Working with an accompanist

December 25, 2006 at 03:58 AM · The accompanist says "you're in charge, I'm here for you." Then you start playing and you can't find the beat. She is playing broken chords and not landing on the top note when you think she should be according to the tempo you want. You two are not together. She stops. You, the soloist, are now "dragging." You have practiced this with a metronome above tempo and then ramped back to the tempo you decided on in order to keep from dragging. You felt comfortable with the tempo that morning while you were practicing in your living room before you got on stage. Now it's all weird, the performance is tomorrow, and you're starting to freak out.

Unfortunately the above scenario is not entirely fictional. I've had other experiences where someone said "you're the boss, I'm following you," but then when I tried to take that at face value it wasn't working out. Any tips on how to be the boss (without, of course, resorting to diva-like behavior)?

Replies (21)

December 25, 2006 at 04:29 AM · Greetings,

you inspired me to write a blog,

Happy Christmas,

Buri

December 25, 2006 at 01:57 PM · Sometimes it helps to send the accompanist a recording of yourself playing said piece, to establish tempi, etc. It also helps to be absolutely certain that pianist has either played the piece before, or has at least listened to a recording several times so they know what it's all about.

Realistically, the pianist has probably not worked on the piece as much as you, and probably is not as familiar with the general feel of the piece as you. So, taking the time to familiarize the pianist with your piece before you get together should prove somewhat helpful.

December 25, 2006 at 02:29 PM · I've discovered that I frequently have had to teach a pianist where the rhythmic is in the measure and where the inne voices are going and how they interplay with the violin part. So my suggestion is that you also study the piano part to see how the ensemble works. Someone needs to know both parts completely I suggest that it needs to be the violinist.

December 25, 2006 at 02:36 PM · Even if the pianist wants you to be the boss, the clearer you are with your own rhythm, the easier it will be for him or her to follow you. When giving upbeats/cues, be as clear and decisive as possible, and make eye contact when you can.

One way to resolve tempo issues in rehearsal without offending anyone (most of the time) is to rehearse passages with a (loud!) metronome -- it should reveal when someone is pushing ahead or dragging.

December 25, 2006 at 08:42 PM · Realistically, you need way more time together than it sounds like you have. Is this someone you had to hire on your own? That cuts your options a lot. Another time, a session (and a tape recorder, minidisc or Edarol) much earlier could make a big difference. It takes a lot to be a great accompanist. Technical skills, sensitive to the music and the soloist. And there's a fine line between holding the line, thus holding a piece together, and flexing or flowing with a soloist which less-experienced accompanists don't get. I suspect each of you may have been trying to adjust to the other, which can lead to very extreme feelings of unease. For this gig, you may just have to go with it. Probably asking your accompanist to keep it simple, and to hold very steady beat may get you through it. Especially if you're paying, ask for specific things you need, like "Please don't roll chords, drop outer octaves or doubling if necessary, to play all on the beat." Luck! Sue

December 25, 2006 at 09:39 PM · For me to play with an accompaniest to both our full potential i find it is vital to be friends and to share similar ideas. this way i find that the communication between pthe two players and between players and audience is better

December 25, 2006 at 10:42 PM · Greetings,

although the wife is not such a good idea...

Cheers,

Bitter

December 26, 2006 at 04:49 PM · In general, accompanists appreciate it when you treat them like people, not a servant (I've seen a lot of people do that in undergraduate school to other peers).

Although I've heard of some bad accompanists, I know that they have the score in front of them and I try to always listen to their opinions too. Instead of accusing them of dragging, it's usually better to say things like..."okay, we're not together, let's try it a little slower..etc" Try and apply your own practice techniques to these rehearsals...trouble shoot and problem solve, how do you fix the problem?

You want your time with them to be as efficient as possible so you need to gauge the mistakes that happen in your rehearsals. Example: If you crash and burn together, go over it together and promise to practice it for next time...if they held it down and you crashed on something (shifting, intonation, counting whatever), make a note to practice it extra hard, listen to a recording more, score study, etc. and come back next time to go over it (tell them that this is a spot for next time). If they crash and you hold it down, skip whatever trouble spot and tell them you want to go over it next time. Of course, before you make these decisions, a couple or a few repetitions might be necessary together, because some people make mistakes, or you might want to get a general idea of how it goes together correctly before going off to practice it on your own (or his or her own).

And I've found that it's great to listen to the accompanist, but if you don't play with conviction, especially at places where the tempo fluctuates, it can cause you two to drag or speed up. You just have to find the right balance of paying attention to them (it is a type of chamber music) and understanding they need someone who is consistent and communicative to follow. Nods, sniffs, and cues work well, just as they do in quartets.

