Accompanist…or Collaborative Pianist?

“Collaborative Piano is a term used to denote a field of the piano profession where a pianist works in collaboration with one or more instrumentalists, singers, dancers, or other artists.”

The Collaborative Piano Blog, 11/7/2005

Accompanist…or Collaborative Pianist?

Over the past 15 years, I have enjoyed the privilege (most of the time) of playing the piano with countless individuals, ensembles, and events around the world – choirs, orchestras, instrumental and vocal soloists, congregations, house parties, conferences, nursing homes, and even political primaries. The definition from The Collaborative Piano Blog is fairly on point, but I struggle with this conversation around identity. The term “collaborative pianist” is a fairly recent term (1990s), and the reasons for its emergence cause me to wonder: what’s the deal with the new nomenclature for pianists?

Each time I have sat at the piano and performed, my role has been acknowledged in a variety of ways, and my practice of retaining a program from every piano performance has yielded the following results:

  • Kevin T. Padworski, Piano
  • Kevin T. Padworski, Pianist
  • Kevin T. Padworski, Accompanist
  • Kevin T. Padworski, Musician
  • Kevin T. Padworski, Keys
  • Kevin T. Padworski, Collaborative Pianist
  • Kevin T. Padworski, Collaborative Artist
  • Kevin T. Padworski, Collaborator
  • Kevin T. Padworski, Keyboard
  • Kevin T. Padworski, Keyboarder (favorite)

and very often, no mention at all.

Why the inconsistency and confusion around how folk understand this role?

The Collaborative Piano Blog continues its definition of the “collaborative pianist” with the following statements:

“This field is also referred to with its former name as Piano Accompanying, a term which has traditionally implied inferiority, subservience, working “for” rather than “with” a recital partner. Collaborative piano, on the other hand, is a term that implies equality, association, and teamwork.”

Once this term hit the American academic realms, many schools began offering degrees in Collaborative Piano. Over 100 schools now offer this degree, seemingly distinguishing those who actively seek experience working with other musicians as opposed to a solo piano career. But most of the world doesn’t know that this degree exists, or that there is a difference – most simply hear, I got a degree in piano. (This usually results in a comment like, Well, I hope you find a spouse/partner with a good paying job…HAHA.)

It appears that this term resulted from a general feeling from pianists that their role as “accompanist” was accompanied (ha) by an apparent lack of appreciation felt from those with whom they worked. Certainly, most pianists can attest that the amount of gratitude received does not often equate to the felt significance of his or her role. But do we need to create a title just to feel justified or affirmed? Indeed, pianists are incredibly versatile and can fulfill many roles in performance. This could cause confusion among non-musicians about how to address these people. But does the creation of a new term actually help eradicate the insecurities that this term sought to fix?

The author of the other blog does follow up with a post seeking to define what it is notThe following statement from that post sums up what I believe has been the result of the new term:

“Having a distinction between collaborative pianists and accompanists creates an apartheid system in the profession where:

Accompanists = hack pianists that suck

Collaborative Pianists = really good accompanists.”

This is obviously not true, yet it remains as a toxic thought that permeates the performing world.

However, pianists seem to be the only performing medium that seeks to redefine themselves in order to gain more attention. I don’t see instrumentalists or vocalists listing themselves as a collaborative oboist, collaborative cellist, or collaborative soprano (insert joke here). 

…I don’t believe I can support the creation of a new term or degree simply to appease the insecurities of a few. Obviously, there are many Collaborative Pianists out there that can attest that neither their relationship nor their sense of appreciation from their respective ensemble has changed due to their re-naming in a concert program. So, what’s the point? 

I have worked hard to set professional boundaries and expectations with each of the ensembles with whom I work as “pianist.” Similarly, I have intentionally crafted my career to include both roles as conductor and pianist so that I am continually reminded of how it feels from both perspectives of collaboration… With those that don’t respect the work that I do, I sever that relationship. Instead of seeking to find worth from a title, create worth in the way that you work with people. 

Where do we go from here?

Seeing as there are many thoughts surrounding titles and roles for pianists, and acknowledging that there is no right or wrong, here is a basic guideline for working with a pianist for your particular music group:

  1. First, simply ask the pianist how he/she/they want to be addressed. They will have their own sense of their role and what enables them to feel honored for their role in the performance.
  2. The pianist is not yours. Stop referring to them in this way: “My accompanist…”
  3. Although they are amazing people and highly intuitive musicians, pianists are not mind readers. Offer the professional courtesy of a rehearsal plan, measure number,  or upcoming repertoire selection. This enables us to do our job the best we can.
  4. Offer pianists a real piano. This sounds like an unnecessary statement, but more often than not, pianists have to ‘make-do’ with something that doesn’t even come close. Compare that 49-key ‘piano’ to a laptop with half of its screen functioning, a speaker that only produces 30% of its volume, and the asdfghjkl;’123456 keys not functioning on the keyboard.
  5. Regardless of how you address a pianist, treat them as your colleague. Colleagues work as a team with specific roles and skills to create something together. Honor that relationship with respect and gratitude.

7 thoughts on “Accompanist…or Collaborative Pianist?

  1. Being an accompanist sounds like a great way to be able to meet a lot of different people and play in many different venues. I did not know that this was also a degree but I believe that it would be a great way to expand your musical knowledge. Also I think that someone that is an accompanist has to be able to play every genera of music.

  2. What an excellent article! This thought does come to mind as I work primarily with singers and a violinist. It is the artist with whom I work that shows me respect and deep appreciation that makes the difference. Our ideas collaborate behind the scenes and that makes our performances as musical conversations. I tend not to work with those who are not respectful and responsible. The satisfaction for me is in inspiring the singer or instrumentalist to greater heights than just negotiating notes and rhythms. Those special moments we achieve together in performance are a result of the personal collaboration in rehearsals. Usually I am named as “pianist” on a program. Other than that, I am happy that my name appears in collaboration with the singer and my joy is in the making of inspired music to uplift both singer and audience.

  3. Thank you so much for this! I’ve been a (proud) professional accompanist for years and the only time it has been confusing was when I tried to explain to non-musical types what I do because piano accompanist sounds ridiculous (I don’t accompany pianos). I have preferred accompanying to solo performance as long as I can remember and received a full college scholarship for accompanying. A few years ago the university where I was teaching piano allowed me to develop a course for accompanists. Having to seriously consider what makes a good accompanist was great fun and the non-accompanists who joined the class by accident thanked me for making them better sight-readers. It was a joy! Anyway, I had not heard the term “collaborative pianist” until this evening and when I looked it up, I most fortunately came upon your article! To the new term, I say “Bah!”

  4. Thank you for reading and for sharing your own thoughts! I’ve found that most of us have shared similar experiences, and yet we all have different preferences when it comes to what we’re called.

  5. I am getting ready to send in my information for a program and this article really helped! I am going with “pianist” because that is what I do-I play the piano. I could accompany someone to the grocery store-making me an accompanist. Ha! Ha!

  6. It is a dilemma, isn’t it? I’ve been an accompanist since 1964 (yes, I started young! Ha ha) and I’ve always stumbled over “accompanist” which you have to explain to non-musicians and “piano accompanist” which just sounds ridiculous! I can’t say that I’m thrilled with “collaborative pianist” either, though. I’m with you, Maureen. Pianist for non-musicians and accompanist with musicians (which I’m fine calling myself because they then know exactly what I’m better at than a solo pianist!)

  7. Thank you for for this information. I found the name for what I have been doing already. I love collaborating! I have been “collaborating” with high school choirs, churches and vocal soloists for over 30 years and now it has a real name.

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