Piano Reduction – noun

‘A musical score having the parts condensed or simplified… 

{in two staves???} to render the music playable on the piano by one person.’


Following my last post, I received an overwhelming response from composers emailing me to ask about specific voicings and scenarios that may fall outside of the common SATB voicing. So, I figured I would offer a second post that addresses some of these scenarios.

A Review: Six Rules for Piano Reductions

First, here is a reminder of the six basic rules that I follow when creating a piano reduction:

1. Don’t consider it – do it. 

2. Know what to omit.

3. Keep the melody and the bass parts. 

4. Maintain the vertical harmonies.

5. Always maintain the rhythmic integrity, but…

6. …Know what is idiomatic for the piano.

Non-SATB Scenarios: SSAA, TTBB, etc.

Both TTBB and SSAA scores often create more challenges in making a useful reduction due to the range of pitches determined by the voices of the singers.
Reductions for these voicings can be accomplished in two ways:
  1. Notes split between staves so the pianist can read from a grand staff (treble and bass clefs)
  2. All notes condensed into one stave (bass clef for TTBB, and treble for SSAA)
The former is often a quicker read for most pianists.
The latter is still useful, but may become awkward due to the potential of excessive ledger line usage to accommodate the vocal range.
Either is appropriate, but it’s important to remember that it’s a reduction – not meant for performance. It doesn’t have to be pretty – simply efficient for rehearsal so the pianist can be beneficial and not a hindrance.

For Example: SSAA


Below is an excerpt from my piece, Pine Needles, for SSAA choir. As explained in my last article, the music is laid out in open score format, meaning each voice receives its own stave.

Screen Shot 2016-01-22 at 3.21.47 PM


Based upon our options, a reduction could look like one of the following:


ONE STAVE (Treble Clef)

Screen Shot 2016-01-22 at 3.21.58 PM

TWO STAVES (Grand Staff)

Screen Shot 2016-01-22 at 3.20.01 PM

*Note that the following is omitted in both reductions:

  • Slurs for melismas
  • dynamics above the score
  • lyrics – the (good) conductor should always refer to measure numbers)
  • unison notes
  • effects such as glissandi, vocal percussion, etc. Though not included in this score, these occur frequently in new works and should not be included for the pianist.

*Note that the following is maintained in both reductions:

  • articulation
  • dynamics, located in standard position for piano scores
  • tempo indicators

*This secondary set of rules can and should be applied to TB, TTB, etc. scores.


So, which should I create? 


Though it could be argued that matter of preference could determine which to use, I definitely advocate for ONE STAVE in this scenario.

  • It provides exact pitches for the singers, not at octave displacement
  • It is much clearer to read and enables the pianist to focus solely upon the treble clef for quick reading
  • It avoids bass clef ledger lines, which are commonly misread by many, even accomplished, pianists


Final Considerations


In addition to the Six Basic Rules for all piano reductions, and the omissions and maintained elements seen above, take into consideration the following:

  • Range: which version creates excessive ledger lines?
  • Number of voices: the more voices, the more congested the reduction can be
  • Rhythmic makeup: depending on the piece, intricate polyphony may be challenging to present in a useful reduction. A fugue? You bet – easy. Half of the ensemble singing homophony while the other half is singing polyrhythms? That may require some accommodations, octave displacement or a predominance of one rhythm over another.

I’d love to hear from you – composers, pianists, and conductors alike. What are you seeing and finding effective?


With gratitude,

The Pianist


P.S. I’d love to suggest to dictionary.com that their definition might change, omitting the ‘two staves’ qualifier.

“The primary duties of the conductor are to unify performers, set the tempo, execute clear preparations (upbeats) and beats (meter), and to listen critically and shape the sound of the ensemble..”

Oxford Concise Dictionary of Music (Fifth ed.)

There is a textbook popularly circulated among collegiate conducting courses entitled, Conducting the Music, Not the Musicians, by Jerry and Henry Nowak. In general, it’s a great resource for beginning conducting technique and gesture. Although I taught from Koshak’s The Conductor’s Role, 4th ed. as an instructor during my master’s degree program, I frequently mentioned segments of the Nowak text to show both agreeable and contradictory philosophies.

