Cello-accompanist for chamber music?

Edited: March 18, 2021, 10:46 PM · I've been working on the string trio repertoire and got to the point that I would really like to play through a couple. However, while I know a good amateur violist I have been unable to find both a sufficiently advanced and available amateur cellist. Thus, I had the idea of hiring a pro to play with us.

I thought, in these supposedly depressed times of Covid, with many orchestras on ice, that someone would love to do this - after all, it would be a gig where you get to have fun playing. Thus far, however, I have only had rejections and at least in one case the impression I got was that the cellist concerned (teaches and plays intermittently in a semi-pro orchestra) was offended that I asked. On reflection, I wondered if the idea of 'playing with amateurs' was more offensive than 'getting paid to play as a pro'. I tried directly and through organizations but while one expressed some interest, she changed her mind when she had more details.

Is this a radical idea? If I want to practice a violin sonata I can contact just about any pro and quite quickly find someone that fits the bill. Is a cellist-accompanist a weird idea?

Perhaps there is someone here that can give me some insight.

Edit - just to be clear the object here was just to play through the music, not perform it.

Replies (22)

Edited: March 18, 2021, 7:34 PM · Elise I think it's a great idea and I also think your impression of the situation and of the responses of those you've approached is accurate.

The "fun playing" part is where I think you may have overestimated. For a professional string player, I'm told that playing chamber music with amateurs is mostly NOT fun.

One possibility: Instead of asking someone just to play with you, you could ask them to *coach* you while doing so. That way they are being asked for at least some modicum of their professional skill set. I further suggest that you make it clear, up front, that you will not ask that person to perform with you or record videos with you. They may be afraid that their substandard performance with a couple of amateurs will be enshrined on YouTube. If the purpose of your work with the pro is education rather than recreation I think that will sell better. I presume you would then also offer to pay what the cellist normally makes to give lessons (as a starting point) and that you would have your vaccine documentations in good order and so forth!

Edited: March 18, 2021, 9:00 PM · I suspect the main problem that pros have with playing with amateurs is that possibility of appearing on YouTube.

For a few years I was in a monthly reading quartet with a professional violinist and a professional cellist, and we occasionally had a professional violist join us to read quintets. No one was paid, because we were just reading chamber music for fun, and the pros enjoyed it because they rarely had opportunities to play "heavier" chamber music. However, I suspect they would not have been as happy to play if it were being recorded. The reputations of the two amateurs in the quartet may have made a difference: both of us played regularly in a semi-pro orchestra and were known to be good sight-readers. And perhaps it was because the pros were playing with amateurs on their own terms -- the usual host and main organizer of the reading quartet was the pro cellist.

March 18, 2021, 9:52 PM · Good points Paul - but I did anticipate them. I made it clear it was just for practice and I also suggested that they might serve as coaches. Both of which are quite natural with pianist accompanists. But to no avail.

Andrew - that might be an issue but all they have to say is 'No'. I've played with pros many times at festivals and have filmed the event for my own records and to share with family. Most of the time the pros ask me to not put it on UT - and of course I comply. If that was the limiting issue surely they would just have said?

BTW many pros love to play with amateurs - partly as Andrew mentioned they get to play repertoire that they now have no time or reason for. Some actually love it as part of making music together or the satisfaction of coaching. But again, why is it so different for string players than for pianists? If you play badly with a brilliant accompanist there is no blemish on the latter - everyone knows its the student or amateur.

March 18, 2021, 10:09 PM · A few ideas:

- If COVID is still rampant in your area it might at least be part of the reason why you get refused out of hand.

- Join ACMP (at acmp.net). It costs $25 a year and offers a nationwide directory of chamber music players with contact info. Also a directory of coaches and other goodies. In some areas there might be other organizations that may help, so get creative with google. In the San Francisco Bay Area specifically there is CMNC (cmnc.org). Their main purpose is to organize chamber music work shops. But they also have an e-mail list which you can join without being a member (if they have not changed the rules) and send a mail around.

