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.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Too young to accompany?

© laufer -
For years I have been wondering about something.  Why is that I rarely hear about or see young pianists accompanying?  As someone that started accompanying at a very early age, around 8 years old, I find it hard to comprehend what my musical life would have been like and what it would be like today had I not been given the opportunities I had.  Learning to work with others and realizing how much I wanted to support them musically shaped who I am now and paved the way for me to be able to sustain a musical career wherever I find myself.  I wish I saw other young pianists being given the same opportunities and guidance.

I can understand the concerns people might have.  There isn't enough time in lessons or in life to coordinate getting together with another individual, to learn the music, and to rehearse.  Accompaniments are often too difficult for young pianists.  It would be too risky to trust a less-experienced pianist to adequately support another young musician and it might lead to a disaster at performance time.  Young pianists might not have the sensitivity that is necessary for collaborating with others.  They may not be good at sight-reading or playing without stopping when they make a mistake.  Their sense of rhythm might be weak...

Wait one second...

Lacking sensitivity to another musician, not being able to sight-read or play without stopping, not having a good sense of rhythm...It seems to me that all of these issues could actually be helped by putting them in a position where they have a tangible reason to fix them.  Pianists are so used to spending hour after hour, day after day, alone in their practice room.  It can get lonely!  And sometimes it can be a challenge to see why it is we are trying to fix certain issues, especially when it takes hard work to turn things around.  But when a musician starts playing with others, when others are depending on him or her, it can provide instant motivation to tackle weaknesses head-on.  Even better, it's fun and social!  

I think one fear folks might have is that young pianists aren't good enough to handle the repertoire.  My response?  That's silly!  There's a lot out there besides Franck, Hindemith, and Bozza, some of the composers that tend to make a collaborator groan, panic, or roll their eyes when it ends up on his or her docket.  How about the earliest Suzuki books?  The first two volumes of the cello series (and probably also the violin and viola series) are very accessible.  Since many of them are arrangements of piano pieces that appear in beginning piano method books, the accompaniment ends up being easier than the original since the cello takes the melody.  Why not start with those?  And for pieces that might be a little more difficult, with a little guidance a young pianist could learn how to artfully leave notes out - I like to think of it as arranging.  This is a skill that seems to be virtually nonexistent except among seasoned collaborators.  In this world where perfection is the norm, many might see my penchant for "arranging" as scandalous but I see it as survival.  (For more on this topic, feel free to read my post, "Confessions of a Piano Collaborator."  The comments are also well worth a read!)

As for the issue of time.  Yes, it does take time and energy to coordinate schedules and to make it possible for young pianists to dip their toes into the world of accompanying but it is so worth it! And so fun!  And so beneficial!  I also think most kids would enjoy the challenge and the social aspect of it.  As a parent I can tell you that seeing my child excited about something new is worth any extra amount of effort it might take to make it all happen.  

And now for the last part of my soapbox exposition...

I believe the world needs more good accompanists and collaborators, not necessarily to accompany other professionals, but to be out in the community, out in the real world, playing alongside amateurs and music students.  They are needed everywhere - in the city and in the country, in schools and in churches, in lessons, at name it.  Notice that I said the need is for good accompanists.  Experience and guidance to get a pianist to such a level should start when musicians are young and can more easily acquire the skills that are so valuable in the accompanying world.  Why wait?  It rarely gets easier.  And then if they continue on in their piano studies but decide that solo performing is not for them, or if they want to have a varied career as pianist, they already have some training under their belt.  Or should they choose to be a doctor, a stay-at-home parent, or a teacher, their accompanying skills could supplement their lives with social musical activities - playing with the church choir, playing for dance classes, accompanying local studios in town, playing with other amateurs.  What a wonderful way to enrich life for everyone involved!

© maxximmm -
You never know.  Kids that get exposed to the art of accompanying early on might fall in love with it as I did and find constant inspiration and motivation in doing it day after day, year after year.  I don't know if it's the same way in the big cities, but I can tell you that in smaller communities skilled accompanists and collaborators are always needed!  It's definitely not a lonely job and I promise you I am never, ever bored.  

So let's get out a hook and catch us some young accompanists, shall we?  You never know what we'll find.


  1. Preach on!! I teach flute and harp as well as piano, so my students are always gathering in groups, playing with and for each other. It's amazing how quickly they catch on - when to be a leader, when to follow - and how many other issues in their playing improve from the experience. Great post!

    1. Monika, what a unique situation you are in and how wonderful! Not only can your students perform with colleagues but to have such a variety of instrumentation, what a great opportunity for them. I'd love to be a fly on the wall of your studio!

      Thanks for reading and sharing what you're doing in your studio.


  2. Hey Erica. Great post! I also accompanied when I was still a teenager. It started in high school when I was asked to play piano for house music festivals and choir rehearsals when teachers were absent. Then I played for assemblies and church services. I don't think there's actually any better way to become a competent sight-reader than accompanying singers and instrumentalists. It's a shame more kids don't get the opportunity these days.

    With your prompting, I'll be trying to give opportunities for my students to accompany more this year at my school, where possible. Yes, there is a risk of disaster, but with the right preparation and support, I think this will be a winner from all sides.

    1. Thank you, Tim. And thanks again for taking the time to get this comment posted in spite of the trouble you had. I'm working on that!

      I completely agree that being in situations such as you described is the best, and dare I say only way to get better at sight-reading. I think being thrust into situations at the last second puts us in survival mode and although I have no scientific proof to back this up, I often wonder if our brains are more flexible and receptive to learning in those moments. Perhaps that's why they are such effective learning situations.

      It is scary though, especially for the teachers and directors involved, to let go of a desire for control and perfection in order to give a young, less experienced musician the opportunity. But I think it's so important. I just read a quote the other day that said something about the importance of having too-high expectations sometimes for students because they so often will meet them and even surpass them. I tend to agree with that although it needs to be done with healthy support and encouragement.

      So thank you for letting me know that you will give it a try this coming year. That news makes my day!

      All the best to you,

  3. Great post. Do you have any ideas or recommendations for how to find accompanying opportunities? I'd love to find some for my students.

    1. Thanks for reading and for your question! It's a good one!

      A good start for young students especially is if they have siblings or other family members that play an instrument. That's probably one of the least intimidating situations to start with and can lead to a lot of wonderful music-making at home. Or perhaps you could find another studio in town that your studio could partner up with. It would definitely make for some exciting, varied programs when it comes time for studio recitals. Another thought would be getting a more advanced student involved with playing for a youth choir at church or in the schools. So often these days such groups are having to move away from using "real" pianists and having to use tracks instead - it's too bad, in my opinion! That type of situation would be a fantastic social opportunity.

      Hope those ideas are some that can get you started! Best wishes!! And I'm so glad you're going to give it a go. Let me know what happens.