However, the title of the former has been bugging me lately. A lot. From what little musical experience and success I’ve had as a conductor in my 28 years, I think this is a misleading title. Let me explain… 

First, let’s consider the Nowak brothers’ intention behind the title: 


“The path to motivation and inspiration,’ say the brothers Nowak, ‘is through clearly and eloquently conducting the phrases of the music. This approach is distinct from influencing musicians through domination, demonstration of consummate musicianship, telling clever and engaging stories, or employing other purely verbal means. Said another way, we work on being and expressing the musical phrases so clearly that the musicians find themselves naturally creating the phrases with us.” Hence the title Conducting the Music, Not the Musicians.

“Strings Magazine”, August/September 2002, No. 104

Respectable. And I agree…except the title still remains poor. Honoring the authors’ intent, I will attempt to clarify my own intent: I do not mean to sound whiny about mere semantics of a title. Rather, I intend to question the accuracy of this title and its implications and effect when disseminated to thousands of budding conductors every semester…

Let’s look to one of the greats for input:

Leonard Bernstein, conductor and musical wizard.


Surely you’ve heard of this guy. A world-renown, consummate musician who led the musical world with daring performances with risk. He receives much credit for shaping the modern conductor of the 20th century. Lenny was so good, so overflowing with creative genius, so confident, and yet so humble that he did this:

Finally, he makes these important statements regarding what is required to be a conductor par excellence:

“Mendelssohn…founded a tradition of conducting based on the concept of precision…There soon arrived, however, a great dissenter named Richard Wagner, who declared…that any conductor worth his salt should personalize the score he was conducting by coloring it with his own emotions. Mendelssohn fathered the ‘elegant’ school, whereas Wagner inspired the ‘passionate’ school of conducting.
The ideal modern conductor is a synthesis of the two attitudes, and this synthesis is rarely achieved. In fact, it’s practically impossible. Almost any musician can be a conductor, even a pretty good one; but only a rare musician can be a great one.”
-Omnibus: “The Art of Conducting” (1955)


So, it seems to me that Lenny believes that precision, elegance, passion, and personality create the elusive ‘great conductor.’ Clearly, I agree… Hence, “The Art of Conducting” (much better title). 

But how does this stand with the Nowak title? 

My musical IF/THEN statements…

Looking to Bernstein’s quote as truth, here is what I believe about conducting:


  1. Music can have precision. Notes, rhythms, dynamics, instrumentation are precise.
  2. Music can not be elegant, passionate, or have personality without people.


  1. People make precise music have elegance, passion, and personality.
  2. Conductors must inspire and conduct musicians to make music thusly.

I think great conductors conduct both the music and the musicians equally.


So, I leave you with my own personal rules derived from these thoughts:



Conductors must possess excellent musicianship, 

a keen and accurate ear, clear and effective gesture,

and an unflappable knowledge of the score.


Conductors must honor the music and the composer.


Conductors must emote and demonstrate investment.


Conductors must be prepared, organized, punctual, respectful

and expect the same from the ensemble. 


Conductors must make a connection with other musicians 

and evoke a human response to create memorable musical experiences.

…so conduct it all. 


08 Jul 1970, Lenox, Massachusetts, USA --- Conductor Leonard Bernstein at the climax of Mahler's symphony performed by the Boston Symphony in Lenox, Massachusetts. --- Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS
08 Jul 1970, Lenox, Massachusetts, USA — Conductor Leonard Bernstein at the climax of Mahler’s symphony performed by the Boston Symphony in Lenox, Massachusetts. — Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

“Harpists spend 90 percent of their lives tuning their harps and 10 percent playing out of tune.”

-Igor Stravinsky

do singers have temperament?

I remember being particularly interested about learning two revolutionary concepts in high school and then again in first-year music history courses as an undergrad: Greek modes and tuning methods. Both were completely foreign to my musical knowledge prior to high school, despite having studied music intensively from a young age. But why? Why just talk about major and minor scales? Why minimize these monumental theories of musical history to a 1 hour lecture in a two credit class? Would they not have a practical impact on my musicianship later on in life? Wouldn’t most students find these numbers and patterns in music just as fascinating (if not more) than other elements of history? Many years and pondering later, those questions have led me to the following observation: I clearly take issue with certain keys. Not due to some elitist opinion nor technical ability, but the way that performers (myself included) interact with them. More on this later…

First, let’s look at the modes. 

