Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Careers for Pianists, Part III: Oh, the Places You Can Go!

A previous blog named professional performing to be the 'least likely career path' - a hard fact facing the majority of classically trained pianists. Similar to the soprano and guitarist glut, the ratio of excellent pianists to performance opportunities is unfortunately lopsided. So those hell-bent on performing have to to think outside the box to get onstage. Here are several classical musicians who have come up with unique approaches to carving out their own opportunities.

Shaking up the Dead Composers (and a Few Live Ones)
Sarah Rothenberg, artistic director of Da Camera, has a series of chamber music and solo piano programs on fascinating subjects like the romantic spirit shared by Baudelaire and Chopin or the history and culture of St Petersburg. The Post-Classical Ensemble performs both new and old music, incorporating folk song, dance, film or commentary into their performances. Their recent festival, 'Interpreting Liszt' included an illustrated piano concert featuring Liszt piano solos, Petrarch and Dante poetry and art by Raphael and Michelangelo. The Ensemble for the Romantic Century, formed by pianist Eve Wolf, shows incredible creativity in its approach to giving chamber music concerts. Their website says it all, so I suggest perusing their archive of past programs.

Pour into a Mixer, Hit Blend
A lot of classical musicians have found a niche as contemporary music chamber artists. Excellent chamber groups like
eighth blackbird, NOW Ensemble, Opus 21, Ahn Trio and Alarm Will Sound are of a new breed, skipping formalities, embracing theatricality and spontaneity. They avoid anything elitist or formal, intent on keeping an audience comfortable and entertained. Further oddities - chamber music tossed into bars, clubs and galleries by groups like the Chiara String Quartet, who perform modern and classical 'chamber music in any chamber'. One of their present projects: performing "Beethoven in Bars" in clubs across the country, featuring Beethoven quartets as well as new works. The Firebird ensemble performs regularly at a BBQ joint, and show a remarkable flexibility in their performance repertoire, including new composers, Schoenberg, jazz, Metallica and Jimi Hendrix. The Bang on a Can All-Stars embrace pop and jazz as well as modern classical - they have collaborated with artists like Steve Reich, Philip Glass and Sonic Youth. All of these groups regularly commission and premiere compositions, undertake residencies at Universities and perform programs of astounding eclecticism.

Unconventional, yet extraordinary
Taking the multiculturalism angle is the
Silk Road Ensemble, presenting multimedia projects influenced by cultures from around the globe, and also including contemporary composers. They undertake residencies at Museums and Universities, hold workshops for students and teachers and hold cultural exchanges with musicians in areas like Baki, Azerbaijan. The eclectic group Time for Three - a self-described "classically trained garage band", is a violin-violin-bass trio that fuses bluegrass, classical, jazz and rock. And finally, check out classically trained players who have formed an electric cello band, Cello Chix, playing classic rock repertoire in bars (listen to them play Stevie Wonder on their website). Then there are the musicians who have jumped humanities' fence and joined the scientist's playground. They've combined classical or jazz repertoire with the sciences, taking their performance to the classroom, museum and concert hall.

Interdisciplinary, yet Extramusical
Biosphere 2 Institute fuses science with art and music with an Artist-In-Residence program. Present artist-pianist Simone Michado collaborates with ecologist Scott Saleska to present "
Survival of the Sphere", a program about the Amazon rain forest that uses narrative, photography and Brazilian music. Further use of science as a springboard to perform: complement a solar energy event with music performed on solar-powered electric instruments. Performing at both Biosphere 2's Earth Day Festival and the U.S. Department of Energy's Solar Decathlon, musicians Dr. Paula Fan on keyboards, Garrick Woods on cello and Michael Fan on violin (and composer) presented a "A Bright New World or Dr. Solera and the Fossil Fools", an educational musical 'solar fable' about the importance of solar energy. They also enlisted a jazz keyboardist to play thematically relevant tunes (Blue Skies, Here's that Rainy Day, etc) in between sets. Another successful venture is the ingenious alliance of scientist Harold Varmus and a jazz quintet, creating "Genes and Jazz" - a presentation relating the evolutions of the musical art form to genetic mutations, enhanced with computer imagery by Drew Barry. And finally, an interesting (but piano-free) music and science joint effort, Perpetual Motion: Revolutions in 17th Century. The performance combines period music sung by Galileo's Daughters and film with narratives on scientific and musical discoveries made in the 17th century.

