How Do You Become a Professional Accompanist?
How To Become an Accompanist
Q&A - Quick Answers
Accompanists play music for and with Singers and instrumentalists in lessons, rehearsals, juries, recitals, concerts, and on recordings. While most Accompanists play the piano, there are also Accompanists who play other instruments, such as guitar or harp. In modern contemporary popular styles, including jazz, Accompanists might be musicians playing other instruments like drums and bass in a rhythm section or as a backup band for a Singer.
Today, Accompanists who play the piano generally prefer to be called a “Collaborative Pianist” or “Collaborative Keyboardist,” since they will often perform as part of a group, for example in an orchestra or a chamber ensemble. In ensembles of all sizes, collaborative Pianists can serve in both a support role and as an integral part of the group.
Performing as a Collaborative Pianist is very different from performing as a soloist, since the focus is on playing music together with a group and usually in a supportive role. Nonetheless, Collaborative Pianists must have superior skills and talent, be familiar with a wide range of repertoire and musical styles, be able to sight-read and learn new music quickly, enjoy making music with other people, and be able to travel.
Collaborative Pianists usually work as freelancers, but there are also salaried staff positions available in schools, community choirs, orchestras, and churches. They work hard behind the scenes and on stage to make the music shine for each and every rehearsal and performance.
Freelance Accompanists also end up doing a lot of administrative work in order to find new clients and coordinate with existing clients for rehearsals and performances. Accompanists work with a wide range of people–from church organizations to schools and individual performing artists–so their employment network often contains Choir Directors, Opera Singers, University Music Teachers, students, and musical theatre Actors. Their work may find them accompanying ballet or theatrical rehearsals, backing performers for auditions, or performing with small chamber groups.
(Note: “Collaborative Keyboardists” is the term preferred by those in the profession. In this piece, we use the term “Accompanists” and “Collaborative Keyboardists” interchangeably simply because some readers are more familiar with the older term.)
In this piece, you’ll be hearing from the following experts:
- Warren Jones (Manhattan School of Music Collaborative Piano Faculty)
- Dr. Mark Livshits (Franklin and Marshall College, University of Delaware)
- Dr. Alex Maynegre-Torra (Staff Accompanist, University of Texas – Austin Butler School of Music)
- Rita Sloan (University of Maryland, Director of Collaborative Piano Program)
- Dr. Ray Wong (The Juilliard School, Manhattan School of Music, Harvard University)
What does an Accompanist do?
“Accompanist” might be a slightly outdated term, in the sense that the term “Collaborative Pianist” is now more commonly used. The reason is that, traditionally, an Accompanist was someone who played the piano for Singers, Instrumentalists, and choirs.
However, a Pianist does not accompany orchestras or ensembles. The Pianist plays with or within them. For example, a person who is playing piano within the orchestra as a member of the orchestra is not accompanying. They are the Keyboard Player in the orchestra.
Also, you can’t accompany, for example, a string quartet. You play chamber music with a string quartet. So the term Collaborative Pianist covers everything that a Pianist does which involves making music with others.
Collaborative Pianists are those people who earn their living by making music with other musicians! That can be working together in a recital, or playing chamber music, or being the Pianist in an opera house or orchestra, or playing for lessons for your colleagues….the possibilities are many, and the opportunities are varied and numerous!
An Accompanist can be a variety of Instrumentalists (Pianist, Harpist, Guitarist, Organist, etc.), but Pianists are the most in-demand due to the vast possibilities of the piano. An Accompanist provides support to Singers and other instruments in a musical performance.
Whenever I’m coaching or teaching a young Pianist about this, the way I describe it is that it is our job to frame the person we’re accompanying. If it’s chamber music, it’s to create the best texture and to let the musicians that we’re accompanying play with whatever kind of sound, texture, and dynamic they want, giving them as much leeway, within reason, to do whatever they need.
I also oftentimes describe a Pianist—an Accompanist—as another musician’s secret service detail, meaning that if they make a mistake, or jump the beat, or miscount, we have to take that bullet. We have to be prepared, we have to know the music better than they do so we can make the jump. When you do it enough, and you’ve dealt with enough chaos on stage, it becomes a thing you can almost sense before it’s going to happen.
The better the person you’re working with, the more benefit of the doubt they get, and the less benefit of the doubt you get. If something goes wrong and the audience doesn’t know the piece backward and forwards, it’s going to fall on me. So there’s also that extra element of needing to understand that the soloist is always going to get that extra little benefit of the doubt.
I rehearse with the students, play in their lessons, weekly studio classes, juries, and degree recitals, and learn new music during the “spare time.”
As part of my job I also retrieve and organize all the requests for pianists, and communicate with each student who their Pianist will be for the semester or for a specific piece of music. In a big school like UT, having all the requests organized is crucial and a very important part of the job.
What is a typical day like for an Accompanist?
My schedule changes week to week. If you want an 8 to 5 job this won’t do. Working in an academic setting, when you approach mid-semester you know that you will play many recitals after 5:00pm. Accompanists are performers, and most performances occur during weekday evenings or weekends.
Even if you freelance, student performances will most likely be on weekends, when parents can attend and the children are not in school. And if you accompany a choir in a church you will obviously work on Sundays.