- You may also contact cello teachers (most professional musicians teach) and ask if they have a student who might like to join you.

- If you can find a second violin player there is a small but fine repertoire for 2 violins and viola, most notably Dvorak's terzetto (not exactly easy but well worth practicing) and miniatures op. 74 (somewhat easier but also somewhat less attractive). Also some music by Martinu. More on IMSLP. Similarly there is a repertoire for flute, violin and viola (Beethoven and Reger among others).

I have generally found that there are two groups among professional musicians. Some look down their noses at amateurs and stay away from them like the devil from holy water, others are very graceful, helpful and forgiving and a pleasure to work with (and to learn from!--one does not all one's learning in formal lessons). You have to understand however that they play for a living. Most of them do something other than music for fun.

Edited: April 6, 2021, 11:27 PM · It’s probably Covid, but it could be other reasons.

What are the union rules in your location?

How closely matched are your skills with the cellist’s? What is the level of the other players?

Have you tried contacting students at the local universities?

March 18, 2021, 10:45 PM · Albrech and Freida - I think I made it clear above (and to them) that I was going to HIRE them. That's what an accompanist is, a paid pro who plays with you. And yes pay them at least Union rates.

On the other issues - Covid: surely an issue but I was mentioned this up front (I have a large socially-distant studio with its own entrance etc etc). If that was it surely they would have said that they would be interested in doing so once we were all inoculated. Besides, I also made it clear that I was planning for the long term and looking for possibilities in the future.

I am a member of ACMP but there are no cellists listed nearby. I think I know the amateur community out here too.

I also tried asking about students - and expressed my interest in paying university students too.

Thanks for the rep suggestions (I'm aware of the V/V/Va trios) but that's really not the issue in this topic.

Freida - this was not about performance, it was only about playing through the repertoire in my studio (or at some other location).

I have never had trouble finding a pro pianist to play, for example, sonatas.

March 18, 2021, 11:23 PM · "I tried directly and through organizations but while one expressed some interest, she changed her mind when she had more details."

I suspect the devil might be in the details, which we don't have.

"Besides, I also made it clear that I was planning for the long term and looking for possibilities in the future."

This might also be a problem - I miiiiiight agree to do a one-off if I liked the people involved, but it would be more difficult to commit to a longer term project, especially if it was scheduled where it would make taking more lucrative gigs impossible.

March 19, 2021, 4:28 AM · Actually, in that particular case the detail that first came up was that this pro said it was too hard, she was still studying.

March 19, 2021, 4:56 AM · What if you made some compromise? Start with one session for example. If you are lucky the cellist will like playing with you and may agree to come for more.

March 19, 2021, 6:55 PM · Why not hire a pianist to play the cello part? It could be fun!
March 19, 2021, 7:24 PM · Eliae, I'm not sure about your use of "accompanist" in this situation. While an accompanist may be "a paid pro who plays with you," it also has some implication of a subordinate role. Most chamber music is written for "equals," not like there's a star part (1st violin haha) and some block chords going on in the background for rhythm and harmony. If I were trying to hire somebody in this role, I'd just ask them to read the cello part, or play the cello part. Reading it implies more spontaneity.

Also, I doubt many pros consider this as much fun as a hobbyist would. Im most professions, pros learn early on that playing is their profession and livelihood and not to do it unless paid properly. I know you were trying to pay them, but maybe focus more on the paying them up front, and not on the fun for them part. But if they come play, offer them wine and be fun, and they'll come back more readily!

March 20, 2021, 7:07 AM · I have to take issue with the denigration of 'accompanist'. That may be an issue in the string world but my experience with pianists is that being an 'accompanist' is a highly regarded skill attributed only to the elite.

I only added that term later because the initial response by the cellists was so negative and due, I believe, to the notion that playing with amateurs was a declaration of failure - even if you were hired to do so. IMO this is such an absurd notion - you can be paid to play with amateurs in a community orchestra, that is fine but to do so in a chamber setting seems to indicate a sensitivity that is totally misplaced. For example, Yehudi Menuhin delighted in playing with amateurs. Nobody doubted his abilities. And I have played with dozens of expert pros at music festivals. We all had a great time.