Unprepared for Prepared Piano (or Shall we Juggle, as well?)
Performing avant-garde contemporary music, giving lecture recitals, dressing up music with eyecandy visuals or dragging a quartet into a bar may strike you as gimmicky. And you're probably right. But practically speaking - hey, they're employed. They are utilizing their years of training, engaging and retaining audiences, and performing repertoire that highlights their strengths. They've carved out their opportunities with talent, willpower, creativity and, of course, luck. So what do you think is your niche?

Next up: Careers for Pianists, Part IV: Living the Dream and Supporting it

Bonus info: more classically trained musicians,
thinking in the present: Great Noise Ensemble, Kronos Quartet, VERGE Ensemble, ECCO, Matt Haimovitz, Maya Beiser and Christopher O'Riley, newEAR contemporary chamber ensemble, Ljova, Prism Quartet, Ethel

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Dear 1999 . . .

This is my response to a group blogging event, written on the topic "If you could go back to 1999 and give yourself one piece of advice, what would it be?"

Dear 1999 self,

Right now you are 2.5 years into your undergrad collaborative piano program, and the skills you are gaining will mainly be useful for employment in academic circles. 'Great', you say, 'I want to stay in academia'. True for now, but in a few years you will realize that you have no interest in teaching, which in turn makes a professor position undesired, and a doctorate unnecessary. You will also realize that living in Nowhere, USA is the only way for you to occupy a full-time (yet untenured) Staff Accompanist position. Short answer to the above: no.

Now that I've wiped out your present career plans, here's the good news: opera, vocal and instrumental repertoire are only one aspect of an enormous range of possibilities in collaborative piano. Your future work ideal will be variety: variety in workplaces, in collaborative partners and in repertoire - so do yourself a favor and switch back to piano performance (or to the B of Arts track, if necessary). Continue to develop your solo classical chops, and also continue to work with classical singers and instrumentalists, but spend the rest of your time looking into these areas:

  • Go to the dance department: they have excellent pianists you can observe (study with them if you can) in the area of providing accompaniment for ballet and modern dance classes
  • Go to the musical theatre department: offer to be a substitute pianist for rehearsals, offer to turn pages for the audition pianists, learn the standard repertoire, listen to CDs of shows - get involved
  • Look into Community theater: offer to be a substitute pianist for rehearsals, for shows, etc - learn by doing
  • Sit in on vocal coachings of all kinds, write down their tricks, their warmups, try them out yourself
  • Learn Finale (or equivalent programs of the time) and transcribe things - look into arranging if possible
  • Study improvisation and/or jazz - get to where reading a chart is a simple exercise
  • Take voice lessons - singers will make a lot more sense when you do
  • Practice jazz scales in addition to your other warm-ups - it will set you up for the future in several ways (learning contemporary music, studying jazz in-depth, etc)
  • Finagle as much private study as possible with people who do things you wish you could do (look inside and outside the university)
  • Look for opportunities to perform, anywhere and everywhere

Doing any of this will expand the venues you (we) can work in the future, and will be more satisfying for you in the short run as well. Last tidbit - for gradschools, focus on teachers and performance opportunities within the school over the actual names of schools.