A mode is an organization of tones based upon their intervallic relationships, similar to that of a raga in Indian classical music or a pathet in Javanese gamelan music. Throughout western musical history, we have recognized numerous categorizations of modes: Octoechos, Greek, Church, Modern diatonic, etc. 

One specifically fascinating aspect of the developing modal concept through the ages was that of emotional response or elicitation. I will use my good friend, Guido D’Arezzo (c.990-1050), as an example: he proposed the following modes (8-mode system) and emotions were associated:

I. Dorian ——————-serious

II. Hypodorian ———–sad

III. Phrygian ————–mystic

IV. Hypophygian ——–harmonious

V. Lydian ——————-happy

VI. Hypolydian ———–devout

VII. Mixolydian ———–angelical

VIII. Hypomixolydian —perfect

Cool, right? Proposing that a certain collection and organization of pitches would elicit an emotion from those who hear it? Pretty powerful stuff.

Today, modern western modes* include the following:

I. Ionian (major scale – C to C on the white keys)

II. Dorian (D to D on the white keys)

III. Phrygian (E to E on the white keys)

IV. Lydian (F to F on the white keys)

V. Mixolydian (G to G on the white keys)

VI. Aeolian (natural minor scale – A to A on the white keys)

VII. Locrian (B to B on the white keys)

*While the nomenclature remains Greek, it is important to note that the modern modes’ organization and function do not follow that of their similarly named ancient Greek modes.

So what’s my problem? No one seems to care about modal, emotional affect in 2015. Perhaps it occurs in music therapy courses and practices or compositional degrees in certain countries, but certainly not in the North American collegiate system for a performance major. 

Second, let’s mention tuning and numbers.

As you well know, Pythagoras was a theoretical badass. p_pytBeginning with his concepts of just
intonation or “harmony of the spheres”, a mathematical explanation of pitch relationships is born. Millenia later, we know exact frequencies of notes (check out this cool site that quickly charts it for you), we’ve identified all commas in the tuning systems, and thus have a bajillion ways to tune our instruments: just, equal, linear, Kirnberger, Werckmeister, Young, microtonal, you name it. Amazing advances in the world of music theory and performance. Cities, regions, states, countries, and even hemispheres have adopted different ways and opinions of what is appropriate, and it keeps it interesting. (I love listening to Beethoven 7 at A=438 and the Orgelbüchlein organs tuned to A=430 on Kirnberger III.)

So finally, what’s all of this have to do with singers?


Having worked with choirs of all levels for over half of my life, I am not sure that *most* singers can conceptualize modes and keys beyond basic intervallic relationships and use of solfege. And why should they? Singers have completely transposable instruments…

…or do they?

What if physiologically we are built to sing better at certain frequencies or pitch organizations? Are we naturally tempered? I have yet to find a choir that can sing a piece in C major or a Phrygian chant in tune. Not once. Ever. G-flat major – you bet! But C major? Not a chance. You know how sometimes we choir directors modulate up or down a half or whole step and the tuning is better…? Perhaps this phenomena may have more to do with us physically rather than our abilities to understand music theory.

Is it our classification of what A4 is supposed to be? Is it because we aren’t taught modes early enough in our music education? Is mi to fa is simply too challenging to sing? (ha) Have our bodies and vocal ranges changed so dramatically over the past 50, 100, 500 years that tuning issues have now caught up to our singers like they once did with our orchestral instruments?

Whether any of these questions have any grounding or not, I try my best as a composer to avoid keys and modes that I believe singers have difficulty achieving – emotionally, theoretically, visibly (‘annoying’ key signatures such as C# versus Db), or due to range. Moreover, I simply hope that those concepts of modes and tuning I learned so long ago cause me to do what I do with intention and hope for some sort of desired response…

In the meantime, go out and Try one of the following today:

  1. Go out and listen to a particular mode and ponder how it made you feel.
  2. Re-tune your instrument to something out of the ordinary and play something. How did it affect you? *Even for singers – pull out the app on your phone and sing an aria a cappella but to A=430.
  3. Try composing or performing in a key that is out of your usual preference. Do it again.

