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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 competitions...you 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!
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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.