Thoughts From The Accompanist

Thoughts From The Accompanist

On the rewards of being the associate artist.

Sally Whitwell
Sydney, Australia

Thoughts From The Accompanist

On the rewards of being the associate artist.

Recently, I had a chat with a young pianist who is just about to complete his Bachelor of Music performance degree. He said to me “I’m not sure I’ve got what it takes to be a soloist, so I’m thinking about just studying accompaniment. How do I go about this?”

For a start? You’d better bloody be the best musician you know!! You have to know that whole score as if it were etched into your skin. You have to be hyper aware of every little breath, every look, every movement from every musician.

And you really have to Play The Piano.

That last point especially. Admission: when someone calls me a ‘sensitive accompanist’ I consider it an insult. It implies that I was just background noise, that I didn’t get in the way, that the attention was not taken away from the soloist, that I was, in short, a musical doormat. If and when such ‘compliments’ come to me, I make a note to myself to compete more 😉 #cuehaters

My official training in piano was in accompaniment but I have started working as a soloist too in recent years. Since then, the comments on my accompanying have shifted. Maybe it’s that my technique has improved a little? Or that I have more confidence? At any rate, I get the “sensitive” thing less and less. These days, the compliments are more on the actual quality of sounds I’m making and on the kind of performance I give. I like that. It’s how it should be. I play the piano and I do it on stage and I like to be actually heard and noticed.

Occasionally these days, I get the comment “Oh, you’re a soloist, so you don’t really understand the special skills required to be an accompanist”. The issue here is that they’ve probably ‘heard’ too many doormat accompanists. I say ‘heard’ because I suspect that not very many audiences are used to actually hearing all the wonderful stuff that’s going on in piano parts, lovingly crafted by composers across hundreds of years.

So I continue to make sure that every time I rehearse and perform, I really Play The Piano. Some people still don’t like it. This one time, a colleague walked onto stage mid soundcheck and lowered the piano lid WHILE I WAS PLAYING! I stopped, as did the 80 odd singers and conductor on stage at the time. All eyes were on me in the ensuing silence. “It’s not a volume control,” I said, as I reinstated the piano lid to it’s proper position. Another time, I was shouted at by a competition official with an over-inflated sense of self-importance. “This room is very reverberant” he hissed at me as he lowered my piano lid. “These ears are hyper-aware” I retorted as I reinstated the lid to its rightful position for an Art Song. We went on to win that competition, with a song I composed.

So to anyone thinking that accompaniment might be an easy option for a second-rate pianist, THINK AGAIN. It is both the hardest and the most satisfying music making you will ever do in your life.

Ask mentor Sally Whitwell a question here.