Collaborative Pianists How To Treat Them and What To Expect From Them.

A friend of mine posted this little photo on social media the other day, and it gave me the push I needed to finish writing this post that I have been working on for a while:

Collaborative Pianist Jokes

I have devoted my life to being a collaborative artist. After years and years studying by myself in a practice room to become a soloist, I eventually discovered that I don’t enjoy playing alone. I was always drawn to chamber music, vocal repertoire, and ultimately, the vocal arts stole my heart. I am very passionate about my work with singers, especially young singers and emerging professionals. It is a gratifying and exciting career.

As a collaborator, you learn to put your ego aside and work with others, some natural collaborators and some who are not. You learn to accept some personality traits that may not correspond to your own and you learn to cope with your recital partners’ stress levels as you put your own aside. You even know to be a calming force for them during their preparation or while on stage. Sometimes you play fiendishly complex music only not to be noticed even when you play it perfectly because that is what you trained to do. When a few select people notice you after performances (very often those who have studied the piano), you don’t mind not being the center of attention since it is all part of the “gig.” The rewards far surpass what some may perceive as negative experiences. I have a previous blog post detailing my thoughts on this matter: What am I?

For a long time and still today to some extent, the singer-friendly pianist is seen as someone who could not make it as a soloist or a chamber musician, looked down on by soloists. However, that could not be further from the truth. I see playing with singers as a calling. I studied languages, poetry, various styles, conventions in singing, conducting, and prompting because this is all part of this multi-faceted career. So much more is expected of a collaborative pianist than people realize. More often than not, we have to be the most prepared and knowledgeable person in the room, all the while staying modest. Having three degrees in solo performance, I don’t regret choosing to go into the collaborative arts for one moment.

Playing Together:

When playing with our colleagues, our artistic voices should unite to make a cohesive musical impression. To achieve this, the pianist must play with conviction, confidence, and a complete and deep understanding of the text. This kind of preparation adds to the depth and layers of any performance.

I have noticed that some things are missing in young singers’ overall training, as it relates to professional etiquette to the collaborative partner. I am fortunate enough to work with colleagues who teach their students how to treat a singer-friendly pianist. Still, we can’t expect young singers or instrumentalists to understand how to cultivate their collaborative partner relationships if we are not helping them learn, or leading by example. Hopefully, these following points will help put those who need it on the right track.

  1. Equal partnership: The collaborative pianist is your equal, and you should see them as such. When you are on stage with your collaborative partner, you share the performance as a team, no matter the singer’s level or the pianist; you are a team at that moment in time. We shouldn’t forget that the composers (mostly pianists themselves) gave the piano an important voice in the composition. As I always say: “You are only as good as the person you are performing with”, so it is essential that whatever you do on stage, you do together!
  2. Repertoire: When you throw new repertoire at your pianist a few days before a performance, decide to do a transposed version of your piece at the last minute, or if there is no time to rehearse together, please be aware that the pianist can refuse to do this on short notice. Performing art-song repertoire requires time, discussion, agreements. Sure, your pianist can probably “wing it” with you, but you should both want to dig deeper than that for performance. Remember that you are both performing, and both need preparation time together.
  3. Know your score: This is so important! Know your score ( I know, I wrote it twice), and by this, I mean all of it, not just your line. Take the time to look at the piano score closely. Frequently the majority of the information from the composer is written in the piano score. You will also better understand your entrances and what you should hear to draw your inspiration from to sing your phrase. Know the piano part as well as you know your part. This goes for when you sing with an orchestra as well. Keep your eye out for a future post on this! 
  4. Forget the old-fashioned “lead and follow” approach: There are times when the singer creates the moment and times when the pianist creates the moment. Performance should be musically satisfying for both artists. This is achieved by discussing the musical agreements you will make with your partner, as in rubato, ritenuto, tempo, color choices, by examining the meaning of the text and deciding what you both wish to convey. A unified idea of the piece will only make it more convincing to your audience. Of course there is always room for spontaneity in a performance, and that comes with time together and experience.
  5. Qualifications: Collaborative pianists have extensive study not only in song and opera but as accomplished soloists. They have chosen the career path of collaborating with others and are committed to doing that with you out of a genuine desire to make music with others. They can sight-read with expression; they are flexible, good listeners, and are capable of learning mountains of music in the short-term. Keep in mind that while you are learning your recital, the pianist is probably learning your program alongside several more demanding programs.
  6. Contacting a pianist: When you have the date of your performance, be sure to communicate with the pianist in a timely fashion. Provide the date, venue, and budget available for the concert. Plan a rehearsal schedule. An ensemble can only be successful with the appropriate amount of rehearsals to prepare for a performance.
  7. Gratitude is an attitude: It is always appropriate to thank the pianist after a performance regardless of how you may feel after the performance. If the pianist had not agreed to play with you, you could have not been singing in the performance, so gratitude for the service is really a good place to start.

