Collaboration – an essential skill for pianists

The Alan Benzie Trio at the Portfolio Pianist Seminar and Masterclass 2019 © St Mary's Music School

John Cameron, Assistant Director of Music and Head of Keyboard at St Mary’s Music School in Edinburgh, says pianists should forget social distancing – it’s all about collaboration!


In this strange period of ‘lockdown’, I accept that there is an irony in extolling the virtues of ensemble work for musicians when we have no analogue opportunities to engage in this type of work. However, as pianists and as practising musicians, we are already well versed in social distancing.

Music as shared experience

As a means of introduction, it might be helpful to speak a little about my piano playing history.

I started off as a violin player and went on to study as an undergraduate at the Royal Northern College of Music (RNCM) as a violist. The thing I enjoyed most about string playing was the whole social and community aspect.

Making music with others was where I found joy, whether taking part in the Grampian Regional Orchestras as a nine-year-old, then NYOS (National Youth Orchestras of Scotland) at 13, or playing in orchestras and forming quartets and trios at the RCS (Royal Conservatoire of Scotland) Junior Conservatoire and later at St Mary’s Music School and the RNCM, where the chamber music and ensemble work were the highlight of my studies.

Over time, I became increasingly drawn to what links us as musicians and as people. It became clear to me that music is about shared experience, a unity of voice and of purpose, as exemplified in chamber music and in the work of the dance company. It is not always about expertise and virtuosity but predominantly about multiple strands, often with different characters and differing viewpoints, weaving into one whole.

Then, almost by accident, I found myself to be a pianist and suddenly, this concept of sharing all but stopped. I was alone in a practice room with nothing more than a metronome, a pencil, a score and a piano for company.

Almost immediately, I started to look for ways out of that hermetic life. As a fluent sight-reader, I offered to play for rehearsals, for singers in their lessons, for choirs, for a ballet company, for opera scenes and coaching sessions. A whole world opened up that I didn’t really know existed. A pianist’s life, I thought, was a mostly solitary one but it turned out that I could indulge my passion to play with others, to communicate and to share music.

Since then, I have spent nearly 95% of my time playing with others and maybe 5% playing solo and what I would like to talk about here is the variety on offer for us pianists. The benefits of engaging with it fully and not just the social aspect but actually how it improves our solo playing.

The variety of employment opportunities for pianists

So in the world of work, let us consider what roles the pianist can take.

Not so very long ago, the advice for young musicians in preparation for a life of music-making was to specialise. To develop a unique selling point, an individual was to carve out a niche within a niche.

Nowadays, for the aspiring musician, flexibility and a willingness to engage with all areas of performing and teaching is highly prized. Someone who has developed confidence in all aspects of their work, through experimentation and learning as well as a positive outlook, is a far more attractive proposition for a potential employer in these difficult times for the performing musician.

So, what does this mean for the young pianist? Long gone are the days of pianism being restricted to the solitary practice of a recital programme then the solo tour to follow. For each of the very few virtuosi that sell out venues the world over, there is an army of pianists working, often unseen, as teachers, as coaches, as accompanists, as orchestral musicians and conductors and as collaborative artists in the world of opera and ballet.

Pianists can be found in every school, whether playing for assembly on a Monday morning or for exams and auditions, and in nearly every university, playing for choir practice and for final recitals in the Music Department.

Pianists, Simon Smith and John Cameron, at St Mary’s Music School’s Portfolio Pianist Seminar and Masterclass 2019 © St Mary’s Music School
Pianists, Simon Smith and John Cameron, at St Mary’s Music School’s Portfolio Pianist Seminar and Masterclass 2019 © St Mary’s Music School

At conservatoire, staff pianists play a crucial role in the running of the Vocal School as well as playing for all faculties, Drama included. Repetiteur work is a hugely demanding job, requiring excellent language skills, and is pivotal to the success of an operatic production. One of the greatest pianists, Sviatoslav Richter, began his career in the Opera House, working as a repetiteur.

Piano players work as assistants to conductors, music directors and choreographers and are vital to the production of broadcasts and staged shows. The list is never-ending and, for any pianist who is willing to embrace this multitude of opportunity, it is a joy. It is no accident that some of the finest pianists spend their summers at the various festivals, joining colleagues from all over the world to play chamber music and give duo recitals.

Making music with others is unlike anything else and these highly rewarding aspects of the ‘Portfolio Pianist’ musically nourish everything we do as musicians and as pianists.

So, we can see the advantages of being able to work with others from an employer’s standpoint.

The benefits of collaborative practice to the soloist

So, how could this work make us better solo pianists and musicians?