Friday, November 27, 2009

Pianists Healthcare Bill

Jeremy Dink's healthcare plan for concert pianists, Legislating from my Bench, addresses several important points, including basic piano rights, dealings with piano technicians, bad outfit insurance, and more. I think I enjoyed Division D the most, however:

1) Pianists who request backstage meals and enter their dressing room to find a plate of carrots and celery with ranch dressing shall be permitted to make a nuisance of themselves; henceforth, hurling Ranch dressing shall not be considered a crime within the confines of Performing Arts Centers.
2) Pianists shall be insured against the possibility of bad hotel room service meals, particularly against Midwestern Alfredo Sauce; but also not-entirely-unfrozen Mozzarella Sticks; and any boneless chicken breast which has been grilled more than fifteen (15) minutes. For each incidence of the foregoing, the pianist will be permitted one preposterous head-toss during the course of the concert; or one inappropriate flirtation with a member of the orchestra with which he or she is appearing, whichever comes first.
3) Pianists who post results of the following quizzes on Facebook:
a) What Chopin Etude are you?
b) What Beethoven Sonata are you?
c) What Great Composer are you?
… and any other similarly constituted or equivalent quizzes, as deemed by a representative panel of musicologists and social networking experts, relinquish all rights to all insurance heretofore enumerated."

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

More Patron Saints for Pianists

Due to extraordinary interest, further investigation into the patron saints of pianists . . .

Saint criteria is pretty challenging. Not only do saints need to live a life worthy of respect, but they need at least two miracles to their credit, post-death. I consider only two individuals on the 'canonized list' even vaguely appropriate as patron saints for musicians:
St. Gregory, who abandoned wealth and respect to become a broke monk (he also fiddled with the church liturgy) and St Cecilia, who sang when she was crucified, beheaded and killed. Neither really seem to have experiences relevant to musicians in general, let alone pianists. Better suited to the job is intercessor Blessed Hildegard von Bingen, who actually was a musician - the only snag is that she is on the almost-but-not-quite-saint list. I've pulled together a list of saints that, while not musicians, may be more effective in addressing causes that aggravate many pianists:
There are some eerie parallels that can be drawn between career pianists and those canonized as saints. They both often take vows of poverty, spend hours and hours in seclusion and study, and self-flagellate for various reasons (over lack of piety or lack of practicing). That might explain the amount of interest. Or maybe on a subconscious level, pianists are seeking actual patrons.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Piano Job Scrounging - the Big List

For the dedicated scrounger . . .

Academic - University
College Music Society's music vacancy list - student rate is $35/year
Bridge Worldwide Connection - New England Conservatory's job collection website, lists all kinds of gigs (church, high school, university, festivals, etc) - $55 and well worth it
Mannes Career Services Blogspot - a good source for musical opportunities, all areas

Music Theatre Gigs

Cruise Ship gigs

Church Gigs


Choral gigs and Various - Choral gigs, Church gigs
Cirque de Soleil - hires keyboardists
Craig's List - Save time with this useful link on setting up a RSS feed with job keywords

Monday, November 2, 2009

Mr Bean - Concert Pianist, Drummer . . . Chef

British humor is not for everyone, but Rowan Atkinson's unique performance of Beethoven's Pathetique Sonata is worth a view (watch until 2:07 at least - if that doesn't crack you up, you can forego the rest). Further music related silliness: Atkinson discovers an Invisible Drum Kit.

And finally - in anticipation of the upcoming holiday - the Mr Bean and the Thanksgiving Turkey episode is essential viewing for all.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Vocal Open-Score Reading and You

Bookstores have plenty in the piano 'self-help' section on sight-reading, but literature on vocal open-score reading and score preparation is practically nonexistent. offers one book with clef reading exercises, one book out of print since 1971 and another book published in 1906. Granted, there isn't a huge audience clamoring to find out more about score reading - it is a specialized skill, even among pianists. Many rehearsal pianists are introduced to the experience with little guidance beyond 'play what you can' and 'it gets easier with practice'. Those practice hours may be a touch more productive with some suggestions.

Score Reading For Dummies
Score reading simultaneously demands advanced piano ability, multiple stave reading ability, tenor clef transposition as well as other mind-numbing skills. Pianists can learn how with slow practice, music analysis and skill isolation techniques. Or they can learn via the diving board (which is most pianist's experience). Those motivated to practice skills one at a time should try the following:
  • Isolate broader eye-motion work by reading same-clef scores like SSA/SSAA
  • Focus on tenor clef transposition with two-clef, two-stave scores such as TB/ST
  • In preparation for SATB, begin with SAB scores, then move to scores with the tenor clef such as SAT/TBB
  • Throughout practice, continuously reinforce the sight-reading technique of reading one or two chords ahead (which naturally gets more difficult when reading multiple staves)
A couple of online sources that may be interesting: a score analysis method and the article, Pedagogical Tools for Preparing and Performing Open Scores. Realistically speaking, however, these skills are rarely broken down to this degree. Which is why you should grab a pencil.

