pianists are hired faculty coaches at major universities who have STILL never learned to play the piano properly and who just never took the time to. Point being - I don't think the new generation is any worse off than the old one.

This is probably why the YAP audition requirements for pianists are... well... tough. It ain't your sing five arias kind of audition. It takes a LOT of time in the practice room and a really thorough dedication to the art. And each company requires different rep, (Houston, Merola) unless they require that you play and sing an entire opera (MET, Seattle).

I wouldn't go so far as to say that every pianist who goes through a program is worth their salt - but I would say that if you want to know by what standard to judge the new generation of pianists in training - look to the ones graduating from the YAPs.

-L-


    
This message has been edited by -lyger- on Mar 8, 2007 10:50 AM


 
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Saustal
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No rain at all,

March 8 2007, 11:24 AM 

I think you made some really good points. And it's not like I think all young pianists fall into the category I was ranting out. I think there are some really fine pianists out there, both solo- and collaboratively-minded, who I'd love to work with!

And I agree that there are lazy, uninterested singers. That is a certainty. There are bad singers, too, and snobby singers, and all kinds of singers worth ranting about.

However, here is the cycle I am witnessing, over and over, in the undergraduate setting (I am not an undergraduate):

Voice teachers who tell their students to get with a pianist to learn something. Student singers who then call up young student pianists to drag them through an assignment. Here's the result:

Young singers who think that they can't learn anything without a pianist, and indeed never even try, which then becomes a real self-fulfilling prophecy, and definitely is contributing in a major way to the dumbing-down of musicianship.

Young pianists who think that because they have slogged through some 24-Italian greatest hits helping said young singers learn the notes, that suddenly they have the ability to advise singers of all abilities, charging upwords of $40/hour for their "expertise," neglecting their own practice (as you mentioned) while feeding their own egos.

Ultimately what we get are snobby pianists with substandard skills and hopeless singers who can't read music.

What we don't get: a real sense of colleagues working together for a common goal, each contributing to each other's growth.

I know there are hack older pianists, too...My rant is more about what I see in education and the next generation of pianists than about the hacks out there now. I hear your point about the new generation being no worse than the old one, but that doesn't invalidate my argument. Why do we need to lower standards to the lowest common denominator? The standards are low enough as it is.

Expect, of course, for those pianist who are truly dedicated. I know that the pianists out there who are truly working to be good collaborators via doctoral programs and YAPs are working their asses off. I know about those requirements and they are majorly intense. And I appreciate their work and time, just as I hope that they can appreciate that not all singers are helpless morons who can't count or hear anything. Some of us have worked pretty hard, too.

Saustal

-Ha ha ho ho and hee hee.

 
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-lyger-
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NFCS Member

sad but true

March 10 2007, 7:42 PM 

The "dumbing-down" process/cycle you describe is sadly true - I work with both grads and undergrads - and I never truly knew the extent to which making undergrads spend time ALONE in the practice room was so like pulling teeth until I had this job.

Unfortunately there are so many hapless pianists out there for singers to use as their crutch - and so few teachers who know how to teach their students to learn music properly.

Don't worry, no across-the-board condemnation here - I've definitely worked with plenty of you who ARE good musicians and do put the time in to make a collaboration truly possible. Each time I do it reminds me of why I am in this profession.

-L-

 
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LaBonita
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NFCS Member

hmmm...interesting question.

March 8 2007, 10:45 AM 

personally i really really appreciate working with someone who actually PLAYS the rep. we as singers can't do this by ourselves. we need a pianist or orchestra or continuo or whatever...this is not the prelims of american idol.

i have a list of collaborative pianists who actually PLAY. they don't play the piano part of an opera aria like a mozart sonata in studio class - they play it like what it is - an orchestra reduction. the good ones can bring out all the orchestra colors and lines. sometimes this means knowing what to play and what to leave out. ultimately this makes you feel more supported while singing some of this very exposed music. to be honest there are a ton of very good pianists (at least in NYC) and only a handfull that actually play reductions well.

a collaborative pianist (one i'd use for auditions or recitals) is not necessarily a coach, although some of them are. they like to know what the singer is thinking, feeling, trying to convey. they have their own artistic views on the pieces, but do not necessarily DICTATE how something "should be done"...even good coaches don't do this. they "pursuade" you that their way is the right way - they don't dictate.

this is just my $.02...

