For Students: Collaborating With an Accompanist

Always respect your accompanist!

Always respect your accompanist!

Without a doubt, beyond any single technique a singer might choose to study, one of the most valuable assets a singer has at their disposal is a close working relationship with an excellent accompanist. However, despite the value of an accompanist’s ear and musicality, singers at times forget that they are people too and require care to ensure a positive relationship. Younger, more inexperienced singers might be tempted to neglect the accompanist in the glow of performance. To help the young singer learn some ground rules for a long-term collaboration with their pianist, the following might be considered as a guide.

A Note – I am a singer, so I refer to singers in the article. However, the considerations contained within apply equally to any musician collaborating with an accompanist, especially when they are being paid.

1) Preparation

As with any endeavor, those who prepare ahead of time will do better than those who do not. The same goes for working with an accompanist. A rule of thumb I like to keep in mind is that you should be working with your accompanist when you both have something to gain from the time spent together.

Accompanists are sometimes treated just as the “hands” that provide the backup track. This is highly disrespectful of their time and talents. If your music is not yet learned, consider holding off on working with an accompanist until you will be able to work more productively. It will save you time and money and keep the accompanist from feeling like their time is being wasted and their talents devalued.

2) Music preparation

Different accompanists will prefer their music prepared in different ways. Sometimes an accompanist will prefer that the singer bring all of the music in already prepared. Others will request that they be allowed to do the necessary preparations themselves and will request clean copies. The best practice would be to address that concern from the beginning and just ask them how they prefer their music prepared when scheduling. Whatever their preference is should be honored and noted for future use.

Sometimes in the case of auditions, the singer might not have a chance to work with the accompanist beforehand. In this case, the music should be prepared in a binder with either sheet protectors or pages taped together so they can fold out to ensure easy readability and simple page turns. If in doubt about page turns, discuss with your private teacher. Any cuts should be clearly marked, as should any special indications regarding tempos or interpretation.

3) Money

For an accompanist, showing up to your lesson, recital, or practice session is not just about the joy of making excellent music – it’s their job. Accompanists have bills to pay and possibly the easiest way to ensure a positive relationship with your accompanist is to pay them on a set schedule. An accompanist will charge their own rate based on time and their level of experience. A more practiced accompanist in a big city will charge more than the after-school piano teacher in a small town.

My experience with accompanists in this regard is that you get what you pay for. While spending money on a well-trained collaborative pianist might seem difficult for the student singer, it is often worth the expense. A good, sensitive accompanist is worth their weight in gold and the best way to ensure they continue working with you is to pay them what they’re worth reliably.

4) Professionalism

The following statement bears repeating –

Accompanists are professionals and should be treated as such.”

I’ve had the fortune of working with accompanists who show up to practice sessions prepared, and ready to make progress. I’ve also heard horror stories, sometimes from those same accompanists, of times they have worked with a singer who ended up treating them poorly. Music was not copied, the singer didn’t show up at the right time (or at all) with no call to inform them of the change in plans, singer ended up wasting the time during the practice session, etc.

This should be avoided at all costs. An accompanist is not obligated to work with you – more often than not, they do so because they want to. Should one of their collaborators prove to be more trouble than they are worth, they are perfectly within their rights to cut ties with that singer. Moreover, if a singer gains a negative reputation with an accompanist, that reputation will spread to other pianists, who will then avoid the singer in the future. Best practice here is to avoid the situation entirely and ensure that interactions with your accompanist on the clock are friendly, timely, and productive.

5) The Role of an Accompanist

An important distinction to consider is that your accompanist, while a trained musician, is not your coach. Nor should they be considered only a pair of hands which make noise at the piano at the appropriate times. The accompanist is your partner, fully equal in the relationship. Without an accompanist, you’d just be singing karaoke.

A truly sensitive accompanist will listen and respond to your contribution in kind, making the resulting performance greater than the sum of its parts. This deserves mention and should be acknowledged by the singer. Find out when it is appropriate to acknowledge your accompanist during performances, then be sure to do it.

To Sum Up

In truth, a good relationship with an accompanist is just a matter of being a decent person. Any accompanist wants to be treated fairly and professionally, have their own work acknowledged, and be paid promptly. Do those things and your accompanist will be sure to have your back when you walk out onstage. If you remember nothing else, remember the Golden Rule –

“Treat others as you wish they would treat you.”

AUTHOR: Stephen Tanksley – Click here for Stephen’s bio


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5 Responses to For Students: Collaborating With an Accompanist

  1. Susan Morton says:

    Please, DO NOT advise sheet protectors. They reflect glare under stage lighting (yes, even the “glare-proof”) they are hard to turn and, in rehearsal, the singer has to remove music from inside a protector to make notes or markings.

    DO reproduce the pagination of the original book it came from. The page turns were thought out by the publisher and that’s what pianists are used to.

    Also be aware that musical theater pianists prefer accordion-like fold-out pages BUT classical song/opera pianists mostly DO NOT.

    Discuss both of these with your prospective pianist OR YOU MAKE OUR JOB MUCH HARDER!

    • Regina Zona says:

      Thank you, Susan. Very good advice. It is true that most accompanists do not like sheet protectors but I’ve met a few that do. The best thing is to ask the accompanist what they prefer and follow through.


    • Stephen Tanksley says:

      Wow, Susan! Thanks for the advice. I’ll be sure to update my own notes on this!

  2. Stephen Jackson says:

    It should go without saying, but bears repeating anyway. When photocopying music for your accompanist, ensure that the copies include the entire piano part! All too often, singers ignore that the bass notes of the bottom stave are chopped off or otherwise illegible. Certainly SOME accompanists might “fake it” for you in a pinch, but it’s inexcusable! One might also bear in mind that “comping” or playing from lead sheets is a completely separate skill-set and should never be assumed as part of a classical accompanists job duties. Again, you might get lucky and find a wonderful collaborative pianist who does both, but never assume as much, or worse yet, demand that they “figure it out.” Yes, it happens, and quite deservedly for the singer… that relationship is going to be VERY short lived!

    • Regina Zona says:

      Excellent advice, Stephen! All too often singers just assume that an accompanist can “make it work”! It is imperative that they take notice of the little details to allow the accompanist to do their job effectively and it pays off for the singer in the end!

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