If someone is just not playing their part after a few rehearsals...and gauging on the difficulty of their part (if it's easy, no excuse not to have it ready), you might want to check into some other people if possible. And don't ever wait until the end of a time period to rehearse....get them a couple times early, in between, and polishing it up on the end. I know someone who failed her test for her recital because the accompanist said he had the music down, they waited until the end of the semester to rehearse, and he couldn't play it at even half the tempo. If you procrastinate, it avoids making it a priority for them to learn it a bit earlier.

One last thing...I try to get the music to them as quickly as possible, PHOTOCOPIES (I've had someone's music stolen and there went all my original piano copies!! I had to buy all new versions of the concertos :( ....plus sometimes some people might not give them back)...and I send along recordings (.mp3s in the email, or a burned CD)...the ones I've been listening to for ideas so they have some kind of reference. It's really not that expensive and it's really considerate to them.

December 26, 2006 at 07:05 PM · I have very little experience playing with acompaniment, but I remember reading some Mozart sonatas with the composer David Diamond a very long time ago, and he remarked that it was great to play with someone who didn't take it so seriously and could focus on the music instead of bickering over the details.

Of course, it was just for fun, and we didn't have to perform it the next day. Still, I think we made a lot of musical progress very quickly partly because we were both willing to crack a joke and shrug off a disaster, and just say, 'oh, I think we might want to try that passage again, together this time!' If you have control over the choice next time, I guess what I'm saying is -- find someone whose sense of humor works with yours.

On the other end of the spectrum, I sat through a concert where a man was playing the Mendelssohn concerto, with his wife accompanying on the piano. It was a total disaster. He played the third movement about three times faster than she did, and there were long pauses in the violin part while he waited for her to catch up. They glared at each other the entire time. Bruri would have really enjoyed it, not as a concert, but as a psychology demonstration.

December 27, 2006 at 08:32 PM · Check to see what you can do to be clearer. I usually have found that when the pianist is having trouble staying with me and he/she knows the part that I'm probably just not being clear enough for them. In one case, a section of a piece was completely not working. We just weren't together. I'd been subdividing the section for rhythmic accuracy and all, but I decided to try it in two instead. As soon as I switched to counting in two, it all fell in place and the ensemble worked just fine.

I try not to jump to the conclusion that the pianist is at fault. I try to look at what I'm doing first and make sure it's not something I'm doing or not doing. Sometimes the pianist is at fault, but even then we often just need to be clearer about our musical intentions.

-Laura

December 28, 2006 at 05:17 AM · Since you are the violinist, you are the boss. The pianinst should always follow you. The instrumentalist should always lead. If there is a group of you, pick one to lead.

December 28, 2006 at 06:48 PM · I am lucky to play regularly with an excellent pianist ("excellent" = technically very proficient, musically sensitive). I NEVER use the word "accompanist"! If anyone asks, I introduce him as my "collaborator." Maybe my situation is exceptional, but thinking "me boss - you slave" can't be very productive musically. My pianist collaborator has given me as many good musical suggestions as I've given him.

December 28, 2006 at 08:06 AM · "Since you are the violinist, you are the boss. The pianinst should always follow you."

I'll be sure to tell this to the next pianist I play with. :^)

December 28, 2006 at 08:49 AM · I think Sam Draper hit closest, inferring chemistry. I've accompanied a friend of mind singing, whom I love dearly, and it was 'awesomely beautiful'. (uh, on piano).

I know that in really technical music there is a tough and grind professionalism going on, but if you are going to work with this person, I personally think it would be a good investment to do some slower things and build the chemistry if possible. Somebody else mentioned the eye contact as well, though I'd take it a little further.

That's why symphonies amaze me so much--How'd they do that!. But in a one on one environment, I'd bet chemistry makes for the best environment.

December 28, 2006 at 01:00 PM · Hi,

You know, I hate the term accompanist with a passion!!! I like the expression used in American schools for degrees in this field - collaborative pianists. (Edit - Eric Godfrey, I agree).

When working with piano, it is important that the violinist listen as much as the pianist. It is a collaborative effort, not one working for the other. When you do that, things comes easily.

That said, depending on who you are playing with, there are things you can do to help. Steady inner pulse is important, but mostly, it is important that your rhythm be clear in your left hand (even) and mostly, your BOW. What guides a pianist is your sound. A good rule to remember is that a continuous sound is easier to follow than a broken one. Avoid gaps in sound unless there are rest. Indicate where you want to go with your sound (contact point and bow speeds are the best indicators). If you want to be flexible with the rhythm, then know how to do proper rubato (guided mostly by harmonic rhythm with an unchanged pulse) or again, indicate with your body but most importantly in your sound. If you have a difficult transition, it needs to be felt together. Sometimes, in such passages, looking at the pianist's hands to help you syncronize together can help. One example of this, one of the most difficult, is the transition between the end of the development section and recapitulation in Beethoven's fifth sonata. Here you will have to do it all.

