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  • Writer's pictureDavid G. Miller

Beyond Accompaniment

For some time, I and others working in my field have noticed that many of the music-loving public, and even fellow professionals, have an indifferent, if not dismissive, attitude towards the true role of piano accompaniment. We accompanists are a little tired of hearing adjectives like considerate”, “sensitiveand accommodating applied to us.


In 1916, English accompanist and piano teacher Algernon H. Lindo published what is perhaps the first serious treatise on piano accompaniment. In it, he suggests that “There is no branch of the art of music about which so little is known as the art of accompaniment. There is a general idea that an accompanist is a pianist who cannot play solos.” The renowned British pianist Gerald Moore wrote in 1944, “I do not feel ashamed to call myself an accompanist, and yet to many the title is a brand signifying that the owner is of a slightly inferior cast”. At the end of his farewell recital, Moore indicated that he was well aware of the public’s perception of the accompanist’s status by announcing, “Ladies and Gentlemen. I’m afraid I haven’t acted tonight in the modest way which is traditional for the accompanist. In fact, from time to time, I’ve had to ask myself ‘am I too loud’”. He even used this phrase for his autobiography, in which he reports that Dutch pianist Conraad Bos (considered by Moore “the doyen of accompanists in his day”) told him that a singer he had just performed with once commented “you must have played well today, I did not notice you”.


During my long career, I have compiled a list of comments from students and colleagues, titled “Can’t you just follow me”, including many that indicate a similar attitude. The Danish-American musical satirist Victor Borge has also offered some wonderfully perceptive and entertaining commentary on the relationship between singer and pianist in two classic performances: Hands Off and Just Follow Me.


Perhaps the problem is partly due to the word “accompaniment”? Lindo agrees: “Perhaps it is the word “accompany” that is to blame, there is a look of humility about it”. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the verb “to accompany” is derived from old French (from Latin): acompaignier, literally: “in relation to a bread fellow (companion)”. Later, the meaning evolved to include “take care of”, “go with” (in the sense of to be compatible), “guide”, “escort” and “support”. Therefore, “accompanist” implies a secondary position in a musical context – playing for a partner.


But in music written for piano with instrument or voice, any question as to the relative importance of the two performers is surely out of our hands. For centuries, composers have made this clear – it is not our decision; they have decided for us. When composers produce a piece of music for two performers, they intend it to be for partners who will work together on the interpretation and performance of the score. The composer expects to have two musicians who can play different roles as and when the score indicates, taking the lead or responding to their partner as appropriate. To “lead” or “accompany” as the score demands – an equal partnership in the service of the music.


In the best duo repertoire, the manner in which the composer intended the singer or instrumentalist to interpret the music is indicated in the piano part, often in considerable detail. The composer chooses a particular role for the pianist for a reason. We must demonstrate why composers wrote what they did and then it is our responsibility to reveal this. In instrumental duos, the pianist and their partner frequently alternate the roles of soloist and accompanist (less so in vocal repertoire). In fact, instrumental duos may actually involve three distinct lines of music, if one takes into account that the pianist’s has two hands. Each of these three lines of music may have a completely different role to play in the interpretation of the score and this must be understood by both performers. The piano part in a duo relationship must respond to the partner’s line but will also inform that line, being or perhaps providing the initial indication of how the composer intended this line to be played or sung.


I believe the partnership is evident in what the composer has written. In some cases, pianists will find they actually need to teach the piano part to their partner. The singer or instrumentalist needs to know their pianist’s role in revealing the harmonic progression (particularly in the bass line), the variety of rhythmic figures, texture and colour, dynamic contrasts, tempo fluctuations, melodic phrasing, structural awareness, dynamic balance and contrast, etc. In addition, with singers, there are issues regarding musical motives, word painting and the pronunciation of the text. All this information is provided by the composer in the piano part, to instruct the singer or instrumentalist on how to interpret the music. Both parties must be responsible for the final product. If either does not rise to the challenge, the whole will be unsatisfactory.


