Essential guide: How not to treat your pianist

Essential guide: How not to treat your pianist


norman lebrecht

February 14, 2018

The Strad has published a hilariously condescending guide to string players on how to relate to the accessory they once called an accompanist. Someone should tell them that times have moved on.

The Strad list is beyond parody, but we’ll have a try:

1 Remember that the person at the piano is a human being. He or she may have human rights. And a musical background. Maybe even a name. Try to remember it.

2 Make sure they can read music. Then give them a score. Allow them time to absorb it. Check that they have a rehearsal diary and can read English.

3 Try to read the pianist’s part in advance. It might have something to do with what you’re playing.

4 If the pianist makes a suggestion in rehearsal, pretend to take it on board.

5 Make sure the pianist’s name appears in the programme and is properly spelled. The name does not have to be the same size as yours, but spelling is important. Practise taking a stage bow together. Do not take their hand and raise it above your heads (that would be too much equality). Make an effort to smile at their agent, that always eases the green room atmosphere. Do not pat any part of the pianist’s anatomy. This person is not your friend.


  • Minutewaltz says:

    That must be parody surely?

  • steven holloway says:

    A somewhat confusing post. The ‘parody’ is more like a paraphrase with additions, all of them still relevant. The Strad people are behind the times? I think not. I do think that the Strad piece is illustrated by a video of Perlman with deliberation. See Blair Tindall’s Mozart in the Jungle on Perlman’s relationship with his long-time collaborator Samuel Sanders.

  • Alex Davies says:

    Actually, I think that this list could well be useful for students and amateur players. When I was studying the violin and viola I very rarely played chamber music with a student pianist. Whenever I played music for my instrument and piano I was always accompanied by one of the pianists whose role on the staff was to accompany students in classes, recitals, auditions, competitions, and examinations. These highly accomplished musicians were able to accompany any student on any instrument in any piece of music with little or no rehearsal time. The student would lead and they would respond effortlessly to whatever tempo or dynamic or other interpretation was forced upon them. Rather like staff at a very expensive hotel, they provided an indispensable service but were expected to be essentially invisible. This was of course quite appropriate, as my chief purpose at the time was to become more proficient on my instrument, not to become an accomplished chamber musician (there were separate classes for that!).

    It was therefore not until I was well established in my adult life that I began to realise that when a work is said to be for a particular instrument and piano it is properly understood as a piece of chamber music in which both instruments are of equal importance. Of course, I now listen to a piece like the Spring Sonata or Kreutzer Sonata and understand that it is a dialogue, a collaboration, between violinist and pianist, and that for at least half of each piece the piano dominates, if that is the correct term. I would now always try to say, “sonata for violin and piano”, rather than, “violin sonata”, or, “performed by Oistrakh and Oborin”, rather than, “performed by Oistrakh”, “the Oistrakh recording”, etc.

    Of course, one is also still burdened with the legacy of the golden age of violin playing when the violinist really was seen to be the star, and the pianist served to facilitate his (or occasionally her) performance, rather as the role of the male ballet dancer was until recently first and foremost to show off the skill and beauty of the ballerina. I note that my box set of Heifetz Beethoven recordings lists numerous pianists in small print with a guide to the tracks on which they appear, as if the pianist makes no contribution to the overall artistic vision. But I also suspect that the student experience of the staff accompanist plays a large part in our perceptions of the role of the pianist, especially for those of us who never progressed to the stage of performing chamber music at a professional standard.

    • steven holloway says:

      Your mention of the Heifetz’ Beethoven recordings is interesting. Just one of the sonatas he recorded with Benno Moiseiwitsch, invaluable as the only record we have of the latter master in chamber music. And, a very happy thing, their first full take was preserved and has now been issued. A happy thing because Heifetz would not approve it — he wanted and got another take with the violin much more to the fore. Ego. And this in spite of Beethoven having written on the title pages that these are sonatas for piano and violin, in that order. A collaboration of a very different order that comes to mind is Kreisler and Rachmaninov in one of the Grieg sonatas — a perfect meeting of equals, without ego blocking the way to a glorious performance.

