How To Become an Accompanist
What Does an Accompanist Do?
During a typical day on the job, University of Texas – Austin Staff Accompanist Dr. Alex Maynegre-Torra says, “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.”
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.
Many Collaborative Pianists begin their careers as freelance Accompanists. Advancement comes through performing with more prestigious performers and organizations. Landing a salaried, secure position at a college, university, or conservatory music program as a Staff Accompanist also represents a significant step in an Accompanist’s career.
Education & Training
Many Accompanists hone their skills in college, through degree programs in Performance, Accompanying or Collaborative Keyboard. In recent years, doctoral-level programs have exploded in popularity, so an aspiring Accompanist would do well to continue their studies beyond their undergraduate years so they can compete in the job market.
Extended study also gives pianists more time to immerse themselves in the western canon of music, which is essential since it will give the Accompanist a stronger, well-practiced repertoire he or she can draw upon when needed. Dr. Maynegre-Torra adds, “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.”
He suggests, “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 on piano technique is important so that as you get older you can still play many hours a day without injuring yourself.”
What Skills Do You Need?
Obviously, working Accompanists must have a serious amount of performance experience under their belts before seeking work. This experience includes knowing how to collaborate with other performers musically, by balancing sound levels and following the other performer’s pace, for example.
“Being a good sight-reader always opens doors, but that’s not the only skill and sometimes it’s not the most important,” Maynegre-Torra says. “You have to be able to work with many different people whether you instantly like them or not, so interpersonal skills are a must.” He adds, “Learning music quickly and well can be as important as sight-reading, depending on the specific job.”
When first beginning their careers, Accompanists must also have some entrepreneurial skills, as they’ll basically be self-employed and in search of other performers who need a piano player to accompany them.
Maynegre-Torra says, “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.”
“My schedule changes week to week. If you want an 8 to 5 job this won’t do,” Dr. Maynegre-Torra says. “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.”
Accompanists work alone on certain aspects of their job (rehearsing, behind-the-scenes administrative work), but the collaborative part of their career means there’s also somewhat of a social element. Schedules can change in order to accommodate both the Accompanist and the individual or organization they’re accompanying.
For aspiring Accompanists, Maynegre-Torra says, “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.”
How Much Does an 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.
“It’s not easy to make a good living only by freelancing, but it is possible,” Maynegre-Torra says. Freelance Accompanists set their own rates. Staff Accompanists are salaried.
Unions, Groups & Associations
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.”
- “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.”
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 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).”
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.”
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.