As an example, my car is four years old. I bought it brand new. It has 160,000 miles on it. There are days where I started my day in Manhattan, I worked my way to Philly, then over to Jersey, and then down to Delaware, where I finish my day. My typical day will start at 9:00am and won’t end until 9:30pm.
A lot of it’s rehearsing, a lot of it’s taking calls from the car, being super, super, super organized, and making sure to write everything down. On any given day, I’ll be with between five to twenty people for rehearsals of varying lengths. (Sometimes you don’t need more than a handful of hours just to touch up something.)
But most of what I do never meets the eye. That’s the thing that non-musicians don’t quite understand. It’s not glamorous at all. It’s exhausting. Because you see people applauding, you see the nice concert halls and whatever, but that’s like a half percent of what goes into it.
Most of it is the travel, the bad back, the carrying a million books with you, sometimes having to run on as little as one or two hours of sleep if you’re in a different country. You make do and you kind of develop your routine.
It’s essentially not a career that you choose, it’s a career that chooses you—because you either have the ability to manage it mentally and emotionally, or you don’t, and I think it’s very effective at filtering out the people who can’t.
The money Accompanists can earn varies according to their location, skill level, and reputation. They can charge higher prices in large cities, on average ranging from $45-55/hour, while some in-demand players can charge $100/hour or more. When working for major artists the fees can go even higher, sometimes several thousand dollars for a single performance.
Generally, the larger the local market for their services, the more opportunities there are, but also the more competition. While the hourly rate might seem substantial, most Accompanists are not working eight hours a day. There’s the time spent getting organized and traveling around to the different locations, in addition to performing. Most rehearsals might last 2-3 hours, and a Pianist might work for several clients over the course of a day.
How much does a Piano Accompanist make?
On average, Accompanists can expect to make approximately $34,000 annually. The general salary range for Accompanists runs from $33,000 to $35,000.
Freelance Accompanists set their own rates. Staff Accompanists are salaried.
Depending on level of experience, time commitment with the soloist (if you’re getting ready for an audition/performance), level of difficulty for the pieces, and performance venue, Accompanists have the flexibility of setting their own prices. Most Accompanists in NYC start with $45-$50/hour, and if you are performing with a prominent artist in a large hall, the fee can be thousands for each performance.
That is a question that simply cannot be answered. I can only tell you that this is surely not the highest paid job in the music world…it is not even close! But the people who do this for a living love what they do, and that love is the most important thing.
The money comes, there is always work for good Pianists who fit in well and whose energy is collaborative with their partners. And one other thing: you will make your income from many sources, not just one single income stream. So get used to that–a few dollars here, and a few dollars there, and pretty soon you are making a living! Good luck!
A lot of people discover that you get what you pay for. So, if the difference is $100 versus $80, sometimes that $20 is a small price to pay to know that when you step on stage, everything’s gonna be okay and you don’t really have to worry about the Pianist.
You have to determine your own value, but you also have to be aware of what other people charge. Another thing I will say is trying to undercut other people is not really a good way to go.
To think about it in purely economical terms (which really isn’t great), you’re lowering the market value for people who are working really hard, and that’s not okay, either.
You have to be human about it. You have to be sympathetic to a person’s situation. If there’s someone who’s talented but doesn’t have the resources, I think there’s this responsibility to help someone in the way that people have helped me. Then there are other people who I know have the resources to pay me. I get a good sense of what my colleagues charge, and if it’s too little, then I’ll throw my quote out there.
I can only tell you that it varies wildly. In large, urban areas you’re going to have a much wider range of what people get paid per hour (or per particular event). Generally speaking, it is a gigging life unless you’re hired by a chorus, church, or a school to be on staff.
One has to be a little imaginative sometimes in putting together several careers to make one. Many times, Collaborative Pianists get jobs in churches because traditionally almost every church needs and uses music. And schools–high schools, middle schools–all have choruses who need Pianists. Colleges, universities, and community colleges need Staff Pianists. Often, some of the information for institutional salaries can even be found online.
In terms of gigging, the fees vary wildly. For example, in the Washington D.C. area where I live, generally speaking, people will get in the vicinity of $40, $50 dollars an hour for independent collaborative work–which sounds like a lot of money until you figure out that you are not working eight hours a day at this.
Now, if you’re not in a major metropolitan area, these fees are not going to be the same. So basically you have to ask around and check what the fees are in your area and figure out some sort of fee structure for yourself.
There will always be a strong demand for Collaborative Keyboardists and other types of Accompanists who are easy to work with and can do a terrific job. Having a strong professional network is the best way for Accompanists to build a client list and increase their hours and their pay. Live music has been around for a long time and is not going away.
New and established artists will usually be on the lookout for good Accompanists and there will be jobs available at schools, colleges, universities, choirs, and churches. Private Teachers also often need Accompanists for their students, so networking with well-respected Teachers is a good practice.
Most of the public’s attention is usually focused on soloists and featured performers, so the job of Accompanist is not viewed as being nearly as “glamourous” in comparison. For musicians who don’t necessarily feel as comfortable being in the spotlight, however, working as an Accompanist has its benefits. They will have the opportunity to work with talented performers, providing a necessary service for which they will be greatly appreciated by their more prominent clients.
The job of Accompanist has many technical and artistic demands, and those who fully master the job will have plenty of chances to be involved with making beautiful music. Being an Accompanist may not be the most glamourous or high-paid job in the music industry, but as a career, it certainly offers the chance for artistic fulfillment and musical self-satisfaction.
