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A piano accompanist is a piano player who, during a particular piece, is tasked with highlighting another musician's skills. That is, while the piano accompanist may be a skilled soloist in his or her own right, the person or group with whom the pianist is playing is always the center of the piece. The pianist's music may simply be a skeleton of the piece as played by an orchestra, or it may be intended to complement the other musician in a subtle manner. While a professional accompanist must be highly skilled, the degree of skill required often depends on the venue, and so there are many people who accompany others on the piano without actually considering themselves accompanists.
Singers are likely the most common musicians paired with piano accompanists. Soloists almost always require some kind of accompaniment to provide background, and in many lower-budget settings this is provided by a piano accompanist. Musical theater auditions and rehearsals are often dependent on a piano accompanist as well, because it would be impractical to use the entire orchestra. Singing teachers often play the role of the piano accompanist during lessons, allowing students to get a feel for what the song sounds like with simple music.
Other instruments that do not typically sound full, such as violins or flutes, are sometimes accompanied much like a singing voice. This is a particularly popular practice during recitals and other non-professional performances. The ability to accent, not overpower, a more delicate instrument is one of the most important skills an accompanist can learn.
Piano accompanist music is often provided along with singing music. This is typically the type of music that is brought to an audition, and it is generally much simpler than a full score. A piano accompanist must have the ability to sight read and anticipate in music, because he or she may not have much time to practice with the music. Performances that are planned for an audience are generally able to provide the accompanist with the music beforehand.
Many people characterize piano accompanists as failed soloists. The idea is that if someone becomes a piano accompanist, then he or she did not have the talent to succeed as a solo act, and therefore has chosen to take a music job that is mechanical rather than musical. Within the accompanist community, however, there is recognition of the art of accompaniment, and even awards given to spectacular accompanists. Musicians who depend on these artists should take the time to be courteous, respectful, and considerate towards their accompanists, because it takes real talent to make another person's talent shine.
I was teaching a few piano classes at a local community college and the head of the music department got a phone call one morning. A beauty pageant winner was supposed to sing some songs at a business luncheon, but her regular piano accompanist woke up ill and couldn't perform. The caller was her manager, and he was desperate to locate anyone who could play the piano behind her.
I agreed to try it, but I couldn't guarantee how well it would go. A piano accompanist usually works with a solo singer for so long that they can practically read each other's minds. I met this woman at 10am and the luncheon was scheduled for 12:30pm. Her manager
had the accompanist sheet music available, so I spent a few minutes sight-reading it. We rehearsed her performance for about an hour, then I met her again at the hotel. The show was a little shaky in places, but we did get through it. I don't know if I could do that for a living, though.
Our church's pianist used to be a piano accompanist for some Broadway theaters. He said it was exhausting work, because he had to play for rehearsals at one theater in the morning, then work with soloists during the afternoon and finally perform in the orchestra pit for evening shows. He got to meet some very famous singers and actors during those days, but he didn't lead a glamorous life himself. He shared a small apartment next door to one of the theaters, but he was only there long enough to sleep and get ready for the next day.
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