Accompanists: mutual expectations

You can expect your accompanist to:

Accept only engagements she can fulfill, both technically and from a scheduling standpoint.

Tell you if the music you’ve selected is too difficult for her.

Pay attention when you demonstrate how you plan to play a piece – I once worked with an accompanist who failed to do this, and the rehearsal went downhill from there.

Follow the solo line as she reads her own part.

Partner with you in deciding musical interpretation, and make good suggestions.

Take notes as you both make musical decisions – If you tell a good accompanist something once, she will make it happen, or voice her concerns so you can address them.

Observe the tempo you set, and work toward optimal balance between the instruments.

Pedal without noise – This is especially important on a stage, where her slapping shoe may appear at audience eye level.

Adapt to the requirements of your instrument.

Your accompanist expects you to:

Treat her as a professional, with respect – The only time you’re allowed to yell at your accompanist is when she fails to notice the piano is on fire.

Provide sheet music in advance – This allows her to prepare for the first rehearsal. Give her a new or nearly new piece of music, not one so marked up it’s hard to read. When printing downloaded scores, use high quality paper and print double-sided in a way that minimizes page turns. If you trade music back and forth (for example, filing Christmas music during the year), return to her the copy with all her notes.

Tell her what you plan to work on at each rehearsal, so she can prepare efficiently.

Provide an acceptable instrument, both for rehearsals and performances, as well as suitable working conditions.

Lead instead of follow – As the soloist, it’s your job to lead, and you’ll never get through the piece if both of you are waiting for the other’s cues. Setting tempo is such an important topic that I plan to write about it separately.

Signal clearly – When you’re ready to start, make eye contact to check that the pianist is ready too. Then whoever opens the piece will begin, or you’ll start together. Know who starts every piece you play.

Understand how your part fits into the rest of the music – Listen to a recording of another artist playing your piece, even if it’s another instrument. Follow the sheet music, and sing your part. Notice how it fits with the piano part (and other instruments, if any).

Be realistic about your own abilities – Plan music you’re technically capable of playing at the proper tempo. Unless your accompanist is also your coach, she’ll expect you to prepare a piece over a handful of rehearsals, not dozens.

Meet your financial obligations to her – The fee promised by you or the venue is the accompanist’s paycheck, and, since you asked her to accompany you, it’s your responsibility to see she gets paid without having to ask. I won’t hesitate to call a venue and ask, “Is there anything your accounting department needs from me to issue a check to my accompanist?” If they don’t pay at time of performance, they’ll hear from me every week until my accompanist tells me she’s received a check. In cases of unacceptable delay, I’ll pay her myself.

Limit the number of freebies requested – It’s one thing for your accompanist to accompany you for free at her own church or for a volunteer group you both belong to. It’s another thing to ask her to donate her time to something that you wouldn’t ask her to donate money to. Balance the freebies with generously compensated gigs, so the annual total comes out close to the market rate.

Acknowledge her contribution to the performance – Ask your accompanist if she prefers that the two of you bow together, or for you to bow first, then acknowledge her. Either is acceptable. The key is to agree on the approach that makes her feel acknowledged for her considerable contribution to the success of the program. On the printed program, I generally list Janet’s name first. The reason is that she plays both as a piano soloist, and as my accompanist. Since we’re both soloists on the program, we use alphabetical order by last names. Never let anyone omit your accompanist from the program because she is “only” the accompanist.

Be considerate about meal times, parking, excessively early call times or late end times, and outside obligations (teaching schedule, child care, scheduled vacations, family time) when making plans to rehearse or perform.

Provide clear (preferably written) information about where and when she’s supposed to meet you for performances, and what you’re playing – In December, when it would be easy to mix up the gigs, I prepare a sheet of all the venues, addresses, call times, and concert times that we’ve agreed on. The rest of the year, I usually send an email at time of confirmation, so my accompanist can put it on her calendar. For every concert, I give her a printed concert program at our last rehearsal, so she can put the sheet music in concert order.

You can expect each other to:

Learn your individual parts independently and spend your time together working on musical expression – My accompanist friends tell me: it isn’t the accompanist’s job to teach the soloist the music, unless you’ve made a specific coaching arrangement.

Honor your commitments.

Show up on time, prepared, and ready to work at rehearsals and performances – Even when the accompanist is paid by the hour, honor the relationship by using her time well. It’s great to have a good time and enjoy each other’s company, but remember that this is a work session. A satisfying collaboration balances task focus and relationship building in a proportion comfortable to both participants.

Give ample notice if you must reschedule or arrive late – Reschedule sparingly; give high priority to the time you both set aside to work together. If you reschedule more than 10-20% of your sessions, maybe you should choose a more convenient time.

Consult in case of illness, to assess the likelihood of infecting the other person – When your accompanist is ill, she can’t work, and she may not have paid sick leave.

Block out interruptions, especially cell phones.

Leave outside problems at the rehearsal room door – You’ll want to know of unusual stresses in each other’s lives, so you can treat each other with appropriate care during fragile times, but rehearsal isn’t a therapy session. A productive rehearsal is a good respite from life’s problems.

Keep confidences – Trust takes time to build and care to maintain. You don’t want to read a Facebook post ridiculing something you did or said, and neither does your accompanist. (My accompanist is reviewing this series of articles as a reality check, and so I don’t unwittingly embarrass her by sharing something she’d rather I didn’t.)

Act with integrity – Don’t ask your accompanist to play from illegal photocopies. She deserves legal copies of all your music. Likewise, your accompanist shouldn’t ask you to pay her in cash so she can understate her taxable income.

Consult together before making final decisions on performance dates, times, and venues, joint collaborations with other musicians (such as inviting someone else to perform with you), and music programming.

Respect the other’s wish not to accept a gig or play certain music.

Respond promptly to questions or requests, especially time-sensitive inquiries, like responding to an invitation to perform.

Provide the opportunity to review any published materials that concern the other, such as concert programs or publicity materials.

Discuss and resolve problems, whether musical, administrative, or interpersonal, in a constructive, non-judgmental, non-defensive way – If there’s an issue, discuss it directly with the other person, ideally with a suggestion for how to improve the situation.

Divide work optimally – For me, this means that I handle all the administrative details of booking gigs, issuing publicity, typing and copying concert programs, etc. The exception is that my accompanist is the primary contact when we offer music at her church. The way I look at it, I want my accompanist to spend her time learning music and helping me on musical matters that I can’t handle myself. If she wants to devote extra time to our work together, I’d rather have her compose, or explore new music possibilities, than handle routine chores I’m capable of doing myself. She already has administrative work associated with running her small business, and isn’t looking for more paperwork.

Promptly share recordings of performances as you receive them.

Give ample notice when you decide to discontinue or substantially alter the relationship – The other person needs time to react to your plans and find someone to fill the considerable hole left by your departure.

Copyright © 2012 Nancy Kirkner,