What are the challenges and rewards of being an Accompanist?
I don’t think anything better describes that than a four day period I had in—I think—2018. I went to Germany to work with one of Anne-Sophie Mutter’s protégées. We rehearsed all week at Mutter’s house, and we had really good rehearsals, and then the plan was to fly to Spain to play a recital at this legendary concert hall.
We get to the concert hall, and we have about three hours to rehearse, and only on the day of. They wouldn’t let us in on the day before…and it turns out that the concert hall is as dry as a loaf of month-old bread. No resonance in the hall, and then the stage was raked on a really steep angle downward.
My colleague, the Violinist, had played with every major orchestra, every major Conductor in every major hall around the world, but she was quite thrown. She was planning on wearing heels, and now she’s gotta run through rainy Spain looking for flats. She’s in a bad mood, and we’re having a rough rehearsal.
And this is like, five, six hours before a concert. She snapped at me and I snapped right back, which isn’t really like me because I try to stay positive—especially when someone, you know, has a career like twenty times the size of mine. You try to stay in your lane.
We parted ways, and that night we came back to the concert hall, and we just had a breakthrough on stage. It was unbelievable. There was a moment where someone in the audience gasped during a really dramatic moment, and it was this kind of euphoria afterward.
We couldn’t believe it. When we were practicing for this concert, we were doing like seven to ten hours a day: taking notes, recording everything, and listening back, and finally everything kind of just gelled. It was remarkable.
Then the next day, I had four flights to get home. It took me twenty-six hours, lugging giant duffle bags that weighed over twenty pounds each because I couldn’t check a bag because I would have missed my connections.
Twenty-six hours later, I was in a practice room with a severely unprepared student rehearsing for her jury, and it was like going from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows.
You live for those breakthroughs, and you also have to kind of summon the energy to know that you can get through those really tough moments.
The place to start is finding other musicians who need an Accompanist and honing the skills needed while learning to do the job well. If enrolled in a college or university, there will be many opportunities to accompany Singers and instrumentalists for lessons, juries, recitals, concerts, and recordings.
Not only are these all great opportunities to learn, being surrounded by talented students who are the future of the music industry will likely lead to professional opportunities down the road. After all, people like to work with people they know, and if you have the skills and are easy to work with, why wouldn’t they engage you for professional opportunities as well?
School is a terrific place to start building a network of musicians to rely on for opportunities when school is finished. Going to a college or university is also the way to meet well-respected Teachers who may send a steady stream of future clients. Getting started in a career as an Accompanist is easiest when surrounded by lots of other young musicians and their Teachers. Schools also have career development centers with resources students and recent graduates will find helpful for getting traction in launching their career.
Sometimes, even if you aren’t enrolled in a school, just hanging around at a school will put one in contact with students and faculty members who are in need of Accompanists. Hanging up a few posters on choice-located bulletin boards around campus should generate interest, as well as joining online forums or chat rooms where people tend to go when searching for an Accompanist. Having a website with videos of past work will also be helpful, so that prospective clients can find you and understand the skills you offer.
In the beginning, it’s a good idea to see what others are charging for their service and setting your own prices accordingly. You might use a sliding scale, giving discounts to talented performers who don’t have the resources to pay full price, while charging full price to those who can afford it. It’s not a good idea to put your fees much below the going rate, as you don’t want to undercut other professionals needing to make a living as a Collaborative Pianist. This is not a high-paying career, at least compared to many other roles people have in the music industry, and most musicians working as Accompanists are doing it as much for the satisfaction and enjoyment of making beautiful music with others as for the pay.
That doesn’t mean that there isn’t a reliable living in it. Many Accompanists work long hours, travel a lot, and spend a lot of time organizing their schedules and learning new music. It’s very hard work, and one can generate enough income to fund a decent lifestyle, but money is not always or even often the main motivator. As you climb the ladder of success, the pay should get better, along with the quality of the music and musicians one gets to work with.
How do you become a professional Accompanist?
Usually, people will start out by being asked to play for their choirs or play for their friends in high school, or even in middle school. And that’s usually when people begin to get a sense of how much they enjoy making music with others.
If a Pianist starts playing for others in any capacity, then finds that they like it, and they’re good at it, then usually they think about pursuing it as a career when it’s time for university or college.
The thing to remember is that you cannot (and should not!) get an undergrad degree in Collaborative Piano. Most schools in the country don’t offer it. There might be a few that have it, but generally speaking, it should be a graduate-level training program because, during undergrad, a Pianist really needs to become the best Pianist they can possibly be.
Hopefully, where a Pianist gets undergrad training will also have opportunities for them to also get collaborative piano experience.
Some schools give you the opportunity to declare an emphasis in Collaborative Piano. And of course, the Pianist can simply make sure to play for Singers, play for Instrumentalists, play for the choir, play in the orchestra, or in the wind ensemble. When the Pianist is ready for graduate study is the time to look for a collaborative piano program.
The graduate degree in Collaborative Piano is something which has been a long time coming: the first program was established in the late ‘40’s at USC. Now, we’re up to over a hundred schools that have programs, internationally and nationally. Canada and the United States have the most programs, so one should be able to find a program that will be a good fit for individual strengths and interests.