Consider the following:

  • You are constantly learning from another viewpoint
  • You are continually being gently questioned
  • You have to explain your view to someone else, which means your thoughts must be clear and understood
  • You are more likely to spend time researching to give yourself solid ground on which to stand
  • You always have another set of ears in the room
  • Ideas that convince you might not be communicated with sufficient relief and depth to be understood by a listener
  • You learn to layer your sounds to highlight a more dominant sound, meaning your listening skills are heightened
  • Sometimes, you have to play with a fortissimo energy but still allow another voice through
  • You have to play pianissimo but in a way that gives confidence to your partner for a tricky entry – this requires a much more nuanced tonal palette
  • You have to consider someone ahead of yourself – that’s just good citizenship
  • You have to play more rhythmically – especially if you’re working in the theatre or with an orchestra
  • Your rubato is no longer just ‘because you feel it’, you have to demonstrate it clearly and it may well have to be neutralised by your partner
  • You have to play while concentrating on someone else’s line
  • You have to trust another’s body language and respond and affirm
  • You have to be alert to every slur or blemish of your partner whilst negotiating your own, often difficult part
  • You often have to jump bars to make things whole, meaning you are much more aware and alert
  • You have to know when it’s time for you to shine or time for you to help someone else shine

This dexterity means that when one returns to your own solo work, your capacity for ideas and listening is heightened. You become the other set of ears in the room and are much less likely to allow yourself quite the same leeway. You will have a greater range of colours available. To play something very fast and difficult can be fine if played forte, much harder if played mp under the solo melody.

‘Can you play for my audition? My pianist is stuck in traffic’

Collaborative practice helps to develop sight-reading skills – the nature of much of the work is random and ad hoc – ‘You play piano, don’t you? Can you play for my audition? My pianist is stuck in traffic.’ To say, ‘Sorry, I need six months’ notice’ won’t cut it. Learning to learn things quickly and safely is a terrific skill to improve and sight-reading should make up a small part of every day. By simply doing it, it gets easier.

Pianists, John Cameron and Iain Burnside, with baritone, Roderick Williams, at St Mary’s Music School’s Portfolio Pianist Seminar and Masterclass 2019 © St Mary’s Music School
Pianists, John Cameron and Iain Burnside, with baritone, Roderick Williams, at St Mary’s Music School’s Portfolio Pianist Seminar and Masterclass 2019 © St Mary’s Music School

Playing works of Schubert, having performed a great many of the songs, transforms one’s understanding of the solo piano work which can feel ungainly and unfamiliar without referencing his largest body of work – lieder. Working with a singer teaches us so much about shaping, breathing and emphasis.

You are forced to make simple figures and textures beautiful. It sounds like a small point but when you start taking care of how you sound in your accompanying Alberti bass in a simple song or aria, you will then consider it much more closely in the left hand next time you play your towering Beethoven sonata.

The quality of collaborative music is wonderful. To say you know Brahms through his solo work is like saying you know Belgian cuisine because you had a plate of mussels and fries one time. The trios, the piano quartets, the F minor quintet, the three violin sonatas, the two clarinet/viola sonatas, the Liebeslieder waltzes and the songs are among his very best works. The best way to know them is to play them. It means your op 117/118 and op 119 set will grow in depth, you will be freed to look for new, richer, more orchestral sounds in your rhapsodies.

Playing with others is not somehow easier and therefore of less value. Look at the score of Messiaen’s Harawi (Messiaen’s last set of songs) and tell me that it is easier than much of the music in Vingt Regards. Then you have to play it while reading your vocalist’s line, while jumping and skipping, while feeding words, while moving to reflect new ideas, all while balancing in the moment. Heroic stuff, all the while being that constant source of support.

‘Next level’ musical communication

You have to play together… this can only be considered ‘next level’ musical communication. Yes, we can lead and make arrangements but learning to trust in ensemble requires such fine listening, such open yet delicate understanding.

If you work in opera, it means you are likely to work with outstanding conductors and singers. If you work in ballet, you will have access to some of the most fantastic repertoire that you otherwise would be denied. In song, a clearer understanding of gesture, and line and breath. Would Britten and Poulenc have quite the understanding of melody had they not worked so closely with Pears and Bernac respectively?

So, in short, I plead with you to seize every opportunity you can to play with others.

The pianist’s life should not be a lonely one… excepting perhaps, for just a little while longer. Until then – keep Zooming!


About the author

John Cameron’s early musical studies centred on the violin and viola, first at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama (RSAMD) Junior Department (now the RCS Junior Conservatoire) and then at St Mary’s Music School in Edinburgh.

John Cameron
John Cameron

Having been offered a scholarship to enter the Royal Northern College of Music (RNCM), he continued studying viola with Simon Rowland-Jones and Nicholas Logie, leaving to pursue other interests in 1991. He was then offered the chance to work in Denmark as an accompanist and coach and also as conductor for the Nordvestjyske Sinfonie Orkester.

John returned in 1996 to study piano accompaniment at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama where he won a Sir Henry Richardson Award in his first year. He was awarded a GSMD bursary and scholarship and a Geoffrey Parsons Memorial Award to continue at the Guildhall for a second year in which he won the school’s Schubert and the Armourers and Brasiers Accompaniment Prize in 1998 and 1999.

John has performed at Wigmore Hall, St John’s Smith Square, the Barbican Hall and at the Edinburgh and Cheltenham international music festivals. He also took part in the Young Songmakers Masterclasses 1998 and again in 2000.

Since joining the staff at St Mary’s Music School, he has been active as a recitalist, accompanying both string players and wind players in concert and masterclasses as well as teaching piano and chamber music.

In 2014, he took over from Richard Beauchamp as Head of Keyboard at St Mary’s Music School. In 2019, he was appointed Assistant Director of Music.

Header photo: The Alan Benzie Trio at St Mary’s Music School’s Portfolio Pianist Seminar and Masterclass 2019 © St Mary’s Music School

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