Some additional tips... Eliminate obstacles in your playing that interfere with the ability to play together. Do not beat your foot, or insist on your tempo. Tempo is felt together. Feel the pulse amd its subdivisions in the music rather than count like an idiot (which slows you down). Like with many things, do not think, keep your mind clear so that you can concentrate on listening.

Things with work on with my students in sessions with piano (granted we are blessed to have a paid staff accompanist, and a fantastic one too!).

Cheers!

December 28, 2006 at 07:20 PM · I think it depends on the piece, and what part of the piece. There are plenty of violin showpieces where the piano does little more than tap out the beat with a simple chord. Then there are the Beethoven sonatas. But in a Beethoven sonata, there are passages where the violin is boss, and others where the violin is merely noodling harmonies under a rhapsodic piano part. The best example I can think of is the Spring sonata, where the piano does an Alberti line under the melody in the violin, and then vice versa.

So, even as we strive for egalitarian and respectful relationships, we still need to accept that the musical line gives control sometimes to one colaborator, sometimes to the other. Good negotiation skills are essential, which is where the sense of humor comes in.

December 28, 2006 at 09:15 PM · Paul, I think the key phrase in your post was "respectful relationships". I don't think the approach used by another poster above of (to paraphrase and adjust slightly) 'I'm the boss of all I survey and none shall argue with me under pain of much displeasure' meets that ideal. :)

Neil

December 29, 2006 at 12:15 AM · Greetings,

I think it is really ipoatrant to work though the repertoire from Biber, through Bach, Corelli, etc etc. Assuing the player does her homework then the idea of violinist as boss becomes soemwhat nebulous. The violin has had very specific roles at certain times depending on the kind of music being played and it is -very often- a mere acompanist. Beethoven sonatas for -piano- and violin being the tail end of this...

Cheers,

Buri

December 29, 2006 at 02:00 PM · I agree 100% with Christian.

Stop using accompanists, and stop treating collaborators like accompanists. If you must use an accompanist, treat them like a collaborator.

There is no chain of command in chamber music!

December 29, 2006 at 04:06 PM · I agree in principle that music is a collaborative effort. In general I feel much more comfortable in ensemble playing than solo playing, and am quite content in the middle of a violin section. I take direction well and that's naturally where I'm happiest. I also have a lot of sympathy with the direction this thread has taken recently, that you want to view your "accompanist" as a collaborator, rather than you being the boss. Left to my own devices, I'd be happy to use the alternate terms proposed here by some and never say "accompanist" again.

However . . . and this is a big however. Sometimes the collaborator may actually want to be an accompanist, regardless of how you feel about the term. In the situation I described, I wasn't the one who used the term "boss," she was. I think she was trying to help and encourage me: she knew I hadn't played a solo in 7 years and she wanted to let me know that she wanted to follow me and support me. I was also first violinist in a string quartet years ago and found myself in a similar situation: my collaborators wanted me to take charge. The second violinist didn't beat around the bush. He said "you're the first violinist, you should lead us." I've also run into similar situations at work (my paid job in biotech research).

As much as I hate to admit this, I've found that both individuals and groups can benefit at times from confident leadership, and even from hierarchies and bosses, as long as those roles and positions are context-specific and not abused.

So I'm coming at this from the perspective of one who is uncomfortable in a leadership role as opposed to one who enjoys it. (I think both personality types have the potential to be poor leaders, just for different reasons). And I'm most likely to look at myself, rather than the collaborator(s), as the source of any problems that may arise. And I've found, not just in music, that when you do take on too much of the responsibility for problems in a group, you can undermine yourself and your collaborators lose respect for you. You can't lead from that position.

I think that I have limited myself musically (and professionally) because of my temperament and my choices. I wear leadership and solo roles so uncomfortably that I have gone out of my way to avoid them, to sit in the middle of the section, to be second violin, and not be noticed. I'm trying to change this about myself, to challenge myself and take on something new.

It sounds like, for me, one answer is to be more prepared with the piano part. In this case, I was not very familiar with the piano part at all. I knew the piece as an orchestral work but not really as a violin solo, and I had concentrated my practice efforts on the violin part only. I am only a self-taught pianist; I could probably play through the piano part, but not well. Still, that would be better than nothing. I know enough piano to study the part, if not actually play it, and be much more familiar with it than I was.

The concert in question went pretty well--in spite of not having enough rehearsal time. I just blogged about it. When I watched a video of myself afterwards I thought I looked like I was telegraphing the beat too much with my body. I don't think it was that distracting from the audience, but in the future I'd like to do less of that.

December 29, 2006 at 11:34 PM · Karen,

Congrats on a successful performance! I hope it was fun!

-Laura

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