Start making music with other people, and see if it suits you. Some people do not easily work with others–that’s fine, no problem. But to develop a career as a Collaborative Pianist, you really need to enjoy and like making music together with other people!
The repertory is endless, you will never learn it all–remember, each soloist that plays (Violinists, for example) have their own repertory…and you have to be familiar with everyone’s repertory, not just one particular part of it. There is a lot to do, so let’s get started!
Create and maintain a strong professional and personal relationship with colleagues. Always be over-prepared in learning your part so you can stay flexible yet be extremely dependable. Play for other people’s lessons, and inform the Teacher you are interested in playing for more lessons to get more practice and to learn more repertoire.
That’s a little bit of a twofold answer.
I think a soloist has to have this ability to exist in a bubble by themselves for eight to ten hours a day and be okay with it…and I just wasn’t wired that way. Soloists often come to prominence through competition, and again, I’m just not a cutthroat person.
Once I started playing chamber music I saw that there was this ability to make great music and be around people, bounce ideas off of other people, have this incredibly healthy dialog, and make music—not just sort of on your own in a vacuum, but as a truly collaborative effort.
That’s what’s wonderful about it: some people go to a bar to hang out with their friends while I get to make music. We joke, and we give each other a hard time in a friendly way, but it’s always fun, and it’s always productive.
The other part of it is, I got to college, and because I was able to read music quickly and learn music quickly, I just started making a lot of money doing it. People started coming to me and that allowed me to hone my skills. I became known as someone who would get the job done, and be friendly, and easy to work with.
Honestly, one of the biggest pieces of advice I would give anyone is there’s no job too small…because I don’t think anyone is going to walk up to you sight unseen and say, “Will you go play with me at Carnegie Hall or record with me for Deutsche Gramophone?”
People hear you in the most unexpected ways. I got my start just because I was the only person in my quintet in college who came prepared for the lesson. The Coach was a member of the Philadelphia Orchestra, and he passed along my name to the Conductor, and that’s how I got my start with him.
So no job is too small and you have to be willing to bide your time and maybe do some work that isn’t necessarily glamorous or even paying that well. Sometimes, it’s good to do a little work for little to no money, knowing that there’s a greater benefit that might be reaped.
Word of mouth is the best way to get work. If you do a good job playing for a music school, chances are that at some point a Teacher in a different school will call you to play for her/his students and so your business will start growing. That’s where your communication skills play a big role.
If you have two Accompanists with the same ability, but one of them answers calls right away and is organized and straightforward, and the other one takes a while to answer or is ambiguous about his/her availability, it’s easy to predict who will get called back.
If you are already playing some gigs (maybe with a local church choir) and have a good grounding on piano playing, the next step would be meeting a collaborative piano Professor you are interested in studying with. That could be in your city, or [through] enrolling in a summer music festival. From there, the more people you meet and hear you play, the better.
A degree in Collaborative Piano will help a lot in finding a job. Another way would be playing for students of a respected Teacher. Playing for the students of a famous Teacher and gaining this Teacher’s trust can open many doors.
- Assuming you already play piano and read music, find low-pressure situations that allow you to play with other people. Maybe you have friends who sing or play an instrument—or look for a chance to accompany a song for an amateur choir in which you already know the Conductor or some of the singers.
- Don’t get discouraged if things don’t go the way you expected.
- Get as much different music as you can and read new pieces every day.
- Listen to as much music in different styles and instrument combinations as you can. Get a sense of what appeals and what doesn’t appeal to you.
How long does it take to build a career as an Accompanist?
I don’t know that you ever stop. Once you’ve done certain things, you want to keep doing them, and you then want to challenge yourself to do more.
I would say freshman year, that’s when I started building myself up as an Accompanist/Collaborative Pianist and it grew. Over ten years, I scaled back, the quality of the people I was working with got better, and the money that I was able to charge per person got greater.
Always be financially honest with the people who are paying you. If they overpay you, let them know. Pay them back. It’s just sort of building people’s trust. I think the way you build a career is you get people to trust you. The sooner you can get people to trust you, the sooner you can build that career.
Experience & Skills
Since Accompanists must frequently read from sheet music, written arrangements, and lead sheets, they must be strong readers of music. This includes sight-reading, which is a specific and separate skill from reading (though related), where an Accompanist must read from music they haven’t seen previously.
Additionally, they must be able to interpret the written form idiomatically in the style to be performed. This means playing with the right rhythmic “feel” while providing what the Singer or instrumentalist needs to do their best job in a rehearsal or performance. If possible, they should learn the music well, including the performer’s part, so they can quickly adjust to accommodate eventual mistakes.
Beyond reading and stylistic interpretation, Accompanists must be able to follow a Conductor while reading. Performing with others requires attention to musical “cues,” or signals, from either a Conductor or musicians, for the piece being performed to keep together through any tempo or dynamic changes, stopping and starting, key changes, or other changes in the music. The more opportunities to work as an Accompanist, the more experience and skill one will acquire.
Collaborative Pianists and other Accompanists who work independently as freelancers, whether full- or part-time, must also develop strong administrative skills. This includes managing a hectic schedule, accounting for travel time, organizing a system for sheet music storage and retrieval, billing clients, and myriad other small, but crucial tasks required for being in business as a sole proprietor.
