Accompanying Skills for Pianists

Approximately twenty years ago I observed a vocal competition in Southern California which lasted for the better part of the day. During this time I noticed that most of the assisting pianists spent more time than necessary between numbers searching for the next piece, shuffling through the score to find the right page and often bending up the lower right corner to assist in page turning. The reason caught my attention because there was another group of pianists at various times throughout the day who came on stage with black three-ring binders containing Xeroxed pages of the scores, all in correct order. I also assumed from the lack of scrambling at critical page turns that the pianists had cut and pasted in difficult-to-turn spots. I commented on this beautiful efficiency to one of the administrators of the competition. She smiled and said: “They undoubtedly are students of Gwendolyn Koldowsky at USC.” This was my introduction to the professionalism of the Accompanying Department at USC’s School of Performing Arts.
Deon Nielsen Price, herself a USC graduate and former Koldowsky student, has written a book which will undoubtedly become the most important college textbook in the field of accompanying. Although there have been some excellent contributions by Kurt Adler, Gerald Moore and Robert Spillman, Price’s handsomely produced book is so full of fascinating musical examples and hundreds of practical tips that it stands alone in its field.

Price includes valuable information about many basic matters of good musicianship, especially listening and ensemble skills. There are many practical tips in these pages, some are quite obvious, but others are rather subtle. For example, she recommends: Ensemble is optimum when performers use the same note value for counting: that is, one should not be thinking eighth-notes while another is mentally measuring the piece in quarter-notes. She has an interesting exercise to develop the visual skill of seeing a larger portion of the printed page. One exercise for developing an expanded focus is to put your hand three to four inches directly in front of the music and stare at it in a relaxed, lazy, almost cross-eyed way. Then move your hand away without changing the point of focus and you will see a large part of the page of music. At first, when you move your hand away, your eyes will tend to shift to a narrow focus, but with practice the focus will stay more expanded.

Price has helpful advice on how to transpose, read a figured bass and read from open score. She suggests useful exercises to gain skill in each of these problem areas. Her chapter on rehearsing with another musician and the tactful ways to make sure there is mutual respect in a productive atmosphere are well focused and helpful.

One of her closing chapters is on the subject of the final rehearsal on stage in the hall. There are many matters of importance on her checklist, such as: checking for squeaking benches or pedals, deciding the height of the piano lid, the position of the performers on stage, lighting requirements, chairs and music stands if necessary, testing of the acoustics and proper briefing of the page turner, if one is used.

Although this book is about the art of accompanying, there is one word rarely found in its pages, and that word is “accompanist.” When I lived in New York City during the 1960’s I studied for two years with Artur Balsam, who was Nathan Milstein’s pianist for over thirty years. When I once used the word “accompanist” in Balsam’s presence, he told me with a wry sense of humor that I had just used the “A” word. He said that he hated to sound like a parent scolding a young child for using the “F” word, but the “A” word was not permitted to be spoken in his home.

He said that although most musicians respected his art and that of Emannuel Bay, Adolph Baller, Gerald Moore and other true artists who made their living playing ensemble music, in the public mind the accompanist was a non-person walking two steps behind the star performer like an Islamic wife. With a sigh he recalled that recently in the same two-week period he had performed a sonata program at the 92nd Street Y with violinist Joseph Fuchs and a sonata program at Carnegie Hall with Mstislav Rostropovich. Joseph Fuchs treated him as an equal ensemble partner, but Rostropovich made it clear that he was the star and Balsam’s playing, no matter how important to the musical texture, must always be in the background.

The art of accompanying has been neglected in the past, but it is an art whose time has come. Deon Nielsen Price with her splendid new book will undoubtedly contribute much to the advancement of long overdue recognition of the vital importance of this art.

Lyn Bronson
From The California Music Teacher, Volume 15, No.3 – Spring 1992