Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Paid to Play - University Staff Accompanist

Or Staff Collaborative Pianist, etc. Whatever the title is, the job is the same: piano slave.

Want to be one? Look here:
College Music Society - The music vacancy list on this website isn't free, but has a student rate of $35.
New England Conservatory's Bridge Worldwide Connection - $55 for non-NEC community
The previous two websites are free. Keyword - piano, etc

I've held three different university staff accompanist gigs, in three different states. Each position was unique, due to the specific needs of each university's music program. One position used me mainly for vocal and choral, a little instrumental accompaniment, plus that extra 'whatever needed a pianist'. The next position was also a mix of everything, and the last one was all vocal. The positions were all performance based - I was not required to teach any theory or piano classes. Also, I was the sole accompanist in each position - there were no adjuncts to point at and say 'ask them', which makes my experiences, well, singular.

Being a staff accompanist is great for several reasons, namely steady $$ and health benefits. You usually have your own office (translation: place to practice, compute and nap). There is a steady flow of repertoire to learn, all in varying styles, instrumentation and difficulty. You get to work with undergrads and/or grad students. Usually, you get the summer off (not always). Being employed doing what you love can be wonderful. Fulfillment from helping people achieve their recital goals, enjoyment from being surrounded by college-level musicians and fellow faculty, free access to a library and being able to use the faculty extended checkout dates are all beautiful things. I loved that I was constantly learning new repertoire, and essentially being paid to practice.

What they don't tell you before you look for and/or get the gig:
  • Finding a full-time position in a city that you want to live in can be problematic. Will you really enjoy living in Nowhere, Texas? In other words, do you want to pick up your entire life and move where they may only have one Thai restaurant?
  • The position rarely has tenure - job security can be iffy, when it is dependent upon the state of the school's budget.
  • You don't pick your repertoire or your partners - they pick you. So you must eat your vegetables, and play that [fill in disliked composer/instrument/undergrad here].
  • Seasonally, Spring is hell (recital season).
  • Workload overload: the Staff Accompanist easily becomes the go-to person for just about anything that needs a pianist. Burnout can happen as soon as the first semester you begin work, as you fight off vocalists, instrumentalists, choirs, musical theatre and opera scenes, and so on - all needing you, all seething if they do not get you. Boundary-setting is essential, along with the great little word "no".
You get the picture, I hope. Much depends on your ability to be flexible.

And have wrists of steel.


Miguel Sousa said...

Do you think is necessary to have a DMA in collaborative piano to apply to a position like this? I am finishing my master in piano performance and before I went to USA I worked 3 years as a staff accompanist in conservatories in my country. And I am still working as a graduate assistant and freelance.

Billie Whittaker said...

Necessary, no.

For these kinds of jobs, a lot depends on the university and how they decide to advertise for the position - some places specify DMAs as a must, while others list a Bachelors as a minimum requirement.

Anonymous said...

Hi, I am wondering if you can tell me how many or how much of a credit hour you would equate to accompanying each vocal student for a semester.

Billie Whittaker said...

Hmmm . . .I'm not sure how to calculate one 'credit hour' for your particular institution, but usually the time commitment for one vocal student is one hour a week (half an hour lesson, and half an hour rehearsal). If they have a recital that semester, you'd factor in a dress rehearsal and recital fee.