Happy musicking! 



I was playing a choral rehearsal the other day and the conductor made a joke comparing choirs and orchestras that has left me wondering ever since:

Why such a drastic difference between pre-concert performance etiquette of an orchestra and that of a choral ensemble?

We’ve seen it every time – an orchestra’s members casually enter the stage at their own leisure, walking between chairs to their respective section, to their own stand, and freely warm up their instruments and practice excerpts prior to tuning and the concert master and maestra entering the stage.

MONTREAL, QUE.: SEPTEMBER 7, 2011-- Musicians enter the stage during the inauguration ceremony of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra's new concert hall in Place des Arts in downtown Montreal on Wednesday, September 7, 2011. (Dario Ayala/THE GAZETTE)

What if choirs did this?

Imagine each member of the choir making their way to their place on the risers as individuals, each to his or own music stand, immediately commencing with lip trills, body kinesthetics, sighs, excerpts from an aria, clearing phlegm, and other things that singers do before they ever reach the stage. Finally, the tenor section leader draws his trusty tuning fork and the entire choir agrees upon pitch and tunes a chord before the maestra enters the stage…

I was in Salt Lake City for the 2015 ACDA National Convention and I had the privilege of hearing the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir perform. It was a euphoric performance full of deep artistry and masterful professionalism. Among other pieces they performed Pärt’s “Adam’s Lament,” a wickedly challenging dose of repertoire. Every vocalist had his or her own stand, and even more striking, actually had their own tuning fork to assist in finding their pitches. Of all choirs I have ever seen perform, they could have certainly made their entrance to the stage similar to the aforementioned description. But alas, they did as all choirs do – processed onto the stage in single-file fashion. They have the street cred and talent to perform such an entry, but they didn’t…

…Why not? What’s the big deal and does it really matter?

I suppose one could argue that carrying instruments is more cumbersome. Vocalists naturally carry their instruments with them wherever they go. Choirs are intended to represent a blend of voices and colors…but isn’t that the same intent of a string section? I have also heard a myriad of other pejorative comments toward either singers AND instrumentalists that could sway the reasoning behind the enormous differences between pre-concert rituals. However, none seem to hold any validity or HISTORY behind why this dichotomy exists between practices.

Frankly, per the choral rationale, the adages expressing first impressions and the audience “hearing first with their eyes” are rather tiresome in today’s age of stimulating concerts. What if we want to see and hear and witness each singer as an individual, a professional, an artistic technician? I saw that in Salt Lake, but would have loved to see and hear those Estonian first sopranos vocalize just as much as I enjoy seeing The Philadelphia Orchestra’s tubist play her long tones to warm up her embouchure (she’s a rockstar). 

I say what seems bizarre or uncouth in choral performance practice today may be tomorrow’s innovative move toward genius.

Maybe, just maybe, you may see a choir in Denver make their way to the stage in ways you wouldn’t expect…

“A lot of political music to me can be rather pedantic and corny, and when it’s done right – like Bruce Springsteen or Jackson Browne or great satire from Randy Newman, there’s nothing better.”

-Bonnie Raitt (b.1949)

Choir Politics

No, not that kind. Yes, it would be fun to compare the most commonly seen politics of an average choir (sopranos insulting altos, treasurer dominating repertoire conversations, senior member refusing to change seating, so-and-so must get HER copy of the Messiah that she’s used the past 25 years, clergy  vs. musicians, etc.). But no, I’m talking about political satire within choral music.

Political satire has been a part of music for centuries. Great examples include the Shostakovich 5th Symphony and other works, Thomas Arne’s Rule, Britannia!, Menotti’s The Hero, Weill’s The Threepenny Opera, and even Beethoven’s 5th and 9th Symphonies. Today, when we think of music and politics, we think of Springsteen, Dylan, Rage Against the Machine, Pussy Riot…so many great songs about political systems. And yes, political satire still occurs in modern opera (new works as well as re-tellings of classics) and orchestral works…but what happened to politics in today’s choral compositions? 

