Pianists and Accompanists
It would be nice to think that the word “accompanist” no longer carries with it the suggestion of a second class or second rate musician, a pianist who isn’t good enough for a solo career. In ELI’S HEART my character Eli Levin, born a piano prodigy with a defective heart, makes a conscious choice to pursue a career as an “accompanist.”
Eli has a conversation with his best friend Jackie Barron about the term, after he has been treated shabbily by a soprano for whom he has performed as a last minute replacement for an ailing pianist.
“You know, it must be hard sometimes,” Jackie said thoughtfully. “I mean, you started your professional life getting a lot of attention for being a ...” he saw the look on Eli’s face, but he knew better than to use the word prodigy. “... an extraordinarily talented young pianist.”
Eli had to smile. “Yes, I did. You think I may feel slighted sometimes because I don’t get those kinds of accolades anymore?”
“You perform with so many people, and some of them are truly great. Some you make sound great because you are so amazing. But you certainly have a different role these days, Eli.” Jackie offered him more whiskey, but Eli shook his head no.
“Have you ever looked up the definition of the word ‘accompany,’ Jackie? It means ‘to go with,’ ‘to keep company with.’ This one’s my favorite, ‘to co-occur.’ In other words, to happen at the same time. It’s a good word, actually. There’s nothing about being subservient. But it’s been corrupted in the music world to mean that. Maybe there’s a better word that could be used. Do you have any idea how many times I’ve been told I’m a ‘really good accompany-ist’?” Eli laughed, then grew more serious.
“Part of the problem is that too many people think they play well enough to accompany, so they try it and wind up doing a half-assed job. Okay, maybe that’s harsh, but not everybody can do it. It’s an art that takes a distinctive skill set. It requires a lot more than being a proficient pianist. We work hard to develop those skills. There has to be a way to make more people aware of that.”
This section of the book takes place in the mid 1960s, and now, a half century later, it would indeed be nice to think Eli’s dreams of recognition for the skills of the accompanist take place routinely. While collaborate artists are given more recognition, there is still a struggle for them to be appreciated as the artists they truly are.
I found online an interesting article on “The Strad” website entitled “There Is No Such Thing as a Piano Accompanist” which addresses exactly this subject. Elana Estrin’s thoughtful article of July 3, 2014, begins with restating the exact perception Jackie and Eli discuss, that the pianist as accompanist is an inferior musician, not good enough for a solo career. Happily, there seems to be a concerted effort among string players to recognize that in most string literature, the best performances are the result of the sharing of ideas of pianist and violinist/cellist. The “featured soloist” is advised to allow sufficient rehearsal time for these collaborative efforts to actually take place.
Estrin also comments that this should also be true for any instrumentalist or singer who is working with a pianist. While often the soloist is expected to perform from memory, the pianist has the score before him. This can mean the pianist is able to cover errors during the performance by jumping ahead, moving back, or even improvising in the style of the composer until the soloist realizes what she needs to do to get back on track.
Fortunately, at the highest levels these events are rare, but for young and/or inexperienced musicians they can happen. They can happen even to mature performers who are well-prepared. Performing is a nerve-wracking business.
The next time you attend a recital, keep an eye on the pianist and see how alert and focused he is. Ideally, he knows all the music, the soloist’s part as well as his own. If it’s a vocal recital, he may have even sung through the songs before performing them.
It is, as Eli says, “an art that requires a distinctive skill set.” And after you enjoy that recital, make it a point to let the pianist know you appreciate those skills.