When I was a dancer we had a saying that went:
Beginners only want to dance with Intermediates,
Intermediates only want to dance with Advanced,
Advanced only want to dance with Experts,
Experts want to dance with everyone.

I think the same holds here.

March 20, 2021, 11:46 AM · I've played in piano trios for about 40 years, the first 20 as the violinist, the 2nd 20 as the cellist.

If some violinist was soliciting a cellist for a trio and asked for a "cellist accompanist" my first instinct would be to assume they thought they were "all important" as the violinist and had never really done the full trio thing before and I would not touch it with the proverbial "10-foot pole."

I did "take" 4 semesters of a community college chamber music class and every time I got into a semester-long ensemble with a pianist (twice out of the 4 semesters) taking the class to gain "chamber music experience" it was a disaster. That's one reason I stopped taking the adult evening class.

March 20, 2021, 12:01 PM · Andrew - for a fellow amateur I would obviously never invite someone to play except as an equal. Else why do chamber music? But the problem comes when you ask a pro. If you ask them as an equal you are insulting them for sure, there should be some respect for their accomplishment and also for their profession. So what do you say? You want to make it clear that you are asking them to play NOT as an equal. What I actually said was 'as a pro', 'perhaps as a playing-coach' AND or 'as an accompanist, the same as I would pay a pro to accompany me on the piano.'

Perhaps you have a better way of putting it? In these times when many pros have lost their orchestra income I thought they would actually bust the door down for the gig - but I never imagined that something with an element of pride would be a factor. Why? Because of the pianist accompanist analogy.

March 20, 2021, 12:03 PM · Mary - the pianist idea is a cool one. The other would be a bass guitar player. I know they would have no issues of playing.

However, string chamber music would truly sound weird with either as they can only sustain a note with difficulty and can not adjust tuning for just intonation.

Edited: March 20, 2021, 12:24 PM · Elise, I am with you. And I agree with you entirely about "accompanists." The idea that the term "accompanist" embodies any kind of inferiority or shame is something new and very unfortunate. The accompanists who performed with Heifetz, Stern, etc., were proud of their gigs. The professionalism of the accompanist lies in helping the soloist look and sound as good as possible, and it requires a complex set of skills in addition to just keyboard skill. There are some, like Michael Kanan, who still embrace the term.

On the other hand, the fact is that these days we tend to say "pianist" instead of "accompanist" on programs, in promotional materials, and the like. Another way to look at that is just the evolution of language.

I honestly think you're doing all the right things. I don't understand where the resistance is coming from either.

About the fee you're offering, I don't know how you're doing that, but I presume you've indicated that it's negotiable. In my view the fee should be on the same general order as a cello lesson would be, maybe a *little* more if the cello parts and the cellist has to prepare. The idea that you would be paying more than $200 per hour is absurd.

One more thought -- if you can bear the idea of working with a younger person, maybe one of these cellists who turned you down has a student who would like to make some walking-around money. Also, since you have a strong reputation at your institution, maybe one of the cellists on the faculty there would be willing to have a short phone call with you -- as a courtesy to a colleague -- to help you figure out what is going wrong and possibly point you in the direction of a local skilled amateur or a student who would be interested in working with you.

The bass guitar player would be violating the first rule of professionalism in his or her field: All the money is below the fourth fret.

March 20, 2021, 12:23 PM · Thanks for the feedback Paul - and understanding. As you say, I need to get together with a pro cellist and get some advice. However, the violist in the trio has since recruited a very accomplished amateur bass player who is interested. Yes, wow is what I thought too!

Actually, she came to my house about a year ago when we played the Mendelssohn octet so I have met her. Looks like a go at least.

Edited: April 4, 2021, 9:16 AM · I didn't realize that you had proposed a coaching gig. Perhaps you should go to the top and ask a professor about chamber music coaches or cello teachers.

