Coaches and Accompanists : Spoil Your Pianist Rotten!

Accompanist is a four-letter word to Carol Webber. At a masterclass in Philadelphia, the well-known Eastman School of Music voice teacher pauses to thank the pianist, John Douglas. In the standard fashion, the printed program refers to “Carol Webber, soprano” and “John Douglas, piano,” but Webber insists that Douglas is not a large wooden instrument with hammers and wires. “He is not a piano. He is not an accompanist. He is a pianist.” She admonishes the 600 voice teachers assembled for the National Association of Teachers convention: “We need to treat our pianists with incredible style and grace, take them to lunch, buy them flowers. Spoil your pianists rotten. If you teach nothing else, teach complete and utter respect for the discipline that allows us to do what we do. Teach this to your students: Be on time, have your music, be prepared, never make an appointment and cancel it. Be respectful of the pianist’s time, talent and energy, and always say thank you.” To John, who is by now looking a bit embarrassed, Webber adds, “The generosity that comes from your field towards us is something I barely understand. I am a beneficiary of it, but how you put up with us sometimes, I just don’t know. And you have to read our minds, you have to pick up after us, you have to hand us back our pencils.” John smiles and holds up empty hands, “You steal our pencils!”

Generosity, patience, a great sense of humor (and, no doubt, a good stock of pencils) characterized the legendary “accompanist” Gerald Moore. Moore was the first pianist to become world famous not as a solo concert artist, but as a collaborative pianist performing and recording with such vocal greats as Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Christa Ludwig, Janet Baker, Maggie Teyte, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Victoria de los Angeles. Moore not only stepped into the spotlight with the singers, but he lectured and wrote about the unique relationship that exists between singer, pianist and composer. The Unashamed Accom-panist, Am I Playing Too Loud? and Singer and Accompanist —out of print, but easy to find online at used books sites like Alibris, are must-reads for the new generation of collaborative pianists.

Gradually the term accompanist is being replaced with the politically correct collaborative pianist or simply, pianist. Some schools still offer accompanying classes or degrees, but invariably they are taught by collaborative pianists. Most working pros prefer to be called pianists, but they aren’t too fussy about labels. Pianist Kathy Olsen says, “Title is not important. Treatment is everything. One of my dearest friends and colleagues, Ruth Golden, a teacher and former soprano at the NYCO, calls us ‘The Ladies and Gentlemen of the Keyboard.’ I think that has a nice ring.”

What should today’s singers expect from their pianists? New York City pianist Ronald Land believes that the pianist should know the music and languages “as well as or better than the singer” and should be able to forecast any option the singer may take. “Some of the pianists with whom singers most like to work are not always the best ‘keyboardists’ (although some are, indeed), but they provide the singer with a secure feeling that

allows them to commit to being their best at any given time. I’m there to help them sing their best—not foster an agenda of my own.” Kathy Olsen, who may play more vocal auditions than any other NYC pianist, agrees: “I am not hired to make an independent musical statement. When I notice a pianist in an opera audition, it is usually not for a positive reason. My sole purpose is to accompany the singer.” Land says, “Any influence a pianist has on a singer’s interpretation comes in a rehearsal or coaching situation only—once it is time to make the music happen, it’s all about the singer.” Coach/conductor Timothy Lindberg believes that it is essential to define the relationship between singer and pianist: “Coach? Repetiteur? Accompanist? Each has different duties for the pianist and I expect a singer to have a clear goal for any given session. I am there to focus on the singer’s needs for that hour—closed door and telephone shut off.” Richard Shore, a Colorado-based coach with a Doctorate in Collaborative Piano from Boston University, believes that the most empathetic collaborative pianists have had some vocal training: “If you are going to play for singers, you need to do some singing.”

While collaborative pianists expect a lot of themselves, they count on the collaborative singers to meet them at least halfway. Jennifer Shoup recently earned an MM in piano performance from Carnegie Mellon University and plays frequently for Midwestern opera companies. She wants singers she coaches to come “fully prepared, having already spent adequate time with the piece. I do not expect to have to teach the ‘basics’ (notes, rhythms…) when we rehearse.” Kathy Olsen expects the audition singer “to know the style, phrasing, rubati, approximate standard tempo—in other words, to have been well-coached and prepared.” Richard Shore wants singers to “know what the song is about” and to be open to discussing interpretation in a coaching. He encourages the singer to not just look at the vocal line, but to observe what the piano is doing in terms of dynamics, figuration, pitch, and rhythm. “Often singers can get their pitch from what I’m playing, but they need to know that it’s there.”

“Although good pianists may seem as if we can read your minds…we can’t actually,” confesses Ronald Land. “The one thing I like more than anything is clean, well-marked music especially for my benefit. Not the marks of years of lessons and coachings in various ink, pencil, and highlighter—but clear marks that will give me an idea of how the music will go.” Pianist Mitchell Cirker, who plays hundreds of NYC auditions, agrees that “It is hilarious to play the Composer’s Aria and see the words DEEP THROAT and YAWN!!! written in big, black letters over, and sometimes through the score.” Cirker does ask, however, that “If you are doing a Bel Canto aria in an audition, please write out your cadenzas.” Land would like cuts in the audition score to be well-marked and easy for page turns—“turning six pages in a fast cabaletta is not conducive to pulling this off cleanly.” In short, he looks for “the little things that the singer can do in advance to make it possible for me to spend all of my attention helping them sing well. Singers who prepare with the same thoroughness that instrumentalists do are always a treat.”