Take note…

Here is a list of pet peeves pianists have. I wish I could say these rarely happen, but they happen more often than you think. It is just because people don’t realize that they are doing this; after all, the thing the collaborative pianist does best is “make it work.” I know there are probably different peeves that people have, but these are the ones that I feel are important to mention for now.

  • Your Score: When providing music to your pianist, please make sure that all the notes are printed on the page, including the bass line and key/time signature. I used to accept less than perfect scores and fill in what is missing or find an alternate score. These days, I am upfront if a score is not clear and tell the singer that they need to provide a better copy. I also give a better score to the singer when I have it. It is an excellent idea to keep a file of clean and clear PDFs of your scores to send to your collaborative partner. Be sure that the PDFs are the same edition you are using.
  • Nodding: When in performance, try to avoid the “nod to the pianist to start playing”. It feels uncomfortable, and it breaks the mood and flow of the performance, not to mention, the pianist also has to feel ready to start and may need a little more time to put themselves in that mind space. Discuss with your pianist ahead of time when possible what you do to prepare between selections. Usually, the pianist can tell by looking at your profile when you are ready to start singing
  • The Vanna White hand gesture: You finish singing, the audience applauds, and you bow; you turn to your pianist and extend an arm as a presentation. This is one of my personal biggest pet peeves. As partners, we should bow together. I always suggest that when the singer is done, they look over to me or wait for me to stand, and we bow together. This presentational gesture, however well-meaning may have been done in the past when collaborative pianists were not seen as equal performing partners, but is a bit out of place in today’s performance practice. 

Vanna White: is an American television personality and film actress known as the hostess of Wheel of Fortune

The Vanna White presentational arm gesture: Avoid at all costs
  • Preparation: Come to your rehearsals/coaching sessions fully prepared. We never expect to be teaching you notes, pitches, and rhythms; these are your tasks to complete even before you make an appointment with a pianist. A good performer should anticipate their entrances to prepare in time and ready to make musical decisions.
  • The “Well..on the recording” argument: Please try and avoid using this phrase. We need to find our interpretation of the piece and a tempo suitable to both of our ideas of the interpretation. We are creating a moment and should not be copying it from a recording, no matter how beautiful it may be!
  • Posting on Social Media: There is nothing more alarming than scrolling through your social media feed and seeing a video clip of yourself playing out of the blue. When you perform with anyone on stage, please make sure you have permission to publish the clip before you share it. If they give you permission to post it, please identify them respectfully in the post. It is considered bad form not to mention the other people in your clip.

What you can expect from your Collaborative Pianist:

  1. Preparation: If you have provided your program well in advance, the pianist should be exceptionally well prepared both musically and textually for the rehearsal to be productive. They should know their translation of the text and the context of the pieces you are performing. They should also have already formed an idea of their artistic contribution to the performance.
  2. Communication: Sometimes we are busy, and it takes a while to get back to messages (sometimes we need a nudge), but if a pianist constantly does not reply, move on to the next person on your list.
  3. Openness: Your sessions are filled with discussions and musical experimentations. Preparing a recital together is a two-way street, no matter the singer’s level or the pianist. You both have a stakein the process.
  4. Support: That is at the core of what we do as collaborative pianists. We are there to be with you in your preparation and on stage. You should have a good feeling when you work with the pianist. You should feel free and welcome to engage in musical discussions and choices.
  5. Knowing the vocal line: The singer-friendly pianist should be fully able to sing the score’s vocal line. It is rarely a beautiful sound, but it is part of the job. Only by singing it and playing the piano part simultaneously can you fully understand the space needed to sing a phrase or take an organic breath or how fast you can sing the text. The collaborative pianist who can do this is head and shoulders above the rest.
  6. Always gives their best:  The collaborative pianist always gives their best and treats the music with the utmost respect, even if they are playing something straightforward or a piece they have played for twenty years or more. They give the same intensity to every score they find in front of them to deliver the very best performance they can provide.

Being a collaborative artist is extremely rewarding. It is like a calling for most of us, and we would never want it any other way! It is one of the most intimate musical settings, dependent on communication and mutual respect. As a singer, you will always need a collaborative pianist, and there is no way around this. I hope these tips can help you maintain and cherish the pianists in your life and help them cherish you in return.

Do you want to learn more about preparing your score for a pianist or Choosing your vocal coach and pianist

Post Image:

Adanya Dunn, Mezzo-Soprano
Nathalie Doucet, Piano
Photo: Francoise Bolechowski