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A Piano Collaborator’s Ode to an Artform

By Erica Ann Sipes

An earlier version of this article appeared on Beyond the Notes

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I recently had the great joy of giving a masterclass for young pianists who were trying their hands, many for the first time I believe, at collaborating with their peers. Readers of my blog will not be surprised to hear that I ate up every moment of our time together. I am a huge advocate for enlisting pianists into the collaborative field because I believe there are many advantages to spending at least part of one’s time and career in this role, whether as a student, amateur, or professional. I also believe our world needs more skilled pianists who are willing to serve musicians of all ages and abilities.

In my mind, here are some of the benefits of learning how to accompany, especially at an early age.

It’s a social way for pianists to be involved in music-making. So much of our time is spent alone in the practice room. It is more difficult, as pianists, to find opportunities to make music with others. Especially for high schoolers, I think this social outlet can help keep someone in the game who might otherwise quit.

It gives pianists a sense of purpose and of being needed. An extension of my first point, solo playing can start to feel a bit selfish after a while. At least for me it can start to feel like I’m doing it solely because I like doing it or because I like the music. When I throw another person into the mix, however, I sense a shift in purpose. It’s no longer about “me” but rather about “us.” I like that!

Even when the accompaniment part is one of those “easy” ones that require little practice, I still know that without it the music would not be the same. Being a collaborator puts me in a role that inspires the nurturing, guiding, supporting side of myself. It feels great to be needed and for a young person, feeling needed can make a dark, lonely, seemingly pointless world seem a lot brighter.

When pianists collaborate they are opening the doors to countless libraries of new and different repertoire. I realize that as pianists we have so much music at our fingertips that we need not fear running out at any time, but I think most people enjoy having an excuse to check out other composers and styles of music. Granted, some of it can be downright scary and un-pianistic. But even then, all that different repertoire keeps life interesting and our brains working in full gear. My guess is that collaborators live longer thanks to the intense mental workouts we put ourselves through. Somehow I doubt there’s been a study on that topic.

Collaborating gives us many more opportunities to perform. Having just a few solo performances a year can make every performing experience a daunting one and it makes it challenging to practice performing. When we collaborate, however, we often find ourselves performing more than we ever thought we would or even could. It gives us lots of practice in a safe way. And for me, because I’m in a support role, any nerves I might have tend to be outweighed by my desire to be there for the person with whom I’m playing.

Another advantage is that when collaborating, memory isn’t necessary. For those students for whom memory can be a stressor, being able to use music in performance can be an encouraging experience that leads to more confidence. In time, successes can infuse courage into music-free solo performances, as well.

Playing with different instruments and voice types can open up our ears to new sounds and different timbres. I can often guess when a pianist hasn’t worked much with other instrumentalists or singers because their sound tends to be very vanilla. Having grown up in a fantastic youth orchestra as a cellist surrounded by the most incredible sounds, I have those different timbres, colors, and densities of sound in my mind even when I’m at the piano. I strive to pull an orchestra out of the piano strings, pedals, and hammers.

Rarely does a young pianist have the opportunity to participate in an orchestra, so accompanying different types of musicians should be a part of their education in my mind. It gives them a palette of multiple colors, textures, and thicknesses rather than just a few shades of black and white.

Working as a team player brings a pianist a different motivation to work hard. No pressure here, fellow pianists, but in my opinion a pianist can make or break a performance in a collaborative situation. That’s not to say that the pianist has to play the music perfectly — I don’t believe in the importance of note-perfect performances because I think that’s unrealistic and simply not the point — but I do think the pianist has a lot of responsibility on his or her shoulders. Time spent in the practice room is for a very clear cause and that sense of purpose can lead to a pointed concentration that can carry on into a pianist’s solo practicing as well.

It can help pianists let go of their quest for “perfection.” I think it’s safe to say that most professional collaborators learn that delivering a note-perfect performance is rarely, if ever, possible. I daresay sometimes it’s not even desirable, especially when we’re talking about an orchestral reduction for which the arranger was paid by each note he jumbled the page with. (I’ve heard this is why so many of the reductions are as beastly as they are!)

Check out my blog post entitled “Confessions of a Piano Collaborator,” from several years ago to read about some of my creative escapades on the keyboard. There are usually lightbulb moments once a pianist realizes that people rarely if ever realize when he or she has judiciously left out notes or artfully re-arranged the music. And once this revelation has been made, wrong notes in a solo performance don’t seem nearly as disastrous either. The focus instead falls on the music and on expression — always a good thing in my book!

There’s nothing quite like collaborating to reveal any weaknesses one may have in regards to rhythm and pulse. To extend my earlier point about working as a team player, it becomes clear quite quickly that a collaborator can’t add beats here and there or fudge rhythms as successfully when there is someone else whose part needs to interlock with the pianist’s part. The pianist needs to be the conductor at all times, without fail, all the while also being sensitive and aware of anyone else.

When working with singers especially, collaborating can bring a new dimension into musical interpretation. Pianists so often have to dig deep in order to come up with a storyline or something to say in their music unless it’s clearly programmatic. Singers have the great advantage of having text to inspire their musical decisions. Working with vocal literature can inspire more drama and creativity when it comes to the interpretation of solo piano literature.

After some experience, collaborating can improve one’s sight-reading skills and can help pianists see the value of developing them further. I believe that it is very difficult to work on this skill on one’s own. It’s much easier when there’s another musician playing along, especially someone who’s able to play or sight-read at a higher level. My mother made me play duets with her regularly starting at a very early age. I whined and groaned about it a lot at the time but I really should send her a bouquet of flowers every week for the rest of her life to thank her for doing that!

Rehearsals require a level of verbal communication that will serve anyone well in whichever field they end up in. In order for rehearsals to be productive, the musicians must communicate well with each other. It takes time and practice to get good at it but it’s so worth the effort. I once tweeted that if politicians conducted business the way musicians conduct rehearsals the world would be a much better place. I still believe that to be true and judging from the reaction of others to that tweet, I’m not alone.

If we can get young pianists interested and experienced in collaborating at a young age they will be more likely to use their skills as an adult, regardless of whether or not they are professionals. I can tell you that especially outside of big cities, there is a desperate need for skilled pianists to accompany in the community. Whether it’s for church choirs, local music studios, in the schools, or in the community, there need to be more pianists that feel comfortable collaborating. It helps that it is also a good way to earn some money doing something social and personally satisfying.

Can you tell I love what I do?  Sigh…

Those are just a few of my thoughts on the topic. If anyone has any to add, by all means, please do by commenting at the end of this post!

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Erica Sipes has spent most of her musical time as a piano collaborator, playing with and coaching musicians who play just about every instrument. Her passion is helping musicians at all stages discover how to approach music, practicing, and performing in a way that leaves them empowered to make their own musical decisions, encouraged, and excited to share their talents with others.

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