The art of the collaborative pianist

Elizabeth Watts Mon 4th February 2019

Elizabeth Watts and Simon Lepper agree that the time has come, once and for all, to leave the term ‘accompanist’ behind

Elizabeth Watts and Simon Lepper

Elizabeth Watts and Simon Lepper

In 2018 the Royal College of Music (RCM) became the first London conservatoire to rename its Masters in Piano Accompaniment. The new name: ‘Masters in Collaborative Piano’. The driver, to highlight the central role of the pianist in collaborative music making and to give emphasis to the range of skills gained on the course.

EW: What is the origin of the term ‘collaborative’ pianist?

SL: It is often thought of as originating in America where it is used widely but you can trace the term ‘collaborative’ in relation to piano accompaniment back to a paper published in 1930 written by composer and pianist Sir Herbert Hamilton Harty. In his article Sir Hamilton Harty says that ‘Of all the different branches of piano playing, the one which has been most consistently neglected is that of the art of accompaniment’. He argues that the chief cause for the neglect of the art of accompaniment is to be found in the absurd and unfortunate title of ‘accompanist’ and all that it implies. ‘Collaborator’ is proposed as a much more fitting description. And this is a view that resonates strongly with me particularly in relation to the Masters Course at the RCM in which the pianists learn about everything from being a repetiteur to ballet piano, orchestral piano, vocal coaching, chamber music, song and duo repertoire!

EW: The qualities in the article that Harty considers essential to becoming eminent in the art of accompaniment are: an all-round technique; an exceptional facility in reading at first sight; the capacity to transpose if necessary; and a facility in reading orchestral music and transferring it to the piano. How do these stack up today?

SL: I’d say that a pianist gifted with these qualities is likely to be a good collaborator, so you could say that things have not changed. But I’d also emphasise when working with singers the value in being familiar with languages, as well as the broader point about being a good colleague. Turning up to rehearsals well-prepared and on-time is fundamental, but not always a given, and being open to explore interpretation of repertoire with the person you are working with is invaluable, especially if you have played the same piece many times before.

EW: Singing is more enjoyable and easier with a conductor who breathes with you. In what ways would you say are the bond between a singer and a collaborative pianist revealed?

SL: The more you work with someone the more you can tell from their body language when they’re ready, when they’re keen to move things on, or when they’re stressed and occasionally need a helping hand for whatever reason! If a singer takes a breath with a clear understanding of the phrase they are going to sing then it is easy to collaborate with them. What about you?

EW: I’d agree that body language can be revealing, but also I’d say there’s an instinct that depends on the repertoire you are playing. For example in Brahms, the pianist might approach the music in a more dynamic and robust way, and as a singer it’s exciting to run with that and see where it takes you. Pianists can bring astonishing colours to a piece and it’s great as a performer to bring that into the images and emotion you are trying to convey.

EW: There’s a lot to be said for nurturing the relationship between the singer and pianist and this starts early in performers’ careers. How does RCM support this in its Masters course and what other steps can be taken?

SL: We have a close relationship with the excellent vocal department at the RCM and from the outset our pianists are involved in both song and opera projects as well as language classes. They also benefit from regular group classes with Roger Vignoles on song. More widely, giving public recitals and entering competitions as a duo can turn a nascent relationship into something more lasting and special. I do a fair amount of adjudicating and it is usually pretty clear those duos who have rehearsed and worked on that relationship and those who have just got together for a quick run through before the day.

EW: I gather that you’re a supporter of the steps taken by the Somerset Song Prize, a competition of which I am a patron and that you’ll be adjudicating for them in the spring.

SL: Indeed, it will be good to hear their finalists in 2019. I enjoy adjudicating, a real mix of excitement by the talent you hear as well as sometimes frustration – when you think ‘if only’ they’d have done that or approached something slightly differently. Thoughtful programming is essential in competitions when you only have a short time to connect with the audience. It is good to be able to support initiatives such as the Somerset Song Prize – offering the same prize money for the first prize pianist as the first prize singer, and recognising – like the RCM – limitations in the term accompanist. They’ve clearly been reading their Hamilton Harty!

EW: Do you find working with a singer a different experience to working with other musicians?

SL: Of course, it can be, due to the nature of the repertoire and the sort of piano playing required. The need to respond to a poem is what informs a song pianist’s preparation and performance which is what differs from the instrumental duo repertoire. On a practical level a singer carries the instrument inside them and even though an instrumentalist can carry a priceless instrument on their back, it can always be replaced! But a lot of the basic principles remain the same and all fine musicians use a concept of ‘breath’ in their performances which helps us collaborate. What about you? Do you enjoy working on recitals with more than a piano beside you?

EW: Well, I love working with a pianist, present company included, researching and developing a recital, fine-tuning things and then also having the freedom to be expressive and not having everything pinned down in advance. You communicate with the audience much more effectively, in my experience, when you can be as free as possible on stage, inhaling the moment in all its glories then breathing out a reflection of a combination of the present and all your advance preparation. It’s the same process when working with a chamber ensemble or even an orchestra, but there’s something intimate and intense that comes from working one-on-one. I think that’s what makes the song repertoire special and I’m really glad the contribution of pianists is beginning to be more fully recognised.

The 2019 Somerset Song Prize final will be held on May 19 in Taunton, UK. This biennial national competition offers equal prize money for its winning singer and, as a separate prize, its winning pianist. For tickets, to learn more or to become a supporting 'Angel' see somersetsongprize.org.uk, or follow @allabouttheduo on Twitter.

For more information about the Royal College of Music's Masters course, please visit: rcm.ac.uk

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