      • Hilary says:

        Your mention of the word ‘ego’ compelled me to look up an explanation of this wildely used word.
        I found it helpful, and I certainly identified with it 100% to be honest:

        • steven holloway says:

          Very honest indeed. The linked article does have one aspect missing, i.e., that ego comes in two types: good and bad, healthy and unhealthy. The healthy is that which allows us to recognize those things at which we are accomplished and those at which we are not. That is vital. A pianist who books Carnegie Hall to give a recital of Beethoven’s late sonatas had better be damn sure he has something to say. If bad ego fosters delusion re this, disaster is afoot. So good ego tells us what we are capable of and what not, while the bad creates this illusion of abilities not possessed and also, as it becomes more extreme, gives the idea that one should always come first, always be to the fore, the centre of attention. Henryk Szeryng was an exemplar of rampant egotism, though a host of others come to mind, of course. Clara Haskil might be cited as his antithesis. Claudio Arrau’s article ‘A Performer Looks at Psychoanalysis’, reprinted in Joseph Horowitz’ Conversations with Arrau, throws much light on this re the effect of ego on music in performance.

    • Paavo says:

      In Beethoven’s time the piano came first, before the violin: Sonate für Pianoforte und Violine. Mozart sonatas and early Beethoven sonatas were essentially piano sonatas with a violin part.

      • Alex Davies says:

        Interesting that you and Steven Holloway point this out. I remember seeing a recording that preserved what I now know to be the original order of piano and violin and I just assumed it was an eccentricity.

      • SVM says:

        In the eighteenth century, keyboard instruments were far quieter, less resonant, and thus far less capable of sustaining a /legato/ melody. So, a lot of works for keyboard instrument and violin from that period could be understood as cases of the violin being co-opted to make the melody easier to follow and more pleasant to hear. In many works of the period, the violin part was declared as optional or interchangeable with another treble instrument. A similar explanation accounts for the tendency of violoncello parts in Haydn pianoforte trios to double the left hand of the pianist’s part, much like a /basso continuo/ texture (albeit notated differently, in that the pianist is not expected to realise figured bass).

        Mozart and Beethoven, although they started to accord a more significant role to the violin (notably, in the latter’s “Kreutzer” sonata), tending towards indispensable partner rather than acoustic supplement, were still influenced by the legacy of such repertoire, and both were, of course, great pianists themselves (not to doubt Mozart’s accomplishments on the violin!), so it is unsurprising that they continued to give the pianoforte precedence in the syntax.

        The question remains, assuming we are using modern instruments, how should (if it should) this history influence our understanding of the violinist-pianist relationship?

        Well, as Alex Davies observes, music education, even at an élite level, could be more amenable to fostering serious collaboration or partnership. It is easy to blame violinists for taking pianists for granted, but I think that another facet of the problem is that a typical pianist starts doing accompaniment only once he/she has already spent several years training as a soloist (as far as I recall, the first time I did proper accompanying for an actual performance was in the same year as I did my ABRSM Grade 8 Pianoforte examination). Thereupon, most of the accompanying work he/she does will entail producing a musically acceptable result on very limited rehearsal time, even if he/she is fortunate enough (as I was, at junior conservatoire) to have chamber-music coaching with motivated fellow-students and good teachers. With time, such experience becomes enormously locupletative, forcing the pianist to acquire the musicality and versatility to tackle difficult parts convincingly whilst sight-reading (ultimately, I think that good sight-reading and learning a piece “properly” entail fundamentally the *same* skills), all while remaining responsive to the other player. However, I cannot help wondering whether this stage could be reached sooner — and whether pianists and violinists could produce better results when collaborating — if pianoforte teachers were to introduce accompanying explicitly at a *far* earlier juncture (it is something with which I have experimented when teaching). Of course, it would also rely on pupils valuing this facet of pianism more highly, and perhaps being a bit less obsessed with entering relentlessly for solo-pianoforte examinations and competitions… And then, there is always the matter of rehearsal time!

  • Mark Shulgasser says:

    Do not touch the pianist at all, neither on the knee or the shoulder. Hand-shaking is permitted (not too vigorous); hugs are not. In fact, never be alone in the same room with your pianist.

  • Bruce says:

    Should be basic information that any musician should know; so it’s worth putting it out there once in awhile in case someone’s teacher isn’t teaching them proper stage etiquette.

    My teacher in undergrad once mentioned that she didn’t realize she needed to teach people this stuff… until she saw a student finish their piece on a recital, bow, and walk off stage, leaving the pianist to eventually make his own awkward exit.