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Score Preparers
Pianists may find quicker results by cultivating the skill of score preparation, which involves using a set of markings that guide the eye. Experimenting with different markings helps find the ones that are most effective. Things to try:
  • Identify unison areas with the word 'uni' or lightly slash through pitches that double another line, leaving only one stave with the pitches that are heard
  • Write in chords (c min, C7 or ii, V, vi, etc) over or underneath
  • Use arrows to identify phrase directional movement, to call attention to a pitch or to reinforce pitch movement
  • Write numbers that identify intervals (8, 5, tritone) in between staves
  • Group pitches played in one hand with U-shaped hooks - groupings are usually according to keyboard geography or rhythmic activity
  • Use brackets to quickly signify groups of repeated intervals or chords
  • Identify voice crossings between staves with a large circle
Brackets, arrows, circles, numbers, letters - they can all be assigned certain meanings. What is meaningful is peculiar to each pianist, so it is most effective to experiment. The score probably will look cluttered at first, but the need to mark the score will decrease with experience.

Unleash the Score-Reader Within
A good resource for practice choral scores is, an online public domain library for choral music (all legal and all free). Their scores are organized by different categories: popular choral scores, voicing or by composer. There is also another source of choral music organized by composers A-L and composers M-Z. In preparation for sight-reading circumstances, a good practice method is play a new score with only two minutes of visual prep time (no trying out on the keyboard). You may play a scale in the key signature, but spend the rest of the time looking through the piece and marking it as necessary. After two minutes, slowly read through the piece with a metronome - do not correct mistakes, do not stop. This reinforces good reading habits which are helpful in rehearsals.

The Beginning Score Reader's Survival Guide
For those with little experience, it helps to begin with the correct mindset. In a vocal rehearsal, the pianist's goal in open-score reading is not to play every note; the goal is to facilitate part-learning. So when a pianist is first starting out, sparse-but-correct part playing is just fine (for example, playing the soprano-bass parts often help outline the harmonic progression). Other thoughts: always work to catch up and continue when 'reading through' a piece - conductors will rarely stop if you get lost. Simplify as much as possible: for example, rapidly moving parts (like running-16th note phrases in Handel's Messiah) can be simplified by playing just the harmonic movements i.e., play the pitches falling on the beginning of 'big beats' 1-2-3-4. Keep the focus on playing what will help the singers stay on track harmonically and rhythmically (in other words, curb the impulse to try to read everything on the page). Be smart - chops are not the most important asset in a rehearsal pianist.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Oh, the Humanity

I had a *headpiano* moment this weekend. And of course, it was in front of several hundred people.

At my church gig, I regularly play hymns with the music director/organist. This particular Sunday we had strings playing with us as well. A last-minute discovery of key differences (strings had hymn in D, hymnals were in Eb) meant I had to play the hymn a half step different than written. Which is fine - I've become so familiar with the repertoire that changing keys is a no-brainer (similar to transposing happy birthday). However, it helps when you remember the correct
the key is supposed to be moved.

After the intro, I entering strongly in the key of E. I was immediately disconcerted by how bad the music sounded against the accompanying players. I immediately wondered if something was wrong with the other players as the pastors glance at me oddly . . NO, I realized a nanosecond later: wrong key - wrong key - change key now!!

Churches generally put a positive spin on things - which means I heard several versions of "you have a real gift for transposition" after the service. I am fully aware that the phrase really translates to, "wow, that sounded really bad before you changed keys", so it takes some will power to accept the comment gracefully.

