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.
Please 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.
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 skills do you need to be a Pianist?
“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.
“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!” –Warren Jones (Pianist, Manhattan School of Music Faculty)
“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.” –Dr. Raymond (Ray) Wong
How do you become an Accompanist?
“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!” –Warren Jones (Pianist, Manhattan School of Music Faculty)
“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.” –Dr. Raymond (Ray) Wong
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!” –Warren Jones (Pianist, Manhattan School of Music Faculty)
“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!” –Dr. Raymond (Ray) Wong
How much does a Piano Accompanist make?
“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!” –Warren Jones (Pianist, Manhattan School of Music Faculty)
“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.” –Dr. Raymond (Ray) Wong
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.”
What does an Accompanist do?
“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!” –Warren Jones (Pianist, Manhattan School of Music Faculty)
“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. Raymond (Ray) Wong
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.