-LaBonita




 
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HT
(Login Houndentenor)
NFCS "Time Out" Corner

We ask for a lot, don't we?

March 8 2007, 11:03 AM 


I'll admit it. I'm picky. I'm spoiled. When you have someone like Eric Malson, Rachelle Jonck or Curt Pajer playing for you, not only do you know that they will play well (an absolute minimum standard, IMO) but that they will feel the music with you and be WITH you, not ahead or behind. You can make music and they will respond. They can nudge you when you need it. And in a worst case scenario they will cover for you if you mess up. (Not that anything like that has happened to ME. :-D)

To expect all that from students is probably too much. They should be learning how to do it but like the singers they collaborate with they are not yet finished products. But in my experience every school has one or two who have the chops and also the willingness to play as an ensemble performer. And they are gold (and greatly in demand).

HT

"No person is your friend who demands your silence or denies your right to grow." - Alice Walker


 
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Carmina
(Login CarminaPirhana)
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"Accompanist" vs. "Collaborative Pianist"

March 9 2007, 8:21 PM 

"...not only do you know that they will play well (an absolute minimum standard, IMO) but that they will feel the music with you and be WITH you, not ahead or behind. You can make music and they will respond. They can nudge you when you need it. And in a worst case scenario they will cover for you if you mess up."

When I was in grad school, that WAS the definition of "accompanist". The term "collaborative pianist" has come into popular use rather recently, probably promoted by those who have degree(s) in Accompanying (as I do) but resented being treated like the hired help by folks who did not understand the role of an accompanist as well as HT does.

The technical and musical demands of an accompanist are different from that of a piano soloist:
1) we have to conceive the sound from the bottom up (the bass line, or harmonic support) instead of the top down (the melody line)
2) we have to know EVERYONE ELSE'S repertoire
3) we have to play a lot of rep that was not originally written for the piano, and is therefore not idiomatic, so there are unique technical challenges
4) we have to have a wide range of tone colors available in our "palette", at our fingertips. Not that soloists don't, but they don't have to figure out how to achieve the right balance on a baroque double bass sonata.
5) we have to be familiar with listening to diction/languages if we play with singers, preferably having a working knowledge of the major modern languages.
6) we have to be able to read and follow a conductor, instead of making the conductor follow US (hee)

I love making music with other people, being involved in making music-theatre happen, learning from my musical colleagues, and being constantly amazed at the infinite ways composers can marry poetry/drama to music. And I figure if "Accompanist" was good enough for my prof, who was one of the first to establish a grad accomp. program, then it's good enough for me. So I don't see a difference between "accompanist" and "collaborative pianist".

Carmina

"I never heard a singer sing better as a result of being yelled at."
--Theo Lindenbaum

 
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Jeffrey Snider
(Login snide76258)

My take on this...

March 9 2007, 9:37 PM 

And we are going through this at UNT, where our "Related Field" (minor) is being changed from "Accompanying" to "Collaborative Piano."

When I first heard the term "collaborative piano" several years ago, I assumed it was being used to include other "collaborations" for pianists, such as chamber music and orchestral work. I believe there is also an element of "political correctness" as well, like saying "administrative assistants" not "secretaries." (Funny, the PAY didn't change, did it? I love mine, btw, as those of you who know me know!)

Gerald Moore wrote a book "The Unashamed Accompanist" many years ago. It is still a classic on the topic. There has always been this sense (erroneous, in my opinion) that only "lesser" pianists accompany. Of course this is utter nonsense. Collaborating requires additional skills, knowledge, and sensitivity.

What I am seeing, though, is fewer and fewer pianists who are PASSIONATE about collaborating. I knew Eric Malson at Indiana, and he was one of several pianists who were absolutely committed to accompanying, especially opera. Now I see hardly any. Many of the pianists who accompany (or "collaborate") tend to do so only grudgingly, as if it were somehow beneath them. Yet most are still choosing "collaborative piano" as their "Related Field", in part because they think it will help them get teaching jobs.