Consider asking the coach for their fee, requirements, and conditions, so that they feel like they are in control. I don't know what you said to them, but if it's anything like your wording in this thread, that could set off red flags in their minds about power dynamic issues, whether you intended it or not.

Some coaches may still turn you down. Teachers turn down students all the time.

"I never imagined that something with an element of pride would be a factor. Why? Because of the pianist accompanist analogy."

Other posters have mentioned being turned down by teachers before, based on age, level, schedule, or fit, but this is the first time I've heard someone saying that a pro should be happy to take a client due to COVID, and what pride they must have if they don't.

Edited: March 20, 2021, 2:05 PM · "this is the first time I've heard someone saying that a pro should be happy to take a client due to COVID, and what pride they must have if they don't."

That's not the way I read it. My read on it was, we keep hearing that musicians everywhere are struggling, losing their gigs and such, and they'd rather have work than charity, and this is work even if it's not the work they'd choose first, and the fee that's being offered is a regular professional fee. And it's not charity-work because the client actually demonstrates a desire ("need") for the service. Several months ago we were hearing about violinists that were in serious trouble -- whose paycheck-to-paycheck existences were exposed by the pandemic. So in that light, I have to say that it IS surprising that there is nobody willing to do that in a city the size of Toronto, and one does start to wonder whether the underlying premise that musicians have been challenged during the past year is really correct, or what the problem really is, if it's not that. (All the pro musicians I know have leaned harder into private teaching and other types of gig work.)

And that's why I think this is a good thread because there are really two questions -- first, what might Elise do to solve the immediate problem at hand, and the second question, basically, is "what gives?" And that's an honest, reasonable question in my view. Certainly a professional musician should have the prerogative to refuse any type of work without explanation, but after the second or third rejection, I think it's only natural to be wondering why that might be happening.

Edited: April 4, 2021, 9:20 AM · Yes, jobs are down due to Covid. But I don't think one should assume that the pro is motivated by "pride" (that's a word from Elise's post) if they turn down a job and speculate about their allegedly negative attitudes toward amateurs on a message board.

Maybe the pros are spending their leisure time re-training for another career. Maybe they have increased their private teaching on Zoom to make up for lost gigs, and they are reserving their schedule for these longer-term students. Maybe they have to take care of their mental health because everyone is stressed, and the details of the job make them say, no thank you.

Even if people are desperate for work, how are they going to earn anything from this gig right now? It's asking the pro to contract far in the future (when many other competing opportunities can return). That's not going to help their economic situation today.

They can't meet and get paid until Covid passes or everyone is vaccinated. Right now, many people do not want to meet indoors with strangers for an extended period of time (Elise mentioned her studio), even if they are standing 6 feet apart.

That's why I think suggesting the option of meeting outdoors can make things more attractive. Hopefully by May, the weather will be better in Toronto, and a coach might welcome getting to play outside.

March 20, 2021, 9:42 PM · I would still avoid the word "accompanist". Whatever its meaning was in the old age it is hardly ever used these days. And it sounds like "secondary participant" to the general population--and probably to many musicians too. (It is also particularly unfitting for trios where nobody is an "accompanist".)

I have been thinking about the person who refused on the grounds that the music was too hard. If this was not something the person said because she thought to be honest might hurt Elise (a possibility) I don't quite understand. A professional should be able to sight-read most of the standard trio repertoire. Plus they should have sufficient ensemble skills.

March 21, 2021, 2:55 AM · Although this topic may seem mysterious, it probably actually is not.

People have mentioned that many pros have moved to teaching online. This form of work can be efficient, as the teacher does not need to travel to gigs. Elise is asking them to travel. So the question is, can the pro earn more money staying at home teaching, or running around to play chamber music.

Then there is the question, will the pay for the chamber music amount to enough money to support the pro? The answer is probably not. Thus, if the pro is not teaching, etc. they may have to find other work. This could interfere with their ability to take the chamber music gig.

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