Music is a business, and the professional Accompanist must manage their career as a business. Some tasks, such as billing, might seem mundane, but are absolutely necessary for the work to be sustainable and income-producing. Keeping careful records and paying taxes are also obligatory. Owning the right equipment and clothing and maintaining it in good order is another work requirement.
Interpersonal skills, sometimes called “soft skills,” are especially important for the successful Accompanist. Getting right to the point: No one likes to work with a jerk, so don’t be one. Soloists and performers are already under a lot of pressure to always be at their best, so having an easy-going demeanor and approach will help them feel more comfortable.
Working with an experienced and patient Accompanist should give them confidence and allow them to focus on the music. Soft skills are an important part of being in business. This extends to your phone manner, email etiquette, looking people in the eye when you meet them, having a firm handshake, smiling during interactions with people, body language, and all the intangibles of getting along well with others in work situations.
What skills do you need to be a Pianist?
If you are going to work with singers, you must have a good background in the common languages that Singers use: English, French, Italian, and German. Russian and Spanish are good to know, as well.
And I encourage people to do as many diverse musical activities as possible, since each thing that you do, each skill that you develop, helps all your other skills to be better!
Strong sight-reading skills, a technically strong foundation, a knowledge of various styles, the ability to listen and anticipate the needs and desires of the soloist, and the ability to verbally communicate with others.
Probably the most important skill and ability that a person can develop to be a Collaborative Pianist is to listen, listen, listen, to one’s colleagues, because that is the basis for really collaborating musically with someone else.
Of course, your technique must be formidable, because that is all taken for granted when you start actually playing music with another person. You will not have time to think about technical matters, they must be second-nature to you, so that your full attention is on the music.
Not to approach this from too much of a negative, but I think a lot of the work I get is because people are unhappy with the Pianist they’ve had in the past. I think what they’ve been unhappy with the most is unreliability and unpreparedness.
One of the things I learned from Lambert Orkis is just to be a professional. It’s interesting because it’s one of the most important things I’ve learned from anyone, but it’s not necessarily a musical skill. If someone’s going to pay you to do something, then you can’t just come and sight-read. You have to be prepared.
On the other hand, the ability to learn quickly and be flexible is invaluable because some of the most high profile concerts I’ve had to play have been on a moment’s notice, and you never know if those opportunities are going to come around again.
You hear about all these Pianists like Lang Lang and Andre Watts. They got their starts filling in for Glenn Gould, then Lang Lang ironically filled in for Andre Watts, and that’s kind of how it goes. You can’t turn down that opportunity—because someone’s going to take it.
First of all, you need great piano skills, and second of all, you need to have a specialized set of skills that are particular to different sets of circumstances. For example, you need to have knowledge of the repertoire for Singers and/or Instrumentalists and/or choirs and/or orchestras.
For choirs, you need to be able to actually read all the vocal lines, and you need to be able to play two, three, and four parts. Possibly you might need to play those parts from an open score.
Also, you need the ability to follow a Conductor in the case of choirs, in opera, or in orchestra. You need extra-special listening ability—really excellent ears, especially when partnering Singers and Instrumentalists. The skill that is hard to explain is the ability to sense what the other person is going to do before they do it. I.e. you need to be very sensitive to your partners.
You need to be able to sight-read pretty well because sometimes that’s just part of the gig. Sight-reading is an important skill, [as is] just really good knowledge of the repertoire, styles, and traditions, what people have done before, how certain parts are played and why, et cetera.
Being a good sight-reader always opens doors, but that’s not the only skill and sometimes it’s not the most important. You have to be able to work with many different people whether you instantly like them or not, so interpersonal skills are a must. Learning music quickly and well can be as important as sight-reading, depending on the specific job.
I don’t think you need any specific personality to be a good Collaborative Pianist. If you love being surrounded by people you can accompany choirs or opera rehearsals. If you feel more comfortable in one-on-one situations you can accompany any Instrumentalist or Singer. Being flexible and willing to meet people halfway is very important.
At the same time, you have to know your limits and not be afraid to decline work when you need to. When word goes around that you like accompanying and do a decent job, it is very easy to overcommit oneself. Popularity feels great, but you have to be honest with yourself and know how much work you can really take while maintaining your playing to a high standard.
How can I be a good Accompanist?
The best Collaborative Pianists are those people who have great people skills, play the piano beautifully, and can listen to others while they make their own music at the same time.
It takes a good deal of time and devotion to get into that, since there is always a lot happening in a performance where there are several people…lots of energy, and lots of fun between the participants, if they are really communicating with each other!
Always aim to refine your craft at the piano. Be the best musician and technician you possibly can be, and learn as much repertoire from various instruments and singers as possible. Sight-reading is among the most important skills for Accompanists, and a great sight-reader will always be in demand!
As soon as you can start chamber music, do it. The other thing is immersing yourself in all kinds of music: opera, symphonic literature, chamber music, solos. Venturing outside piano literature is so important because chances are if you listen to all the great violin concertos, and you’re working as an Accompanist, you’re going to need to play them.
My parents wanted to just throw the “Barber Violin Concerto” CD we had out the window because that’s all I wanted to listen to when I was eleven years old. I was that nerdy kid. I wanted to absorb more and more and more music.