Despite our reputation for having big egos, singers are by nature "team players". We are always working with someone else: a conductor and orchestra, a pianist, other singers, etc. Pianists not so. They grow up playing by themselves for the most part. Collaboration often comes relatively late in their development. (I am not making this up. Pianists have told me this.)

Of course, different repertoires require different kinds of collaboration. I can also tell you, the ability to follow a singer is NOT the same as being able to follow a conductor! (One you do with your ears, the other with your eyes!) Lieder, melodie, and other art song genres are truly "chamber music" and need that same kind of "give and take".

As I said in the earlier post, I have been fortunate enough to be able to work with amazing collaborative pianists, and I am able to do so still.
Good ones are worth their weight in gold, believe me! I have some who have really "saved my bacon" on several occasions! (And they remind me of that from time to time!)

 
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HT
(Login Houndentenor)
NFCS "Time Out" Corner

Re: My take on this...

March 10 2007, 11:32 AM 


None of my singer friends take the work of our pianist colleagues lightly. But then I am selective about who my friends are. I think we also have all dealt with enough hacks that when we meet up with true artist of the keyboard we are more than appreciateve.

My experience in grad school was that the piano majors looked upon accompanying as a chore done to earn money. They almost all felt it beneath them to have to do this. Never mind that there was no place in that town where they could have earned $20 an hour doing anything else! But it was an attitude from the faculty for the most part.

And here's the irony. Just as there is a presumption that anyone who is going to have a career as an opera singer will be on that track by 30, pianists and violinists are expected to have won a major competition and be on there way by about 20 or so. Many are on their way earlier. Grad students in piano performance are not likely to make a career as soloists. They might get some gigs here or there and I suppose there have been exceptions. But at that point you would think they would be exploring the other options of making music as a pianist.

So my grad school experience with pianists was like Dr. Snider's. Pianists condescending to have to do this work with only a few putting any more than a minimal effort into it. There was one who was planning to do a doctorate in Accompanying and not only was she excellent but she was willing to do the extra work to make a recital an event. Her second master's recital was all chamber music and song rep in collaboration with other grad students and a few faculty members. It was the recital event of that school year. (The Poulenc music for woodwinds and piano was amazing and of course the Berg Sieben Fruhe Lieder are remarkable.)

Not that this attitude among pianists that accompanying was beneath them was any more absurd than the voice majors who thought they shouldn't have to take vocal ped (because of course they were never going to need to do anything but sing since they were going straight to the Met LOL). But it also belies an attitude among some music faculty who have no realistic idea of what kinds of skills will come in handy in the real world so that their students can some day earn a living. I wonder if they ever come down from their ivory tower?

HT

"No person is your friend who demands your silence or denies your right to grow." - Alice Walker


 
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canabass
(Login canabass)
NFCS Member

Take a look at this

March 10 2007, 10:16 AM 

http://collaborativepiano.blogspot.com/>

Especially the sidebar: On site resources
the link
http://collaborativepiano.blogspot.com/2005/11/required-and-preferred-skills-for.html is right on topic with this and quite extensive.

It's put together by one of the best collaborative pianists in Canada, who's also a great guy to work with.



Courtesy of www.overheardinnewyork.com :

Opera singer #1: So you gave up the rodeo to join the opera?
Opera singer #2: Yeah.

--Band shell, Central Park


    
This message has been edited by canabass on Mar 10, 2007 10:17 AM


 
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MyAntonia
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NFCS Member

Some of this is term inflation

March 10 2007, 11:07 AM 

Like repetiteur vs. coach. Seems these days anyone who can play and has worked with some singers (at whatever level) hangs out a shingle as a "coach." Reptititeurs (a real job!) seems not to exist anymore, at least not by that title.

Same with Administrative Assistant. That actually used to be a different job than Secretary. Now anybody who answers phones and types for someone has to be called an Administrative Assistant, as "secretary" somehow became demeaning. I do a lot of legal and other high-level work that requires a lot of knowledge and judgment (for a VP), but I get a very similar title (and not much more money) than the assistant who types and merges the letters for the sales department.

