My passion is to help others in the community, young, old, and everyone in between, find relevance and joy in learning, performing or listening to classical music.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

The value and fun in being a sponge-like piano collaborator

There is a lot of value in being a piano collaborator. There are the obvious benefits of course...
  • there are a lot of different types of collaborating one can do
  • it's a decent way to make a living
  • it can be be done part-time or full-time
  • one can work either as a part of an institution or independently
  • it gives a pianist the feeling that he/she has some sort of social life
  • limitless repertoire
  • learning how to work with every type of personality
  • being able to perform without having to deal with the stress of memorizing music or being the center of attention
  • being able to help and support other musicians musically and emotionally
  • working with musicians of all ages and abilities, from the beginner to the professional
But there is one benefit not listed above that I love almost more than any other and that is the opportunity it gives a pianist to be a sponge. 

Image by Pascua Theus, from Wikipedia Commons
Yep, that's right, a sponge.  

Most piano collaborators spend a high percentage of their time in the studios of music teachers and professors.  Some lessons might be more interesting than others, but for the most part I think it's safe to say that if a pianist wants to, he or she can soak up a tremendous amount of information every time the situation involves a coach, teacher, or conductor.  I've learned a lot of really interesting things in such situations, from the basic mechanics of playing many different instruments to musical concepts.  Sometimes I even have somewhat of an out-of-body experience where I actually begin to feel like I could play the other instrument or sing if I wanted to.  If you catch me at the right moment after a voice lesson, you may even hear me vocalizing and trust me, I am not a singer!  I don't even sing in the shower for fear of embarrassing myself.  (It probably doesn't help that I'm married to an excellent singer!) But I almost can't help myself.  The experience of hearing all this fascinating information, which sometimes feels top-secret, of seeing and hearing immediate results, is exhilarating and slightly addictive. 

I've recently had one of these out-of-body, spongelike experiences.  These past few weeks have been filled with rehearsals and lessons in preparation for the local college students' juries.  Every year I seem to end up with a different mix of instrumentalists and singers.  This year I ended up playing for what seemed like an endless stream of flutists.  Now I happen to have a soft spot for the flute because I have loved listening to it all of my life; I even purchased a flute back when I was in high school and then again after I was married because I was so enamored with the flute sound.  This is a completely private experience for me...nobody gets to hear me play except for my tiny family and lovebird and trust me, there will probably never be any videos of me on YouTube.  But after sitting in lesson after lesson recently and after doing some very good impersonations of a sponge, I went home one day really feeling like I would be able to pull my flute out and actually be able to sound like something. I doubt there was any grand transformation when I did, but I do believe that I was able to apply much of what I had learned in those lessons to my own experience of playing the flute.  And that was fun.  It also added inestimable value to the job that I already get a lot of value from.  Can't ask for much more than that!

So piano collaborators, next time you're sitting in a lesson feeling a little bored, a little invisible, make like a sponge and start soaking up as much information as you possibly can.  You never know where it might take you!

Wait, can sponges even move?! Well, whatever.  I think you get my point!

Happy spongifying.


  1. Great post! I was a clarinet major but played piano for some vocal lessons and it was such a great experience. My last semester of college I squeezed in as much collaborative piano work as I could and learned a great deal about vocal work/diction, saxophone,!

  2. I'm so glad to hear from you, Alyssa! I just discovered you on twitter the other day, probably thanks to @EmilyCello. How could I pass up someone who would pick the name @BflatPenguin? Anyway, nice to meet you!

    I have so much admiration for people that play another instrument but also accompany, especially in busy, potentially stressful times, such as your last semester of college. I'm so glad you had a good experience and that you felt like you learned a lot. Sounds like you're a certifiable sponge as well ;-)

    I look forward to following you and hearing more! Thank you for reading and commenting here.

    Happy practicing.


  3. I have admiration & respect for all musicians who collaborate. I have never understood how anyone could make music with someone else. There. That is a confession. I never thought I would actually admit it. But reading your post, I kind of begin to understand.

  4. Wayne, I had never thought of the fact that I've never heard you talk about collaborating with others. Nothing wrong with not wanting to, or not feeling called to. It is a really different experience from solo playing and each has their place and purpose. I think for me the biggest appeal has to do with building a connection with other people. I'm a shy person in most social settings but place an instrument in front of me and that completely changes.

    Thank you for reading and for sharing your thoughts. It's great to see you here :-)


  5. Interesting, Wayne...Like Erica, I had never noticed that you never mentioned collaboration before in your tweets. It is a totally different experience from solo performance and one that I'm appreciating more and more the older I get. I love performing with musicians who bring out the best in me. Great post, Erica.

  6. Thank you, Catherine, for your comment and thanks, as always, for reading. "I love performing with musicians who bring out the best in me." I love that sentence especially. And it is so true for me though I had never thought about it that way before.


  7. Thank you for this wonderful post. I've been reading your writings since your "Accompanists as emissaries," and I always feel like, "how do you know what I am thinking?!?" I love serving as an accompanist for various levels/ages, sharing my love of music, and I agree with everything you listed in this post.

    I'd like to share the fact that I feel I became a better pianist and teacher, by sitting in the lessons as an accompanist. Part of the lessons may be instrument-specific, but other part is about music-making and performing, which can be applied to myself as a pianist. I learned about the importance of breathing through those lessons, too --- not many piano teachers teach about breathing when playing the piano, but that is to me the most important factor to make music "alive." Of course, that helps me become a better accompanist as well. :)

    In addition, since I am the third person in the lessons, I get to quietly observe how teachers teach to various types of students. Some teachers are fantastic to pull out the student's best musical ability, and I get to see the change/growth of students as a result of great instruction. Now I get some ideas to apply to my own teaching. Well, I don't teach much, but if I have a chance, I feel I can incooporate lots of those great ideas to help students grow as a better musician.

    Sorry for the lengthy of the comment, but I wanted to thank you for putting all your great thoughts in words. Thank you, and have a wonderful Christmas!

  8. Miho,
    I'm so glad you had so many wonderful thoughts and experiences to share - thank you! I especially love what you had to say about incorporating what you've learned about breathing into your piano playing. That is all so true, what you say, and yes, yes, yes, breathing is fundamental to all musicians!

    I hope you have a wonderful Christmas as well, Miho, and thank you again for reading and for your insight into your own experiences.

    Happy music-making!