So when I got to college, and I was really doing that heavy-duty accompanying, I knew these pieces just from listening to them. Sitting down at the piano and fleshing out the notes was more filling in the blanks than actually doing anything from scratch.
Start early, just by playing for your friends, [or] even with another person at the piano by playing four-hands piano. Play with your friend the Violinist, play with your friend the Saxophone Player, play with your next-door neighbor who sings. Just play with somebody.
Really listen to them while you are busy playing. That’s at the heart of it: to be able to hear yourself and your partner in real-time at the same time. The bottom line is how you play with other people, how you collaborate with them. That’s why it’s called collaborative piano.
The more experience you can get sight-reading the better, whether [you’re] accompanying choirs, individual Singers or Instrumentalists, or four hands with another Pianist. Of course, that’s something you should enjoy doing.
If you have some favorite operas or symphonies, get the full score and figure out your favorite parts — or all of it. The more music you get exposed to, the better. A good grounding in piano technique is important so that as you get older you can still play many hours a day without injuring yourself.
Education & Training
First and foremost, a Collaborative Pianist must be an accomplished musician and an exquisite Pianist. They must be comfortable quickly learning new music in a plethora of musical styles, covering a wide range of repertoire. Most aspiring Accompanists will attend either a conservatory or a college music program to earn a Bachelor’s degree in Music, (B.M.) or a Bachelor’s of Fine Arts (B.F.A.) with a major in music performance on piano.
There are very few programs for undergraduate degrees in collaborative piano, although some do exist. Most collaborative piano programs are at the graduate level, typically a Master of Music (M.M.) or a Doctor of Musical Arts (D.M.A.), so undergraduate students seeking careers as Accompanists will initially study music and piano performance. Undeniably, one must play the piano exceptionally well before starting a career as a Collaborative Pianist.
To earn a bachelor’s degree, courses taken include instrumental performance, reading, sight-reading, music theory, solfege, composition, counterpoint, music history, repertoire development classes, and perhaps improvisation techniques. This is in addition to private study with an instructor, plus participation in ensembles, orchestras, and other kinds of groups.
The coursework is designed to produce well-rounded musicians who are musically literate and can function as soloists and within groups at a high level. Moving on to graduate school, for the Master’s degree, students will have the opportunity to specialize in an area of their choice, such as collaborative piano. Most undergraduate programs are 3-4 years and the Master’s degree typically takes two years to complete.
Beyond core music studies, performance studies, and specialization at graduate level, by the time graduation is reached most Pianists will have some significant professional experience under their belt and will have put together a portfolio or website to promote their work to prospective clients.
Music is a business and learning the business of music is a crucial part of the training required to become successful as a full-time professional in the arts. Fortunately, there are many great books on the subject, and most schools also offer or require students to take courses in the business of music. For those who do not have the luxury of taking music business courses, but have the desire and need to learn, there are many excellent sources for learning about this crucial aspect of sustaining a career in music. Successful music industry professionals must ultimately learn about the many facets of entrepreneurship.
Collaborative piano offers a chance at a solid career in music, for those who have prepared themselves well. Pianists and others who work as Accompanists play an important role in music education, community orchestras, ballet and dance schools, and the professional world of recording and concertizing. Specializing in collaborative piano can be a way to participate in music as a performer in collaboration with top artists and ensembles. Those who excel as Accompanists will always be in strong demand if they are able to market themselves properly, maintain a list of clients, take on a Staff Accompanist position with a school or music company, and help their clients to really shine on the stage and in studio.
Should you go to college to learn collaborative piano?
Getting a college education in music is invaluable simply because your growth doesn’t stop once you graduate high school. I still take lessons even though I finished my DMA four years ago, almost. Once in a while, I still see a Teacher just for kind of a tune-up. You have the upkeep.
In high school, and anything before college, you sort of stay in that piano bubble. When you get to college, that’s when you start intermingling with musicians who play different instruments, and that’s how you start working with them.
The other thing is, it’s always good to gauge yourself against better competition. I never advocate for anyone trying to beat anyone else, but having a solid idea of where you are by comparison, and what your room for improvement is is very valuable.
Collaborative Pianists need to train like soloists. You have to have the technical ability and the musical wherewithal of a top-quality soloist.
For someone coming out of high school, they’re not going to know everything they need to. I don’t think I really, truly, learned how to practice, for instance, until I was twenty-seven years old. I had this sort of crisis situation because I had a really bad performance, and I realized that I didn’t think I was working the proper way.
So I went to my Teacher’s studio, and I said, “I know you’re in the middle of a lesson, but I need five minutes of your time,” and I started just rambling off a bunch of questions about preparation, and I think that was eye-opening. You’re never too old to learn, especially if you consider hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of years of musical history. You can always learn something from someone, somewhere.
There are no professional associations specifically for Accompanists, although professional Pianists can benefit from the performance and networking opportunities found via the American Pianists Association. For online resources, Dr. Maynegre-Torra says, “The most comprehensive website I know that addresses many issues about collaborative piano is The Collaborative Piano Blog. It has many interesting articles about the profession and useful insight about practicing habits.”
What is the single biggest suggestion you would give to someone wanting to get into this career?
You don’t have to please everybody.
What’s the #1 mistake people make when trying to get into this career?
Getting pulled in too many different directions, and eventually losing their joy in playing.
What is the question people should ask about this career but rarely do?