I find myself pondering this question because The Colorado Chorale, the sibelius picchoir which I serve as Artistic Director and conductor, embarks on performing Jean Sibelius’ Vapattetu Kunigatar (The Captive Queen) in October as part of a celebration of the 150th anniversary of his birth. I have a passion for performing Sibelius choral works as they are often overlooked and rarely performed. Sibelius was a great political musician and many of his works, like his well-known Finlandia, were protests against the censorship of the Russian occupation. 

The text for The Captive Queen, based on a ballad by Paavo Cajander,[1] can also be found compiled in the Kalevala. This particular text and musical setting is one of the most intriguing among Sibelius’ choral works as it has fairly blatant political allusions to the volatile national status of Finland at the time it was written. As the chorus sings of a queen held captive in a remote prison tower and of the heroic young man who hears her mournful song, one can see the implied political message behind the text:

The captive queen was Finland; the young man hearing the queen singing her heart out in the prison where she had been immured by tyrant was the young and growing force of liberation in the country. …It is a manifesto, not easy for a foreigner [of Finland] to savour fully, though it can be understood for what it is: a call to revolt.[2]

[1] Jackson, Timothy and Veijo Murtomäki. Sibelius Studies, 138

[2] Abraham, Gerald. The Music of Sibelius, 139

So, great examples of choral satire DO exist…but who’s writing them today?

they do exist meme

Even though there is a wealth of composers writing quality literature (see MusicSpoke or Independent Music Publishers), I am not seeing much political satire finding its way into new literature. Now, let me point out that this is simply an observation. IT MAY BE A GREAT THING THAT POLITICS HAS FOUND ITS WAY OUT OF CHORAL MUSIC. Or, it may not be. Who knows. And there is a wealth of good choral music that focuses on human rights and social justice. But a strong ‘&@#$ you’ from the 99%? I’m simply not seeing it. And if it does exist, this is probably because the music publishers won’t touch it.

Clearly, it’s harder to ‘hide’ satire in music with text as opposed to instrumental music. And yet, with more people than ever making their way into choirs and finding their voice, the time is ripe.

“Any musical innovation is full of danger to the whole state, and ought to be prohibited. When modes of music change, the fundamental laws of the state always change with them.”



Piano Reduction – noun

‘A musical score having the parts condensed or simplified in two staves, 

to render the music playable on the piano by one person.’


Ha. Hahahaahaaahah. Ha.  ….   Clearly, whoever wrote this definition has never seen most piano reductions.

Today, we explore two major problems around the “reduction” occurring in most choral and orchestral music today:

  1. This definition – particularly the part declaring that a reduction should ‘render the music playable on the piano by one person’ – has been ignored due to pure ignorance or laziness on behalf of the composers and arrangers. 
  2. Pianists either aren’t taught the necessary skills to read open score or multiple clefs, or haven’t invested in learning these skills.

I enrolled in 15 weeks of piano lessons during my sophomore year of college despite having a full plate as a music ed/saxophone/organ major. And yet, that one semester contained some of the most foundational and lasting lessons I have ever learned and found useful in my music career. I studied two skills in particular: jazz voicing (the work of Jimmy Amadie) and score reading (Morris/Ferguson). 

amadiebook2prep exercises in score reading

The latter provided extensive exercises for reading multiple clefs and open score passages. I cannot stress the importance of these studies and the impact on my career as a professional pianist working with conductors, choirs, students, and composers. Through these various experiences, I have seen and played many piano reductions over the past two decades. So, let’s take a closer look at what a reduction is, why we should bother, and what it should look like.

What is a reduction, really?

Again, per the definition, a reduction seeks to condense parts into two staves for use by a single pianist at the keyboard. Some reductions are notated in a separate stave, while others simplify the actual parts to make them readable by a pianist. While the following applies to both orchestral and choral music, let’s use choral music to demonstrate how it is commonly seen IRL. Most choral scores are notated in one of the following formats:

1. Short score: more common form and often used for standard octavo repertoire for church and school. Screen Shot 2015-08-20 at 3.22.40 PM

Soprano and Alto parts are placed together with opposing beams in the G-clef;

Tenor and Bass parts are placed together with opposing beams in the F-clef;

PROs: easily read by pianists; vocalists can quickly see relationship to other parts

CONs: vocalists must focus more to read their part alongside a different part

2. Open-score: often seen in choral-orchestral music, collegiate/professional level editions, coro spezzati, or any time when the voicing may exceed four parts for the choir.

