A Career for Pianists in Collaborative Piano

by Mauro Bertoli on May 19, 2020

What is collaborative piano? Singers are well aware of the need for accompanists, but as a pianist, did you know there’s an entire field of study dedicated to the art of accompanying? What kind of a degree does a collaborative pianist hold? And what are the career options?

 by Amy Merz

We spoke with some professionals in the field to help answer these questions. Here are a few important thoughts to guide you as you explore collaborative piano.

1. What is the difference between solo piano performance and collaborative piano?

A¬†solo¬†pianist performs as a soloist‚ÄĒeither completely alone, or as the ‚Äúmain event‚ÄĚ in front of an ensemble such as an orchestra.

A collaborative pianist, on the other hand, focuses on collaborating and partnering with other artists. He or she is a talented performer in their own right, who enjoys working with soloists and chamber musicians as the primary means of performance.

2. What does one study in a collaborative piano program?

Dr. Susan Slingland is a full-time staff accompanist at the¬†Hayes School of Music at Appalachian State University. She says that in a graduate collaborative piano program, students have a lot to learn on top of the classic keyboard repertoire. ‚ÄúCollaborative students must learn I.P.A. (the International Phonetic Alphabet) and how it is used when coaching a singer‚Äôs diction‚Ķthey also study art song, lied, m√©lodie, and chamber music.‚ÄĚ

Some students also choose to take classes in opera, baroque ensemble, or orchestral piano. In this way, they are both expanding their knowledge of repertoire and performance practice while working with a wide community of musicians.

At¬†Carnegie Mellon University School of Music, Mark Carver and Luz Manriquez run a program that crosstrains students to be fluid in both instrumental and vocal collaboration. ‚ÄúThe students study chamber music and lyric diction, and work with instrumental and voice faculty in the studio. The graduate collaborative recital culminates in the presentation of both instrumental and vocal repertoire,‚ÄĚ says Carver, associate teaching professor in Collaborative Arts. A collaborative pianist can therefore train to focus more exclusively on working with vocalists, instrumentalists, or both, depending on the institution they choose.

3. Undergraduate, graduate, or both?

Most music schools exclusively offer graduate study in collaborative piano, but there are a few programs available to undergraduate students. Dr. Andrew Campbell, director of the Collaborative Piano Program at¬†Arizona State University, says that there are some special cases where a student might be prepared to do an undergraduate degree in this area. Sometimes a student has pursued professional opportunities before deciding to complete their bachelor‚Äôs degree, and could assimilate into such a program. ‚ÄúFirst and foremost, we look for musicians who have a solid pianistic technique and command of the instrument, who are sensitive musicians with experience in collaboration, and perhaps most crucial, a collaborative personality!‚ÄĚ

According to Dr. Ivo Kaltchev, associate professor and head of the Piano Division at the¬†Benjamin T. Rome School of Music at Catholic University of America¬†(which also offers an undergraduate collaborative piano degree), ‚ÄúDuring the past 10 years, we realized that¬†there are more and more young pianists who love the piano, play it very well, but are not interested in majoring in piano performance.‚ÄĚ

The undergraduate vs. graduate question might seem like a tough one, but a philosophy shared by every school of music ‚ÄĒ including those offering an undergraduate degree ‚ÄĒ is that the development of strong piano skills at the undergraduate level is paramount. In both of the undergraduate collaborative programs mentioned above, there is still a strong focus on solid technical and musical skills, but with some additional courses such as diction, ensemble performance, and vocal coaching.

Several of the professionals interviewed for this article agree that to gain ideal marketability, graduate study in collaborative piano should be part of your plan no matter what you pursue as an undergraduate. Additionally, a DMA (Doctor of Musical Arts) may be necessary for careers in academia.

4. With what background does one typically come into a collaborative piano program?

Though strong piano skills are an absolute must, backgrounds can be quite varied. According to Barbara González-Palmer, professor of Collaborative Piano at Rutgers University’s Mason Gross School of the Arts, most students come from a degree in piano performance. Some of these students accumulated experience by doing some accompanying during their undergraduate degree and developed an affinity for it.

Sabine Krantz, freelance accompanist in Central New York, came to collaborative piano in a different way. ‚ÄúI was a church musician from age 12. I had to follow the congregation whether I was playing the right notes or not. It taught me to listen, always to be with the beat, and to sight read.‚ÄĚ Dr. Slingland concurs that¬†sacred music is another common background that draws in collaborative pianists, and that there is not just one path to the profession.

5. What are the hallmarks of a successful collaborative pianist?

Timothy Hester, professor of Piano and director of Keyboard Collaborative Arts at the¬†University of Houston‚Äôs Moores School of Music, says the most successful students ‚Äútend to be people who possess a willing attitude to step in and ‚Äėgo for it.‚Äô‚Ä̬†Students who enjoy working with others, but don‚Äôt necessarily need to be directly in the limelight to feel successful, are ideal.¬†¬†

Barbara Gonz√°lez-Palmer cites an appetite for repertoire and related skills (diction, technical proficiency, knowledge of languages, etc.) as essential, but also says that¬†professionalism is just as crucial. ‚ÄúThe person who is prepared, musical, and on time will get the next gig.‚ÄĚ

Dr. Tim Burns, supervisor of Collaborative Piano at Colorado State University, adds that flexibility, grace under pressure, and deep observational and listening skills are essential qualities for a successful collaborative pianist.

6. What are career options for students who graduate from Collaborative Piano programs?

According to Barbara González-Palmer, there are many career paths for collaborative pianists to pursue. While in school, pianists can work by accompanying students for lessons, competitions, and other performances.

Tim Burns states that positions such as¬†staff pianist or university professor¬†are options, though he cautions that at many institutions, a doctorate is required for this work. ‚ÄúOutside of academia,‚ÄĚ he says, ‚Äúcollaborative¬†pianists can find work freelancing in local communities playing lessons, rehearsals, concerts, musicals; at churches, schools, and local/regional choirs. Picking a locality wisely and having connections in the area only enhances work opportunities.‚ÄĚ

Timothy Hester adds professional chamber musician, choral accompanist, and operatic accompanist to the list of options. Due to the breadth of training in collaborative piano programs, students could also qualify for work in summer festivals and even potentially as studio musicians.

7. What kind of support and training outside of the required courses can one expect to find?

This varies from school to school.  At Appalachian State, students are assigned a wide variety of collaborative work (opera rehearsals, voice lessons, instrument lessons, orchestra) as part of their assistantships to broaden their experience and make them more marketable.

The Moores School is in urban Houston, and Professor Hester says that with a city so fertile in the arts, there are lots of opportunities ‚Äď‚Äď from creating performing groups off campus, to playing for University Interscholastic League competitions in the public school system. At both the Moores School and at Mason Gross, some students gain experience as paid staff accompanists at the college level.

Beyond required classes, support and training vary from school to school.  At Appalachian State, students are assigned a wide variety of collaborative work (opera rehearsals, voice lessons, instrument lessons, orchestra) as part of their assistantships to broaden their experience and make them more marketable.