Nearly every pianist has a “singer story” or pet peeve. Singers, do you recognize yourselves? Maestro Steven Crawford of the Metropolitan Opera tells of “one really funny pet peeve of mine when I used to do auditions with singers I didn’t know. Occasionally, I would ask a singer what tempo he liked and the singer would look momentarily puzzled, then point at the tempo marking and say, ‘Well, allegro’ or whatever [generic indication] was printed there. I would always respond with ‘Oh! A tempo marking! I didn’t even see that there!’” Mitchell Cirker understands that artist’s managers often call singers for last-minute auditions, but he cautions “Don’t wait until the night before or the morning of the audition to notify the accompanist if your manager gave you the date three weeks ago!” Singers in auditions also have a dangerous tendency to wander too far downstage from the piano, making it difficult for the pianist to hear. Cirker recommends that singers stay closer to the piano, especially in very “live” halls like Assembly Hall at Riverside Church. Ronald Land’s pet peeves are “singers snapping their fingers at me (especially at the end of the day!) or singers conducting and expecting me to get a tempo.” What is the best way to indicate tempo for an audition or rehearsal pianist? All of the pianists interviewed said they preferred a singer to lightly sing a few notes to set the tempo, or to write in a metronome marking. Jennifer Shoup says, “I’ve never had a singer indicate the precise tempo by clapping or snapping their fingers. They always nail it when they sing a few bars.” Her biggest pet peeve, however, is hearing “‘This isn’t hard. I’m sure you can sight-read it. Even I can play it.’ I have heard the ‘I can play it’ line so many times and I am always tempted to say, ‘Yeah, well let’s hear it then!’ Politeness always wins, though.”

A Columbus, Ohio pianist tells of the visiting New York artist who tossed her fur coat on the piano bench (and partially on the pianist.) The coat somehow ended up on the floor during the rehearsal and the pianist deadpans, “The bench was slippery.” After a San Francisco audition, I witnessed a singer whisper to the other auditionees, “I messed up the ending of my last aria, but they won’t know it was me. I really gave the accompanist a dirty look.” Unfortunately, the singer didn’t realize that the accompanist was the opera company’s Musical Director! Kathy Olsen won’t admit to any horror stories with singers, “just the usual last page (or pages) missing from the music.” Maybe pianists are mind readers after all!

Singer’s bad habits, ill manners, and mishaps aside, the collaborative pianists all agreed that working with vocalists can be extremely rewarding. Ronald Land says, “I currently enjoy all my work with singers. If I don’t like working with a particular singer, I won’t do it very long.” Nancy Curry, who trained in accompanying and opera coaching in Canada and the University of Southern California, particularly enjoys collaborating with singers on new music, “especially premieres, because we are partners in the act of creating something new.” Jennifer Shoup also enjoys watching a new work take shape. “It was truly rewarding for me to watch the process the singer went through, making the music come alive and speak to the audience. I became a better musician because I was collaborating with an artistic singer.”

Timothy Lindberg, the new Music Director of the Thornton Opera Program at the University of Southern California, says his first collaboration—working with Eileen Farrell in her teaching studio at Indiana University—“changed my life.” In his early days in New York he was introduced to many superb artists through Joel Bloch, who was with CAMI at the time. “I was challenged constantly by the countless auditions I played for these singers, and developed relationships that continue to the present day.”

Though it did not happen in Gerald Moore’s 86 years, Carol Webber hopes that “in our lifetime, we will see better pay for professional accompanists, better travel conditions… At the top of the business, when a famous singer is the draw, fees are notoriously high for the ‘name’, and the accompanist’s fees are notoriously low by comparison. The rest of us can try to achieve parity, as I believe it is truly an equal partnership and should be treated as such. Composers certainly thought so! Not much of the solo singer’s canon is a capella. Look at Hugo Wolf, Strauss, Barber… and the expression of the text that lies so fully in the hands of the pianist.” Webber, who collaborates most frequently with pianist Benton Hess, believes that singers cannot really function without pianists, and pianists who choose to work with singers are a special breed. “They deal with our idiosyncrasies, our moods, our insecurities, our egos, our learning problems, etc. Granted, they are also the lucky ones who make the poetry and music come to life with us, and flourish with us in the richness of our repertoire, but often are nearly left out when it comes to the Glory.”

To Kathy Olsen, Glory is relative: “Especially rewarding to me are the times when you see a singer through the long and arduous process of getting to the important audition. When you are there in the quiet moments between selections and Maestro Levine asks for the magic third aria…That is why we become accompanist/coaches, to guide the process and, hopefully, rejoice in the triumphs.”

Cynthia Vaughn

Contributing Editor Cynthia Vaughn has had successful private voice studios in Newark, California; Hanover Park, Illinois; Middletown, New York; Arvada, Colorado; and Springboro, Ohio. She is currently a doctoral candidate and Teaching Assistant at the University of Northern Colorado.