And while I definitely work for my VP and he calls all the shots, I also collaborate with him. He asks for and relies on my knowlege and judgment. If he had an assistant at the level of what used to be called a secretary, his job would be a lot harder. Because of my knowlege and skills, I keep a lot of potential problems from ever requiring my VP's attention (and he knows that...I have a great boss!). But because people with "secretary" level skills are now "assistants," I'm often seen as the hired help by anybody who isn't an "admin" (a term I usually hear said in a condescending tone).

I don't mean to disparage secretaries, or repetiteurs, or accompanists...quite the contrary. I do mean to point out that PC title inflation actually makes it harder for people on both sides of the equasion to know what they are or should be getting.

What we're looking for in an "accompanist" is a highly skilled person, not just a decent pianist. And a good one is worth his or her weight in gold! But somehow anyone who can play the piano has figured out that they can make some money playing for singers, and since the term repetiteur isn't really being used anymore, and the people with real skills in accompanying want to set themselves apart from the now-disparaging terms (rightly so!) and are looking at collaborative pianist or coach/accompanist to describe what they do.

This is my point: If I hire an accompanist, I want him or her to collaborate with me! Yes, I'm hiring her, I'm the soloist, I call the shots. But when I ask someone to play for me, to know the rep and styles, to follow me, cover for me, etc etc as other posters have described, THAT'S COLLABORATION. Of the highest order. *If an accompanist knows what I'm doing and makes expressive music with me and can cover my ass onstage, that to me is much more valuable than having suggested 50% of the program.*

We may be hiring these people, but we didn't hire them to wash dishes. If we (singers) go along with the title inflation without recognizing the good accompanists and calling out the ones without those skills, and if we don't acknowledge the amazing (and often invisible!) collaborative skills these people have, then we're part of the problem!

Truth in labeling! And I HEART my amazing accompanist! I'm going to call and tell him so right now.

(I hope I corrected all my typos...)


    
This message has been edited by MyAntonia on Mar 10, 2007 11:24 AM


 
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toosoft
(Login oakvillain)
NFCS Member

term inflation?

March 10 2007, 3:45 PM 

I disagree with the view that "collaborative piano" is title inflation or any kind of pc term. The original intent of this term, as introduced by Samuel Sanders in the mid-80's, was to rename the work of pianists that worked with others so as to imply artistry and partnership rather than service industry.

Since then, proponents of the collaborative piano movement have worked tirelessly to treat the term "accompanist" as either an archaism or 4-letter word, and to in fact rename the entire field, reflecting the fact that pianists who have chosen to work with other musicians in their field also have continuing interests in related fields such as chamber muic, pedagogy, administration, or technology.

In reality, I don't think that the true definition of Collaborative Piano (for two examples, check out the UC Boulder site and the Collaborative Piano Blog) has been written yet. For someone to say that it is a pc term for accompanists or a deluxe brand of accompanist is to simplify the goals of a field that is growing in both size, interests, and financial viability.

 
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Radamaxifal
(Login Radamaxifal)
NFCS Member

If we collaborate can I pay less?

March 10 2007, 4:02 PM 

Do the fees go down in proportion to the degree of the pianist's artistic involvement in programming and interpretation?

Just kidding. Ha ha.

R.

 
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MyAntonia
(Login MyAntonia)
NFCS Member

But that is largely my point.

March 10 2007, 5:03 PM 

What you've said here is hardly different than what I've said. An artistic between musicians became soloist and hired help, so new terminology was created to reflect the skills, and the old terminology, while still used, lost its value.

I don't think accompanying is inherently different from other types of collaborative playing, like chamber music. But what about the other things--does the title pianist or accompanist mean you don't have teaching or administrative skills, but a collaborative pianist does? Is there a difference in training, other than you would likely study more chamber music? I guess I don't understand.

But let's put Radimaxifal in charge of PR for both collaborative pianists and accompanists. Maybe I have no sense of humor, but I don't understand the joke or why it might be funny. I mean, sure, let's pay skilled people less for more work. I know that always goes over well with singers...

 
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