Do you learn your partner’s part before rehearsing? The answer is yes. It makes everything much easier when you know what the other musician’s part is supposed to sound like and how it goes together with the piano part. It’s much easier now with YouTube or Spotify (just to name two examples). You can listen to the piece while following the score. It makes the learning process much faster.
If you learn songs, you need to know the lyrics and understand what they are about. Conversely, professional instrumentalists and singers know what the piano part is supposed to sound like and how it interacts with their part.
What is one thing I should have asked which I didn’t?
Are Accompanists lesser pianists? Even though the instrument is the same, solo piano and collaborative piano cover two very different roles. A world-class solo pianist and a world-class Accompanist have to overcome different challenges to keep their careers going and you should take the road that satisfies you the most. No one should assume that accompanying is easier, the challenges are just different.
If you could describe in one word what makes you successful, what would it be?
Commitment (to the musicians I play for and the music I play).
Dr. Alex Maynegre-Torra
Dr. Alex Maynegre-Torra is a Staff Accompanist at the prestigious University of Texas – Austin Butler School of Music. He has also accompanied performers at Texas State, Blue Ridge Community College, and more.
When he was seven, he began studying the piano in his hometown of Mataró, Spain; he later went on to receive a degree in piano performance from the Conservatori Superior del Liceu de Barcelona, a Master of Music degree and Artist Diploma in Piano Performance at the Hartt School, and a Doctor of Music Arts in Collaborative Piano at the University of Colorado – Boulder. He has served as a sheet music editor for works published by Ovation Press.
Warren Jones enjoys a notably eclectic career that has taken him to virtually every corner of the musical world. He performs with some of today’s best-known artists such as Stephanie Blythe and Anthony Dean Griffey, and he is the Principal Pianist for the exciting California-based chamber music ensemble, Camerata Pacifica.
In the past he has partnered such great performers as Marilyn Horne, Håkan Hagegård, Kathleen Battle, Samuel Ramey, Christine Brewer, Barbara Bonney, Carol Vaness, Judith Blegen, Salvatore Licitra, Tatiana Troyanos, Thomas Hampson, James Morris, and Martti Talvela; and he has appeared in concerts with both the Juilliard Quartet and the Borremeo Quartet.
Mr. Jones is a longtime faculty member at the Manhattan School of Music and a former faculty member at the Music Academy of the West, and recently finished an appointment as Artist in Residence in Music at the Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University. In 2017, Mr. Jones was invited by the National Association of Teachers of Singing to be the inaugural Master Teacher in their Intern Program for young Collaborative Pianists at the Faculty of Music at the University of Toronto; and later in that year, he served as Artist in Residence in Opera at New England Conservatory and at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts.
Mr. Jones has received the “Achievement Award” from the Music Teachers National Association of America, their highest honor; and has been selected as “Collaborative Pianist of the Year” by the publication Musical America. In the summer of 2018, he inaugurated an innovative Vocal Workshop program at the Manchester Music Festival in Vermont for young Singers and Pianists, and he will return there following this engagement in Toronto; and his schedule in 2019 also included a residency at the University of Colorado at Boulder where he will teach and perform alongside members of the Takacs Quartet.
As an invited guest at the White House, Mr. Jones has performed for state dinners in honor of the leaders of Canada, Russia, and Italy; and three times he has been the guest of the Justices of the United States Supreme Court for musical afternoons in the East Conference Room at the Court. As a musical jurist, he has participated in judging the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, the Montreal International Vocal Competition, the Metropolitan Opera National Auditions, and the Naumberg Awards. He joined the jury of the prestigious First China International Piano Competition in Beijing in May 2019.
A graduate of both New England Conservatory and San Francisco Conservatory of Music, Mr. Jones was honored with the Doctor of Music degree from SFCM, and recently was selected as a faculty member of the Board of Trustees at MSM.
His discography contains thirty-one recordings on every major label in a wide range of classical, romantic, and contemporary repertory. His conducting appearances are similarly varied: he has led sold-out critically-acclaimed performances of Mascagni’s L’amico Fritz, Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia, Donizetti’s Don Pasquale, Mozart’s Die Zauberfloete, and Trouble in Tahiti of Bernstein. In 2014, he conducted the world premiere of a new operatic version of A Christmas Carol at the Houston Grand Opera.
Dr. Ray Wong
Dr. Raymond (Ray) Wong is a Pianist based in Manhattan, New York. He has been featured in International Pianists Magazine, The New York Times, The LA Times, The New Yorker Magazine, The Boston Globe, The Philly Inquirer, The Herald Tribune, Allegro Magazine, WQXR New York Classical Radio, NPR National Public Radio, The National Classical Music Radio of the Czech Republic, The Georgia Straight, CBC Canadian National Radio and Television, among others.
Recent performances include fashion designer Josie Natori’s FW20 Runway for New York Fashion Week, Musical Explorers at Zankel Hall, Carnegie Hall, solo, chamber, and collaborative performances in Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center, The Kimmel Center, and The Academy of Music in Philadelphia, Carnegie Hall’s Weill Hall, Zankel Hall, and Isaac Stern Auditorium, The Van Cliburn Recital Hall in Bass Performance Hall, and performances with The Juilliard Orchestra under the batons of Maestro Leonard Slatkin, Alan Gilbert, Jeffrey Milarsky, and Marin Alsop.
