The pianist as collaborator

A friend of mine posted videos of an out-of-town concert she performed recently. She is a singer with a day job who usually maintains contact with her first love by appearing in musical theater productions or performing a song here or there on programs for local arts societies, often as a volunteer. She was happy with her performance, and I was happy for her. Still, I couldn't resist commenting on the pianist’s invisibility. At least he wasn't nameless, as sometimes happens.

Hey — I’ve heard of him. Lang Lang and Katharine McPhee. (Photo by Chad J. McNeeley, USN; public domain)

I know why this happens, of course. About a month ago, I performed the Rachmaninoff Sonata for Cello and Piano, and was asked whose recording I liked the best; I replied with the name of the pianist, not the cellist. Similarly, when I shot video of my children's tap routines at the dress rehearsal for their dance concert, they never left the frame.

So I cut my friend's videographer/husband some slack. It also occurred to me that her pianist might not have wanted to be on-screen — which in fact was the case: He said he wanted the performance to be about her. Still, it bothers me that when a piece can only be properly rendered by two people, one is considered insignificant enough to remain faceless and/or nameless.

The precedence of bows

I've played for many singers over the years, and maybe two or three have insisted that I bow with them. Yet, when I collaborate with instrumentalists, we expect to bow together. This is rather trivial, but it's still symbolic. One might think that the pianist's contribution is being featured by giving him or her an individual bow, but why is it done only when performing with a singer? And if the solo bows are meant to highlight each person equally, why is the pianist's bow always second and at the singer's discretion?

Most singers probably don't think of the pianist as a lesser being — they're just repeating the bowing protocol they've learned. And I get that most other instruments imitate the voice, the original instrument, which is the reason singers often give for taking precedence. But why single out the singer when instrumentalists also communicate?

Of course, since instrumentalists lack a text, excluding the pianist from a video focuses attention on the singer’s face, which should be expressing the story as much as his or her voice. If this is true, though, why not put the pianist behind a screen in a live performance? Maybe I shouldn't have said that — I don’t want to give anyone ideas.

Some of my best friends . . .

If this sounds petty, let me be clear — I love beautiful singing, and I love being a part of vocal recitals. And yes, some of my best friends are singers, who respect and value their pianists. It just strikes me as an anachronism to expect a fellow performer to assume the role of a servant, with no identity other than to serve the “soloist,” who isn't a soloist unless the piece is unaccompanied. Sort of like things used to be in traditional marriages, with the pianist in the role of the wife.

Of course, some of those wives were very content. And it's impossible to have a marriage if both partners are focused mainly on being heard rather than listening, which is what collaborative piano is all about, and even more. You do your best to make your partner look good, to help him or her, to respond to his or her ideas, bail him or her out when he or she is in trouble.

The thing is, when it's a partnership, the other person does the same for you. Certainly, singers rarely have subordinate lines. They can, however, respond to the pianist's ideas, too, allowing him or her a chance to phrase. The point isn't to give the collaborator equality — it's to serve the best interests of the music.

So my point isn't about bows or videos, and while I may seem to be picking on singers, that isn't the point, either; it's about an attitude toward music that honors music. Musical collaborations can be very intimate experiences. You and another person or group of people pour yourselves into embodying the intentions of the composer — literally, since music on a page exists, in a sense, but then again, it doesn't until it's translated. Like other intimate experiences, the result is ultimately more satisfying with give and take, and respect. The kind of respect that at least mentions your name and lets your face show up for a moment if you're performing with someone on YouTube.

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