Why Pre-College Piano Students Should Participate in Collaborative Piano

At Effinger Music Studio, students have the opportunity to play duets, participate in chamber music ensembles, and collaborate with violinists, singers, flutists, and other instrumentalists from neighboring music schools. We believe that collaboration with other musicians can be fun, educational, and inspirational; it can also help pianists find ways to supplement their income in the future.

To inquire about our piano lessons in Vancouver, please get in touch! And if you would like to learn more about the benefits of collaborative piano for pre-college students, keep reading below.

Accompanist or Collaborative Pianist?

Until recently, pianists playing with soloists on another instrument were often thought of as merely “accompanists”. Their job was to make the soloist look and sound good while staying out of the way. But what the listener often doesn't realize is that the pianists almost always has a more demanding part, and must know their part just as well as the soloist's part. This is true whether the piece is a Sonata for Piano and Violin, or an accompaniment for a choir. Furthermore, in many cases, the pianist must take a leadership role in an ensemble, facilitating rehearsals and helping the ensemble prepare the piece for performance. Being a pianist in an ensemble is demanding, and requires just as much skill, control, and sensitivity as playing solo piano repertoire!

The Art of Collaborative Piano

Let's consider some situations where a pianist might be a part of a performance with another musician:

  • Performing with a vocalist singing Schubert's Nacht und Träume
  • Playing the transcription of an orchestral score for another pianist preparing a piano concerto for performance. In this situation, there are two pianos!
  • Playing the piano with a choir in a local worship setting

In the Schubert song, the pianist begins the piece, before the singer enters with their part. Through the piece, both performers must be sensitive to the phrases, the direction in the music, and work together to create a unified texture that is mindful of the combination of notes between the pianist and the singer, of collateral melodies that occur between the singer and the pianist, and of the meaning of the text. The pianist does not play a subsidiary role to this goal, but an integral one! Have a listen to a performance of this song with pianist Gerald Moore and singer Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iY149qOH6M4

For the pianist playing the transcription of the concerto, not only must they often confront clunky or difficult arrangements of pieces written for a large ensemble, they must take on the role of an entire orchestra! This means they must create different sound colors with the piano in order to sound more like the instruments the piece was originally written for, and they must also be sensitive to the difficulties of having a distinctly different role from the soloist while playing the same kind of instrument as the soloist. Composers who write for piano and orchestra make intentional decisions about what instruments will play what parts because they can use the difference in tone between the instruments in the orchestra and the piano to create contrast, but when a part that is normally played by an instrument in the orchestra is now played instead by a pianist, it can be difficult to play the parts originally for the orchestra in a supporting role without overshadowing the solo pianist. The sensitivity to take on this role effectively is necessarily a collaborative one, not a subsidiary one.

In the case of the pianist playing for a choir, very often the same pianist is part of the rehearsals leading up to the performance, and assists the director and sections in learning their parts. This requires effective score study skills and the ability to read parts. During the performance, the pianist must listen carefully to their own playing in relation to the choir, and be able to follow the indications from the conductor for tempos, phrasing, expression, and changes to dynamics arising from balance issues that occur in the performance. This kind of playing requires the sensitivity of a commanding artist who can control their instrument, and keep their ears open to be sensitive to the ensemble they are playing with.

Some Instruments Are Easier To Collaborate with Than Others

Singers and string players have a wealth of literature written for their instrument with piano through the 18th and 19th centuries. The compositional conventions from the corresponding style periods lead the piano parts for these pieces to be generally idiomatic for the piano. This does not mean they are easy, or that they won't require as much (if not more) practice than solo piano literature by the same composers, but you are less likely to confront problems with texture or balance that arise from the often clunky arrangements of late 19th and 20th century literature written for wind and brass instruments. In some cases, composers of instrumental music in the 20th and 21st centuries were not (or are not) pianists themselves, and wrote published pieces with piano parts that are impossible to play and require reductions or adaptations to perform. There is no such thing as an easy piano piece, but some present more difficulties than others!

Performing with another musician is always a collaborative experience, if for no other reason than the fact that every member of the ensemble must work together toward the common goal of giving a convincing performance of the music. Here are a few pieces for different instruments where the composer demands more of the pianist than the soloist. If you learn the piano parts for these pieces and play them well, you will be in high demand as a collaborator.

Why Should a Pre-College Student Pursue Accompanying and Collaborative Piano?

The Piano Can Be a Lonely Instrument

Band members, choir members, and percussionists regularly rehearse and perform with other musicians. This can be fun, and the communal nature of making music in an ensemble is rewarding. As pianists who regularly perform music written for solo piano, this can lead to feeling excluded. The sense of community that comes from being a member of an ensemble is often missing for pianists who spend many hours of solitude with their scores and instruments. Collaborative piano activities give pianists the opportunity to make music with other musicians.

Learn Music More Quickly

Collaborative pianists must be able to learn music quickly. In some cases, the pianist may even need to be able to sight read a piece of music they have not seen before or practiced in real time with the other members of an ensemble. This occasionally happens even in lessons! A collaborative pianist playing for a vocalist during their lesson might be asked to sight read a piece with the singer.

Collaborative Piano: An Infinitely Rewarding Experience

Pianists who perform in chamber ensembles often take on additional roles beyond what they might encounter when working with only one other musician. Because most members of an ensemble play from a part with only their notes but the pianist plays from a full score with all the musician's parts, the pianist is often tasked with facilitating rehearsals and solving issues related to fitting the piece together with all the other members of the ensemble.

As a group, all the members of an ensemble must make decisions about how they will perform the music. This includes making decisions about parameters like:

  1. Tempo variations: as an ensemble, how will you coordinate rubato, agogic accents, accelerandos, and ritardandos? How will you handle subtle changes in tempo that arise from being sensitive to the phrases?
  2. Articulations: this includes not only observing the articulations from the score, but also how to navigate the different timbres of the different instruments, and adjusting articulations so they either blend well or contrast depending on how the members of the ensemble interpret the passage.
  3. Texture: navigating the balance between the instruments based on when the musicians have notes in the same range, when the notes are in differing ranges, and how the musicians instruments sound in different ranges. For example, in a piano trio with a violinist and cellist, if the violin and cello have notes that fall in the middle and high range of the piano, the pianist may want to emphasize notes in their lower register so they don't overwhelm or play over the other members of the ensemble. This is true when playing with only one other musician too, but the added instruments add complexity to this challenge, which means the pianist must be even more sensitive and aware than when playing with only one other musician.

Collaborating Takes Some of the Pressure Off the Pianist

While the technical demands are just as high for collaborative literature as they are for solo literature, the pianist is not alone on the stage during the performance. This may be a welcome change of pace if you are accustomed to performing alone in recitals, competitions, and auditions. As a collaborative pianist, you get to have fun practicing with other musicians, and enjoy a performance where the spotlight is on the ensemble.

If you would like to learn more about collaborative piano, how you can get gigs, and how it will benefit you as a pianist, please get in touch.