He has had the privilege of working with many of his music idols such as Itzhak Perlman, Glenn Dicterow, Robert McDonald, The Juilliard String Quartet, and has played in masterclasses with numerous pedagogues including Jeremy Denk, Ivan Moravec, Christoph Eschenbach, Ann Schein, Yoheved Kaplinsky, Leslie Howard, Philippe Entremont, John Perry, among others.
As a soloist, Mr. Wong has been a laureate of The New York Concert Artists International Concerto Competition, New York Sinfionetta International Concerto Competition, The Bradshaw & Buono International Competition, Bechstein Piano Competition, the Mieczyslaw Munz Chopin Piano Competition, Festival of the Arts Canadian Music Competition, The Prague International Piano Festival Competition, Artists International Auditions, and The Seattle International Piano Competition.
Dr. Wong has adjudicated on the jury of The Seattle International Piano Competition, The Pacific International Youth Society, and the Music Educators Association of New Jersey Piano Competitions. He is recipient of Steinway & Sons’ Outstanding Teacher Award, and has been a guest lecturer at The University of Southern California (USC), an official Collaborative Pianist of The Walter W Naumburg International Competition, and is currently the rehearsal pianist for The Orchestra of St. Luke’s, and pianist for Musical Explorers, and The Orchestra Moves, as a part of Carnegie Hall’s Education Program, Link Up!
Raymond was an original member of The First National Tour of the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical, An American in Paris as a featured Pianist performing the piano concertos of George Gershwin. Venues include Walt Disney Hall in Orlando, The Fox Theatre in Saint Louis, The Academy of Music in Philadelphia, The Kennedy Center in Washington, Segerstrom Center for the Arts, and The Pantages Theaters in Los Angeles, among others.
The current season includes The Lyric & Lyricists Series at The 92Y, Carnegie Hall Family Concert Series, Peter and the Wolf with John Lithgow, and the Carnegie Hall Gala performance of Candide under the baton of Rob Fisher. He has had the honor of performing solo recitals for Queen Sofia of Spain, Placido Domingo, former Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, and the late President George HW Bush, and the late First Lady, Barbara Bush.
Dr. Wong received his degrees in Solo Piano Performance and Collaborative Piano from The Manhattan School of Music and The Juilliard School in New York, and an Education degree from Harvard University. Raymond’s Doctoral dissertation, “The Celestial Circus” is based on a work composed for him and Pianist Xiayin Wang by Composer Richard Danielpour. Its world premiere was given by Wang/Wong at Lincoln Center in March of 2014.
Dr. Wong is CEO of Steven Ray Artists.
Rita Sloan is acknowledged internationally as a leading Teacher of piano, collaborative piano, and chamber music.
In 1999, she was appointed a Piano Faculty Member and Director of the Collaborative Piano Program at the University of Maryland. As an Artist Faculty Member at the Aspen Music Festival, Ms. Sloan founded their Collaborative Piano Program.
She has performed as soloist with both the Aspen Festival Orchestra and Chamber Symphony as well as in chamber music with many of Aspen’s distinguished guest artists, including Pianists Wu Han and Orli Shaham, Violinists Sarah Chang and Nadia Salerno-Sonnenberg, Cellist Gary Hoffman, Bassist Edgar Meyer and Flutist Emmanuel Pahud.
Teaching residencies and master class presentations have included Tainan National University of the Arts and National Normal University in Taiwan, China Conservatory in Beijing, China, leading universities in Seoul, Korea, London’s Royal College of Music, and American universities and conservatories, including numerous visits to the Juilliard School in New York.
Ms. Sloan has performed with orchestra, in recital, and in chamber music throughout the U.S., Europe, South America, and Japan. She has been a guest in many chamber music venues and has performed with members of the Emerson and Guarneri String Quartets.
Born in Russia to Polish parents, Ms. Sloan graduated from the Juilliard School, where she studied with Martin Canin and Rosina Lhévinne. Further studies were with Leon Fleisher, Aube Tzerko, Herbert Stessin, and Vladimir Ashkenazy.
Dr. Mark Livshits
GRAMMY-nominated Pianist Mark Livshits is one of the most highly sought-after soloists and chamber musicians in Philadelphia. He appears frequently in concert with members of the Philadelphia Orchestra as well as with the orchestra as a substitute in the keyboard section.
In addition to performances at the Salzburg Festival, solo recitals at the Shanghai Oriental Arts Center, and Bilbao Philharmonic Society, Dr. Livshits has also worked closely with musicians such as Yannick Nezet Seguin, Stephane Denève, Michael Tilson Thomas, Nikolaj Znaider, Leonidas Kovakos, Lynn Harrell, Christoph Eschenbach, Alisa Weilerstein, Measha Brueggergosman, Dave Brubeck, and Deutsche Grammophon recording artist Ye-Eun Choi under the auspices of IMG Artists and the Anne-Sophie Mutter Foundation.
Dr. Livshits has also received invitations to perform for dignitaries such as Secretary of State Colin Powell and Vice President Joe Biden. Currently, he serves as Staff Accompanist at the McDuffie Center for Strings in Macon, Georgia as well as being on faculty at the Philadelphia International Music Festival. In addition, Dr. Livshits was recently named to the faculty of Franklin and Marshall College.