Screen Shot 2015-08-20 at 3.22.58 PM

Each individual vocal part receives their own stave

99% of the time the tenor part is placed in the sub octave clef (example above)

PROs: easier to read for vocalists as they have a dedicated stave to their part

CONs: harder to read for pianists (particularly when reading multiple divisi scores (SSAATTBB), and certainly when reading orchestral scores with 13+ parts and multiple clefs and transpositions


WHY bother?

Although short-score tends to be the norm and therefore removes the need for a piano reduction, open-score format often requires clef-reading, transposition, and mental skills to be able to effectively and efficiently play the music from the piano. Much to the surprise of most conductors (see one blogger’s thoughts in Rule #3 of this article), this is not easy.

I recently served as the pianist for the Colorado Symphony Chorus’ production of Aida with the Aspen Music Festival. It’s Verdi – so already fairly complex – but the piano/vocal score is absolutely frustrating. Here’s a snapshot of two pages for an idea:

IMG_4098 IMG_4097

The photo on the left shows two sections of choral parts in open-score (SATB and TTBB), with a piano reduction of the orchestral parts. The photo on the right shows six solo parts (SSTTBB), a choral part (TBTB), and again, an orchestral reduction.

The conductor(s) expect the pianist to play all of it, maintaining the integrity of the orchestral parts while providing support to the vocalists. On one hand, the orchestral reduction is fairly on point. On the other hand, there is no choral reduction to aide quick reading.

You can see from my notes that when I arrive at a section when I don’t have time to think instantaneously to determine the part, clef, and vertical harmony, I quickly jot down my own reduction or simplification of the harmony so my fingers know what to do without focusing on a particular stave. Again, thanks to the Morris/Ferguson book above, I’ve gotten pretty good at reading open-score at sight, but when you have 300+ pages of this, it’s a real challenge.

So, What SHOULD it look like?

First, I re-address the second problem I mention at the top of this article and offer a solution: pianists need to learn the skills to read scores in any format. Learn your transpositions, clefs, how to read open-score, and improve your knowledge of theory and harmony to predict what’s coming and quickly identify chords. Teachers – please include these skills in your lessons.

If you’re a composer or arranger or conductor that is putting music to paper,  here are six basic rules that I humbly submit when considering a piano reduction:

1. Don’t consider it – do it. Music notation is cake nowadays, so just add the extra stave and your pianist will thank you for it.

2. Know what to omit. This requires knowledge about orchestration, both chorally and orchestrally. For orchestral reductions (who does write these, anyway?) identify doubling and core melodies, and make it feasible to play with 10 fingers. For choral reductions, utilize stems to identify parts, words like unison, and articulation and breath marks.

3. Keep the melody and the bass parts. 

4. Maintain the vertical harmonies, but remove those unison notes.

5. Always maintain the rhythmic integrity, but…

6. …Know what is idiomatic for the piano. Some notes shouldn’t be played in that octave on the piano. It sounds terrible. Some passages are too fast for most rehearsal pianos, particularly repeated notes. The keys won’t respond. Make it a tremolo.

With gratitude,

The Pianist

“Miss no opportunity to practice on the organ; there is no instrument that takes such immediate revenge on the impure and the careless, in composition as well as in the playing, as the organ.”

-Robert Schumann (1810-1856)

I’ll HAVE a…bÄrpfeife?

One of most important aspects of learning to play the pipe organ is gaining a broad knowledge of the myriad of sounds and colors that the instrument can make. This practical information enables organists to move from one organ to another – from a home to a college and their own city to a foreign country – and be able to continue to share their craft. Every organ and its respective stop-list is different, and yet even the most moderately trained organist has the ability to enable each instrument to create music as intended.