Events like this are examples of why pianists should transpose well. And why they should write things down.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Repertoire Lists and You

Collaborative pianists usually have to make a repertoire list at some point in their life, either as a student or as a professional. It is just like making a CV/resume: the accumulation of information is easy - making it look good is challenging. The most crucial aspects of a repertoire list are organizing and formatting. Organization ensures that specific info can be found quickly, while formatting keeps the document's length under 19 pages.

Understandably, a beginning collaborative pianist may simply have their repertoire divided in to Vocal and Instrumental sections. A more experienced pianist with a larger repertoire list needs more than two categories, however. What many pianists do is arrange their vocal music repertoire into smaller categories of art song, opera, and musical theatre sections, and arrange their instrumental music by instrument or instrument family (brass, winds, strings). Using italics and bold fonts can be visually helpful when used to specify composer or show title. Other formatting tip: pianists with larger repertoire should avoid single columns, as they lead to epic sized lists. Double columns utilize space more efficiently.

Sometimes it helps to see what other pianists do to their lists. Here are one page samples of what I like to do with my formatting: Art Song, Opera and Operetta, Musical Theatre, and Instrumental. Also, I found more examples of how pianists can present repertoire lists, picked totally at random off of a Google Search: Amanda Johnston (click on repertoire), Casey Robards.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

This Vacancy is Not Vacant

It happens quite often. A piano job vacancy is advertised, people mail in application materials, and then an inside candidate gets hired. Which usually means the person was selected before the ad was even written. It seems a bit silly to advertise a filled position, but the act serves a purpose beyond toying with job-seekers. In many cases, an ad must be published to satisfy a human resources policy requiring an official advertisement for each job (giggle factor: the policies exist to ensure fairness in hiring).

I have no problem with the morality of pre-hiring. My issue is the time taken to apply for a job that doesn't exist.

I propose that a code be invented for these occasions, some clever turn of phrase that clearly communicates 'this ad is just for show, no job here'. Some suggestions: insert the phrase "preference given to our own candidate"; specify candidate requirements to an obvious degree (5'9", mid-thirties male with DMA in X from XXU, brown hair, blue eyes and 2 dogs preferred); insert 'not' at the beginning of the entire ad (XXU is not looking for an accompanist). Or just tack on "No one is encouraged to apply" at the end. Win-win!

Friday, August 28, 2009

Pianist Business Cards - the Highlights

Finding a piano business card template can be problematic. Usually they are scattered throughout a large 'arts' category and depict improper or improbable note sequences (yes, we notice). Some cards feature random floating clefs, notes and staves - reminding me of my elementary school music teacher's wall decorations*. But there are a few decent cards out there. For those wanting a musically-inspired template, consider these:

Vistaprint has
Template A, Template B and Template C.

123Print has
Piano 1 and Piano 2. has
Example page - it is not allowing me to do specific links with any success. has Idea 1, Idea 2 and Idea 3. has Pic1 available in several colors and Pic2. has Image1 and Image2.

On the ridiculous side of things:
This business card cracked me up.
This one just looks painful . . .

*Although if you like the abstract, brightly colored look, try this card.

Collaborative But Solo

It was slightly odd when I began a new gig a few weeks ago - because I was paid to play the piano by myself.

Background music, cocktail piano - whatever you want to call it - is a venue I have never pursued. When the opportunity came (as it often does, when I wasn't looking for it), I mentally shrugged - and pulled together repertoire. The gig: 2 hours a day, once or twice a week, play background music in an office building lobby, surrounded by modern art, orchids and random businessmen. Selecting music to fill two hours (avoiding any repeat pieces) took some thought, but I was amused to find collaborative repertoire I've performed in other venues translates just fine when played solo. For example, popular opera arias (O Mio Babbino, Quando Men Vo, Summertime), showtunes (selections of Bernstein, Sondheim, Cole Porter) and wedding music (Canon in D, Jesu Joy of Man's etc, Schubert or Bach/Gounod Ave Maria) all work well even without a singer/instrumentalist.

