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.

Monday, November 7, 2011

The Accompanist's Anonymous Club (or maybe not so anonymous)

Image from Wikimedia Commons
I've blogged about this before and I'm going to blog about this again because I can't stop thinking about it.  

I am not afraid of the word. 

I am an accompanist.
And proud of it.  
Yes, sometimes I am a collaborator and when I am, I am proud of that role as well.  I love the discussion that can happen between myself and other musicians I'm working with - what does the composer mean here?  How can we make this transition work better?  What tempo feels right for this section?  And performing as a collaborator gives me a sense of even more freedom than usual when I perform.  I feel like I can let go and sing the music, seeking a wordless and magical level of communication with my colleagues in the moment.  

But there is also something so deeply satisfying about slipping into my accompanist role, stepping into a different set of shoes that enables me to sense who I'm playing with at a completely different level.  When I accompany I don't necessarily seek a lot of give-and-take with whomever I'm working with because sometimes the situation doesn't really call for it.  Perhaps I'm working with a 5 year old cellist who is performing for the first time in his or her entire life.  Or an autistic child that has a difficult time communicating in a very personal way but music brings him or her one step closer.  Or it could be someone that's been playing for a while but that is simply not as comfortable in a performance situation.  Then there are times like this morning, when I had 15 minutes to rehearse with a flutist I had never met before, playing a piece I had only received two weeks ago in preparation for playing it for James Galway in a masterclass.  This was a very skilled musician but we were working in a bit of an extreme situation.  In my mind, these simply aren't times to expect or seek much of a collaboration.  These are the times when I enjoy claiming my title as accompanist, as one who walks beside another as a companion. I strive to make such experiences as smooth, musical, and enjoyable as possible, constantly trying to sense whether or not a tempo is working for a performer, giving him or her room when I can tell they are struggling with nerves or with memory, nudging them musically when they seem to be losing steam or inspiration.  It's a very giving experience and one that gives me great pleasure, especially when I sense that my giving allows the person with whom I'm working to feel at ease and more likely to be positive about the performing experience.  It is a giving experience that pays me back in indescribable ways, and I'm not talking about money.  

I think there are some that might wonder why I continue to play for Suzuki book recitals - why I continue to "accompany" when I could be "collaborating" all the time.  It's simple, really.  I love being able to perform in situations in which I'm not nervous about the repertoire I'm having to play - it allows me to reconnect with my instrument and to enjoy making beautiful sounds within the context of doable music.  I love supporting and encouraging young musicians.  I love the look of gratitude and pride on parents' faces after hearing their little ones communicate in a brand new way.  I love it all, from beginning to end.  And every so often, when the accompanying turns into collaborating for a given musician at a given moment, it's the best of all possible worlds.  It's worth a whole lot more than money in my book. 

And it's a great honor.  

So yes, I am an accompanist and proud of it.  

Any questions?


  1. This post is so perfect for my day today! I've been accompanying for a vocal methods class this semester, and this week started their second round of singing. It's so cool to hear how these young musicians have improved and gotten more comfortable since their first performances. Also since most of them are non-vocalists (music ed/instrumental majors), it's very rewarding to be able to feel like I'm making their performances less stressful.

  2. I knew the accompanist for Stevenson School in Edinburgh. During a concert featuring several Sophomore and Freshmen vocalists as well as a few instrumentalist, I was amazed at the accompanist's performance. Each of these students prepared one piece, but she played 8 with second hand applause. The more the night progressed, the more I was impressed. Music styles varied from Mozart and very classical, to modern, edgy pieces with jazz influence. I rather got the impression there was nothing she couldn't handle.

    The result, even piece I try to write I think about what I'm asking of the accompanist. Not all of my compositions "feature" the accompanist, but some certainly are more a collaboration than a solo performance with a sidekick or henchmen. While I try to make the solo instrument (or voice) unique in the way I write, I try to also think of the person at the piano and what they'll have to go through to make the piece work.

    Never take an accompanist for granite. They make us all look better because of their talent!

  3. I hope it’s not too far off base for a conductor to comment. Some of the most satisfying moments in conducting come when working with top-notch soloists and musicians. When you can facilitate music-making between players in a way that is seamless and spontaneous, you’ve hit the sweet spot. With a soloist and orchestra, that means becoming an invisible guide, fully in tune with the soloist as they go ‘off leash.’ Great opera conductors have is skill; able to “accompany” the magical moments.

  4. Alyssa,
    So good to hear from you! And for some reason I had not fully connected the fact that you also play piano. Silly me :-) And I'm so glad it sounds like you too are a member of the Accompanists Anonymous really is the best place to be in my opinion. ;-) I'm glad you have the opportunity to play for the vocal methods class. I've done that several times now since my dear hubby teaches it and one of my favorite things about doing that is witnessing a student that is usually reserved and shy bust out when singing. So incredibly fun! Enjoy the rest of the semester - they're lucky to have someone that cares!!


  5. Hah, Chip! See, this is why I consider you such a good friend - how could I not, with you being so respectful of each and every musician and being so attuned to what we accompanists/collaborators are capable of. And your sensitivity is very evident in your composing. Thank you so much for that!

    All the best,

  6. Kim,
    Comments are always welcome, even from conductors! ;-) And I'm so glad you contributed your thoughts because it got me thinking a bit differently about your role as a conductor. I suppose because so often we think of conductors as having somewhat large egos (I think they have to perhaps) I hadn't ever thought of them as being a type of accompanist but I do think you're right - especially in a soloist/orchestra situation, it's your job to orchestrate the relationship between all those on stage.

    So Kim, if you'd like to join our club, you are more than welcome!

    Thank you for your comment and hope all is well with you.