Unfortunately, organists are usually the only ones (typically) who have this knowledge. So, when it comes to a collaboration between an organist and a 1.) composer or 2.) an ensemble for a performance, most conductors and composers are completely clueless. While they may intimately know the intricacies and timbre of every woodwind, brass, string, and percussion instrument, they often lack the information and knowledge in order to describe the music and musicians they aim to lead when working with an organ.

Let’s explore each scenario:

1. Composer and Organist – a new commission for solo organ; somewhere in AZ

Composer: “Here is my latest draft of the score. Hope you enjoy it!”

The organist heads off to read through it…and returns sooner than anticipated.

Organist: “Um…you have lots of dynamics marked, but no indication of registration. What do you want at the beginning piano marking, and then at the key change when marked fortissimo?”

Composer: “There are flutes on the organ, right? They’re softer timbres, so, just use those stops for the piano and something louder for the fortes and fortissimos.”

Organist: “Uh…okay. I guess I’ll do my best and make musically informed decisions.”


Composer: “What the $%^& was that? That didn’t sound at all like what I wrote.”

Organist: (Inaudible sigh)

2. Conductor and Organist – a performance of the Fauré Requiem; somewhere in MD

Conductor, shouting across the orchestra to the organist: “What do you have marked in the first movement, six measures after letter D?”

Organist: “Anches.”

Conductor, who vaguely knows this term because they read an Adler book: “Well, it’s much too loud.”

Organist: “I agree, and I’m trying to balance it, but I only have a 16′ Fagotto, an 8′ Trompette, and a 4′ Clairon that are functioning, and none of them are under expression. Plus, this is a 60’s Möller and the scaling and wind pressure is intense.”

The conductor blinks, confused by the mysterious words being spoken…

Conductor: “Well…fix it.”

Organist: “Maybe if I couple the Gedackt pommer with the Jubalflöte and the Grossrauschquite…?”

Conductor: “As long as they are reeds. Honor the score and what Fauré intended.”

Organist: (Inaudible sigh)

In general, organists are wonderfully nerdy people that are thrilled to be collaborating and sharing the beloved instrument with audiences. And yet, these two scenarios happen nearly every time. Where I become frustrated is 1.) the process leading up to these moments, and 2.) the way organists respond (or lack thereof). However, despite the seemingly apparent wrongdoing in both situations, each party – the composer, the conductor, and even the organist – is guilty. 

The composer, knowing that he or she was commissioned to compose for the organ, could have invested the time to research the instrument as well as made the contact with the organist to create a relationship that would benefit the two.

The conductor, knowing that the work calls for organ, could have first contacted the contracted organist. Second, the conductor could have investigated what organ was to be used at the performance – the year, the make, the builder, the location of the chambers. With this information, he or she could begin a conversation with the organist about the challenges of making an American organ sound like the Cavaille-Coll in L’eglise Sainte-Marie Madeleine.

Finally, the organist, though full of good intentions, failed to initiate conversations prior to these moments. Simply put, organists are the source of the knowledge and therefore responsible for helping share that with the people with whom they work.

If you are one of these People…what should you do about it?

Glad you asked.

Answer? Find and use your resources. Luckily, organists and non-organists alike have been passionate about this instrument for centuries. There are books, magazine, articles, blogs, and even real live groups of people that huddle in church basements once a month called AGO Chapters. All of these options can actually help you in tangible and beneficial ways. This world of music isn’t to be feared nor ignored – embrace it!

If this was in the TLDR category for you, but you still want to find answers, here is a place to start:

  1. Contact your local church/synagogue/college/community/symphony organist. Make a new friend and learn first-hand at a console nearby.
  2. Check out a book at the library.
    1. Dictionary of Pipe Organ Stops by Stevens Irwin
    2. Method of Organ Playing by Harold Gleason
    3. The Organ – An Encyclopedia by Bush and Kassel – WARNING: this is drier than cornbread that survived the dustbowl in Oklahoma.
  3. Too introverted to go out? Consult the interwebs:
    1. Organstops.org – a whole list of stops you’ve never seen or heard of before with definitions and wacky pictures.
    2. Youtube it.
  4. Sit down at an organ and play it. Experience the difference between stops for yourself and as Confucius says:

“Tell me and I forget. Show me and I may remember. Involve me and I will understand.”

…click here to actually find out what a bärpfeife is.

“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.