The Art of Collaboration

April 18, 2018, 6:38 PM · We’ve all heard the expression, "Lead, follow, or get out of the way." I got to thinking. Does that apply to music? And, if so, are those my only options? I pondered these questions in anticipation of an extremely important rehearsal I was preparing to have with a brilliant pianist, Chih-Long Hu. We were setting tempi for a piece by Benjamin Britten that we’ll perform together next month. I’ve done the work numerous times, but it was new to him. Further, we’ve not worked together before. It was "my rehearsal" and the burden was on me to take the lead. Or so I thought.

I’m not great at setting tempi. (Well, actually, I’m great at "setting" them but when I start to play, all bets are off. The tempo I take generally has nothing to do with the tempo I’ve just set.) Anyway, I was determined to do my best. After all, this is a piece I know inside and out. I have an opinion about every bar of music. And sitting at the keyboard was a man who recently played the Goldberg Variations by memory. What could possibly go wrong?

Well, nothing, actually. And that’s because right before I launched into my tempo-setting tutorial, I had a strange thought. Perhaps Chih-Long had an idea about the piece. Perhaps he’d found something I’d missed in all my years of approaching it the same way. And, perhaps his interpretation was equally valid.


Let the Music Do the Talking

I set my lecture aside and decided to let the music do the talking. And what transpired was one of the most eye-opening musical experiences I’ve ever had. But before I get into the specifics, let me digress a moment about the term "collaborative pianist." I’ve only recently realized that this moniker has replaced the term "accompanist." On first hearing, I found it truly cringe-inducing. It reeked of political correctness… a label designed to make accompanists feel better about their lot. What’s next? "Second violinist" becomes "the musician with the violin sitting to my left who plays equally as well, yet generally lower?" (And I say that as a true second violinist.)

After working with Chih-Long in this particular rehearsal, however, I began to understand what "collaborative pianist" actually means. It was quite a revelation to me. One I was hard-pressed to put into words. Then I happened upon a YouTube clip of famed mezzo-soprano Dame Janet Baker discussing Benjamin Britten and his finesse at the keyboard. She articulated the experience beautifully. "He didn’t push you or lead you. He anticipated what you were going to do. That was accompaniment of the highest order."

That summed up perfectly what Chih-Long had done. He anticipated what I was going to do. I could simply release the music. It was no longer about an accelerando here or a decrescendo there. It was just about releasing the music. In essence, getting "out of the way" of the music and letting it find its own path. I stopped worrying about whether he would pick up on this or that musical "moment." He always did. And he found beauty in the piece that I had never noticed before.

The Art of Anticipation

So perhaps "anticipation" actually replaces leading or following. Maybe it is a form of "getting out of the way." Because if you’re leading or following, aren’t you, by definition, apart from the other guy? If you and I take a walk together and I’m leading, aren’t you a few steps behind? Aren’t I pulling you along with me? Aren’t you struggling to keep up with me? Is there not some level of tension as we strive to walk together, while one of us takes the lead and one follows?

Imagine instead we’re walking side by side, but at times I anticipate your pace and you anticipate where I might slow down for a turn. We find ourselves wonderfully in sync and much more attuned to each other’s inner rhythm and breathing. I know when you need a little room and am happy to accommodate. You sense when I need to pick up the pace, and you’re right there with me.

The same is true in a musical stroll. It’s not my walk. It’s not my pace. It’s ours. What we create is honest, collaborative, and, getting back to music, truly respectful of the composer. And maybe, just maybe, as we round the bend you reach out gently and take my hand.


April 19, 2018 at 04:06 PM · Diana, this is one of the most thoughtful posts on musical collaboration I've ever read. But it's actually more than that, it's a recipe for meaningful, fulfilling partnerships of all kinds. Thank you for this. I've printed it out and am keeping it in my files.

April 19, 2018 at 04:12 PM · Diana

This is beautifully written and a thoughtful way of describing what we used to call “the art of accompanying”

There are many wonderfully gifted pianists who somehow miss the mark when accompanying. They too should read your article__it describes how staying in the moment (note to note, etc) will create a oneness when performing.

April 19, 2018 at 08:55 PM · Another beautiful article. Reminds me of the old Viola Spolin Theatre Game called "Follow the Follower". Teams of two: One player becomes the mirror, the other the initiator. The mirror tries to reflect the exact movements of the initiator. They switch roles. They become confident to give and take; to follow the flower. The object is that an observer ultimately cannot see who is the mirror and who is the initiator. They are one in performing.

April 19, 2018 at 10:11 PM · There is no question that if one approaches all musical ensemble work within the context of collaboration that the results will be infinitely more pleasurable for both performers and audience. It was a pleasure to read of Mr. Hu and Ms. Skinner's happy collaboration. Where and when is the public performance?

April 20, 2018 at 12:11 AM · Thank you so much for the kind and supportive comments! The concert is in Knoxville, TN on May 10, Ossoli Circle, 7PM!

April 20, 2018 at 12:39 AM · Beautiful, Diana! Dr. Staheli of BYU Singers (my mentor) always said “lead follow, follow lead.” This captures the essence of that statement he made to us—even as choral singers. Lovely work!

April 20, 2018 at 01:27 AM · I appreciate your sharing a very unique perspective on rhythm. I learned a lot from the way you likened it to walking with someone else. An excellent analogy. Your writing is very poetic. I think it’s the best way to describe our efforts. Someone once said that it’s not the notes that are so important, but the space between the notes. Poetry makes us think how to individually strive and perfect.

April 20, 2018 at 12:31 PM · I am truly overwhelmed and inspired by these comments! It is incredibly gratifying to hear your thoughts on the subject of collaboration. I am forever amazed at all the things music can teach us about life.

April 20, 2018 at 02:58 PM · Thank you for another wonderful article Diana! What you wrote is not only so true about music but also about any collaboration in life. What came to mind immediately was marriage. What a marvelous lesson for a harmonious marriage. Anticipate and get out of the way. Imagine if both of us always did that. I hope I've been but will surely think more about it now! Thank you!

April 20, 2018 at 05:13 PM · Diana you have done it again. What a thoughtful article about true collaboration. Bravo!

April 22, 2018 at 03:12 AM · Great article, Diana. You described beautifully what makes a great accompanist and what true collaboration with an accompanist really means. I'm sure Chih-Long will also appreciate the lovely things you said about his playing.

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