Solo piano music selections usually are 'whatever pieces you know how to play', but also consider that people enjoy familiar pieces. Classical chestnuts people recognize, such as Clair de Lune, Moonlight Sonata and Gymnopédie No 1, are all appreciated and not too difficult to work up. I add some contemporary pop music in as well - but is isn't required. I find the gig a nice temporary departure from what I usually do, and enjoy the challenge of providing atmosphere while avoiding monotony. All pianists should have their own folder of at least 60 minutes of music - ready to go. It comes in handy on several occasions, such as wedding and funeral gigs, providing incidental music for church services and so on.

*Quick side note - I was sad to discover that Nordstrom has let their pianists go.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Careers for Pianists, Part I: Expectations and Beginnings

So you want a career in piano . . .

Bugs Bunny Had a Candelabra and a Tux
Common portrayals of classical pianists' careers are pretty lofty, usually including concerts, recordings, masterclasses and elite teaching studios. Orchestras, singers, or cleverly named trios may also be shown. The superior images are so ingrained that some pianists aren't even aware of career options beyond being a concert artist and pedagogue. It shouldn't be a huge secret that the countless hours of Czerny, scales and Beethoven hones practical keyboard skills that transfer nicely into several other music careers. The snag: the skill sets required in diverse environments are left out of many music curriculums. Too often, piano performance majors graduate with virtuosic skill, but are virtually clueless of how to be useful in different venues. So what environments ARE they ready to work in?

Adjunct, Instructor, Staff . . .
Hands down, staying in academia is the simplest way to go for all piano performance graduates. Unfortunately, there are not a lot of secure, full-time positions available. Even with a doctorate in hand, it is startlingly difficult to land a university gig that exceeds the part-time or adjunct level. Here is some info about the present academic job market for pianists. The College Music Society posted 43 jobs between Aug 2008 to the present (discounting positions outside the US, sabbatical replacements and temporary positions).
  • Of the 43 jobs, 31 are tenure track (TT)
  • Of the 31 TT jobs, 24 indicated a doctorate was preferred or required
  • Of the 43 jobs, 6 are repeated ads from the previous year
  • Of the 43 jobs, 5 are for Staff Accompanists (none TT)
A warning on the above information: high turnover rates (repeat ads) may indicate a poisonous position (back-breaking workload, suffocating location, or snake-pit politics). For those encouraged to see the five accompanist positions, consider their locations: Clarksville, TN; Arkadelphia, AR; Nacogdoches and San Angelo, TX and Lake Charles, Louisiana. Previously, in 2007-2008 there were 80 pianist positions posted. I didn't crunch the statistics, but I did count the number of accompanist positions posted: twelve. Several other jobs were listed that held 'collaborative' in the title, but I discounted those as essentially veiled piano teaching jobs saddled with additional accompanying duties. The accompanist jobs' diverse locales: Carbondale, IL; Oxford, MS; Mt Pleasant, MI; Knoxville, TN; Conway, AR; Rome, GA; Los Angeles, CA; Kirksville, MO; Wayne, NE; Moscow, ID and Macomb, IL.

It Don't Mean a Thing if it Ain't in Academia
For some, academia means more than an easy transition: it is an idealized sanctuary of civilization. Spending many years in that environment has deluded some to believe that life outside of academe means failure. An article, Is Grad School a Cult?, talks about the ivory tower seduction of such students, who become convinced a university is the only 'real' option for meaningful employment. When the realistic likelihood of landing a full-time position in a good location with job security (tenure track) is the equivalent of winning the lottery* - it is time to change faiths. Believe that meaningful jobs exist outside academia.

Freelance Nation
Some academics are focusing on preparing pianists for employment beyond teaching. The authors of the article, Keyboard Collaborative Careers, are definitely on the right track, discussing useful piano skills that get you work. Further net-crawling for practical information revealed this article on music employment, Refocusing (Musical Entrepreneurship), written by a freelance bass player/professor. It calls attention to the ever-growing reality of many classical musicians: full-time work assembled from divergent part-time jobs. This is golden information: pianists who curl their lip concerning that brand of lifestyle need to find another major. Pianists who embrace the kaleidoscopic lifestyle need to investigate the skill sets more relevant to today's employment landscape.

Next Up: Careers for Pianists, Part II: Practically Educational