A pianist could be employed to perform music for a number of reasons, depending on the nature and needs of his or her employers. A pianist familiar with religious hymns often accompanies a church congregation and/or choir during scheduled services, for example. A classically-trained pianist could provide the music for dance class rehearsals and performances. Before the invention of sound movies, movie theaters would hire a pianist or organist to provide a soundtrack for silent films. A number of upscale restaurants and lounges also employ professional pianists to provide unobtrusive background music while guests dine or dance. There are also special clubs where a professional pianist provides karaoke-style accompaniment for amateur singers.
What a professional pianist does is interpret and perform music appropriate to the circumstances of the venue or occasion. A pianist generally rehearses music from a number of genres in order to build up his or her repertoire, the number of songs a pianist can perform from memory. Some pianists study classical performance techniques and musical scores for years in order to become qualified solo performers or accompanists for trained vocalists. Others take music lessons for the keyboard in order to perform popular music, religious hymns or musical theater. For many pianists, the process begins with early childhood lessons on proper fingering techniques and music theory. Some pianists can also teach themselves how to play by listening to professional keyboardists and duplicating the notes on a piano or electronic keyboard. It is not unusual for a pianist to become quite accomplished after learning to play by ear.
A classical pianist may perform as a soloist in a recital hall, or as a guest performer with a full orchestra. Many classical music pieces call for a solo pianist to play very intricate interludes against an orchestral background, as in the case of George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue." A jazz pianist often performs with a three or four piece combo consisting of a drummer, guitarist, bassist and keyboardist. Unlike a classical pianist, a jazz pianist is usually free to improvise his or her solo performances during an assigned "break" in the song. A solo jazz pianist can also perform expanded and improvised versions of popular standards in an upscale dining establishment or piano bar.
There are some challenges a professional pianist must face, however. Finding regular employment in a band or as a solo performer can be difficult, so a musician may have to find other music-related jobs, such as private teaching and one-off session work in smaller studios. A musician may also have to work a regular day job in order to support himself or herself between musical gigs. Working as an accompanist for dance classes or musical theater groups can also be physically and mentally taxing on a pianist, since the material may have to repeated numerous times during rehearsals. Many experienced pianists also earn a side salary by performing for wedding and funeral ceremonies. Local music stores may also have openings for private instructors or instrument demonstrators. Some musicians even earn a living by learning the technical aspects of the instrument and becoming professional piano tuners or restorers.