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How to Become an Accompanist

Last updated: May 20, 2022
Reads: 7,374

Career Overview

An Accompanist (or Collaborative Pianist) is a Pianist who accompanies Singers, Dancers, and Instrumentalists for performances and rehearsals.

Alternate Titles

Collaborative Pianist, Accompanyist

Avg. Salary

$34,0451

Salary Range

$33K-$35K1

Career Description

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, Cantors, Church Organists, Copyist, 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?

Rita Sloan (University of Maryland, Director of Collaborative Piano Program)

“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.

Warren Jones (Manhattan School of Music Collaborative Piano Faculty)

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!

Dr. Ray Wong (The Juilliard School, Manhattan School of Music, Harvard University)

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.

Dr. Mark Livshits (Franklin and Marshall College, University of Delaware)

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.

Dr. Alex Maynegre-Torra (Staff Accompanist, University of Texas – Austin Butler School of Music)

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?

Dr. Alex Maynegre-Torra (Staff Accompanist, University of Texas – Austin Butler School of Music)

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.

Dr. Mark Livshits (Franklin and Marshall College, University of Delaware)

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.

Salary

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?

Alison Stolpa (Careers in Music Staff)

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.

Dr. Ray Wong (The Juilliard School, Manhattan School of Music, Harvard University)

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.

Warren Jones (Manhattan School of Music Collaborative Piano Faculty)

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!

Dr. Mark Livshits (Franklin and Marshall College, University of Delaware)

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.

Rita Sloan (University of Maryland, Director of Collaborative Piano Program)

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.


How much should I charge as an accompanist?

Tom Stein

This mostly depends on your location and what the market will support. In densely populated urban areas there is more demand, but also more competition. Your experience and reputation will also factor into what you can reasonably charge.

Most Accompanists charge hourly rates for rehearsals and performances, but depending on the gig, there could also be a flat fee for rehearsal and performances combined. Ultimately, what you charge is up to you, but it needs to match the market conditions if you are going to work a lot.

For entry level, let’s say a recent college graduate, you should be able to earn between $35.00-40.00 per hour. A highly experienced Collaborative Keyboardist might charge $50.00-75.00 per hour. Factoring in several rehearsals and a performance, this might translate to $300.00-500.00 from a single client. Working freelance, a good player might be able to earn several times that weekly, while someone starting out would earn much lower on the scale.

Some top performers might charge $100.00 an hour and receive several thousand for a series of performances. Keep in mind that many concert halls and some schools will require you be a member of a union, which may have some power in setting rates, although union rates usually fall below what you could negotiate on your own.

Career Outlook

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?

Dr. Mark Livshits (Franklin and Marshall College, University of Delaware)

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.


Is it hard to be an Accompanist?

Tom Stein

Being an Accompanist is considered one of the more difficult jobs in music. They have to learn a lot of music very quickly, be excellent sight-readers, know how to simplify parts, be able to adjust the music to follow sometimes erratic soloists, be flexible, work unusual hours, travel, play with all levels of musicians from student to professional, and know how to listen very carefully. They must also learn the soloist’s part.

Collaborative Pianists are often under-appreciated, and they don’t earn large sums of money. They must be ultra-dependable, and always show up on time and fully prepared. It’s not an easy job, but for the right kind of musician who enjoys working collaboratively with others, it can be very rewarding musically.

Career Path

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?

Rita Sloan (University of Maryland, Director of Collaborative Piano Program)

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.

Warren Jones (Manhattan School of Music Collaborative Piano Faculty)

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!