No matter how simple the piano part might appear, it can be challenging. An excellent keyboard technique is only the first step – there is no such thing as “just an accompaniment”. A good, even a brilliant, pianist may not necessarily be a good ensemble pianist. The job requires extended skills perhaps unfamiliar to a “solo” performer. With piano accompaniments that appear to be simplistic and uninspiring, pianists must rise to the challenge of supporting their partners to the best of their ability. Inadequate or unsympathetic pianists can easily destroy a performance, either by letting their partner down or by attempting to dominate them. Unfortunately, the opposite can also be the case when “the soloist” attempts to run the show. When Beethoven described his string sonatas as sonatas for piano and violin, or piano and cello, he made it clear that his intentions were that the performers should work together in an atmosphere of mutual respect and understanding.


Therefore, any argument about the lesser importance of the pianist is irrelevant. “Collaborative Pianist” (to collaborate: Latin. col = “with”, labore = “work”) defines our role much more accurately, confirming that we actually play the piano, and with – not for – our partner.


The term “collaborative piano” is accepted by many major tertiary education institutions around the world as a legitimate field of study at undergraduate and graduate level. For example, the Royal College of Music in London offers postgraduate study in collaborative piano, which encompasses chamber music, conducting, vocal coaching, orchestral piano, ballet piano, musical theatre piano, harpsichord, continuo and repetiteur. At the Julliard in New York, young pianists can complete a Doctor of Musical Arts in Collaborative Piano, preparing them for “a wide range of disciplines” and providing them with “the potential for pursuing high level performance, scholarly and teaching careers”. The Freiburg University of Music provides both a Bachelor and Master of Music in “Korrepetition / Collaborative Piano” and Sydney Conservatorium of Music has now changed the name of its accompaniment department to Collaborative Piano.


I believe it is important that potential collaborating pianists are identified and trained from an early age if the profession is to prosper and reach its full potential. Many of my colleagues speak of early exposure to the piano duet repertoire, or working with the school choir and fellow students, as inspiration for a career in collaborative piano. There is an enormous amount of work out there for well-trained collaborative pianists. Are all Australia’s universities and conservatoriums keeping up with similar institutions on the international stage? Are piano teachers at last accepting that this is a viable and often very positive career option for some of their students?


In addition to the degree-based courses mentioned above, many collaborative piano educational opportunities are provided by Australia’s state-based accompanist guilds, various instrumental and vocal associations, public masterclasses, festivals and conferences, and some external programs at a tertiary level, not to mention the numerous similar events around the world.


When the role of the collaborative pianist is fully understood by the music business and concert-going public, and potential collaborative pianists are given the recognition and encouragement they deserve by those working in music education, the inspired complexity and subtlety created by composers within collaborative repertoire can be realised and brought to life. An audience’s experience of this dynamic interplay between two mutually respectful musicians on stage greatly enriches their appreciation and enjoyment of the performance. Rohan de Silva, long-time pianist with violinist Itzhak Perlman relates, “Once they billed me as Mr Perlman’s accompanist. I said ‘No, no, no ,no ,no! Either pianist or collaborative artist’. You’ve got to make them learn”.



Lindo, A. H. 1916, The Art of Accompanying, Winthrop Rogers, London UK.

Gerald Moore 1944, The Unashamed Accompanist, Ascherberg, Hopwood and Crew, London UK.

Gerald Moore 1962, Am I Too Loud, Memoirs of an Accompanist, Hamish Hamilton, London UK.


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1 comentario

01 abr

Excellent reflection on the role of the collaborative pianist. I think some pianists could be more assertive in their part of the duo in interpreting the music. As singers, our focus is often on technical aspects of our vocal line. We need to expect and accept more input from our pianist in interpreting the music, from their viewpoint, to produce a true collaborative performance of the composers wishes. Peter Gilkes

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