A Company of Pianists

Q: What’s the difference between an accompanist and a pianist?
A: An accompanist is a pianist with gigs.

In 1995, I got a Masters in Accompanying, Vocal Emphasis, at the University of Cincinnati, C-CM. I’m on a bus right now, leaving Cincinnati, after having not visited that city for the past 19 years. It was an okay town back in the 90s but it’s a GREAT town now.

Whilst in Cincy these past two weeks, I had a chance to connect with three of my professors from grad school: Kenneth Griifiths who is and was the head of the vocal accompanying program, Donna Loewy, a staff accompanist of sorts (and much much more – she plays for EVERYONE), and Kelly Hale, now retired, who was the head of the opera department when I was in school. These meetings were incredibly gratifying. It made me realize just how fortunate I was to have such excellent guidance during those formative years.

It was Gary Kosloski at Baldwin-Wallace, my undergrad alma mater, that informed me of the existence of  accompanying programs. I was finishing a piano performance degree in 1993, and I knew I had hit a dead end. I was never going to make it as a solo classical pianist or as a chamber musician. I had played for slews of singers and instrumentalists in undergrad, as well as several music theater productions…I even music directed a little. Learning that I could further my education specifically in the realm of accompanying was a revelation and a relief.

Doing grad studies in accompanying, I learned a lot that I might not have if I had gone to grad school for piano performance. I had an assistantship in the opera department, and I played a lot of rehearsals. I got to know rep that I wouldn’t have been exposed to, learned some of the subtleties of working with singers (through experience, of course), and even broached some things that most classical pianists don’t like to think about; things that accompanists are up against more frequently than piano soloists, like transposition, score reading and lead sheet realization.

And certainly, I become versed in the art of realizing a reduction. I’m going to write a whole book about that one day, so I’ll just leave that hanging there for now.

Now that I’ve been doing this for 20 years, I realize that this name calling is a little silly. Every pianist I know is an accompanist. Why do we even have the designation? [Fun side note: for a while, there was a movement afoot to lose the term “accompanist”. It was considered derogatory. Folks floated the idea of calling accompanists “Collaborative Pianists”. I always thought that was worse. Not only did it take me a couple years to learn to spell “accompanist”, I never mastered the spelling of “collaborative”. And, besides, does that imply an alternative? “Non-Collaborative Pianist”? “Combative Pianist”?]

I had intended this post to be about the difference between being an accompanist and being a pianist. When a pianist plays with a trio, is she accompanying? When a pianist plays an art song with a singer, is he collaborating? Heck, even when pianists play by themselves, they are STILL accompanists, owing to the whole nature of playing a polyphonic instrument. So, except for marketing purposes, these terms have no meaning.

I like being called a piano player. I have avoided “pianist” from an early age, owing to potential confusion (see video). Or, at the very least, I pronounce the word [pi-‘æ-nɪst]. SO here’s a question for those out there that tickle the ivories for a living: What do you like to be called? “Keyboardist?” “A Playuh?” “Piano Boy (Girl)?” “Piano-ist?”

As the Italians say, “No-a matta’ what-a you call-a youself, you inna good accompany!”*

*No Italians were harmed in the writing of this post, but a lot of language was compromised.