THE BLOG
10/10/2016 05:56 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Indispensable Pianist By Pei-Shan Lee

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The Indispensable Pianist
By Pei-Shan Lee

Hooray for political correctness - piano "accompanists" are now more properly referred to as "collaborative pianists"!

Samuel Sanders, one of my most influential mentors and a longtime piano partner of violinist Itzhak Perlman and cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, is credited with inventing the term "collaborative pianist" as he felt "accompanying" implied a less important musical voice. He was absolutely right - clearly the duo sonatas of Mozart, Schubert, Beethoven, Brahms, Mendelssohn, Faure, Bartok, Prokofiev, Hindemith (the list can go on forever!) require the presence, artistry, virtuosity, and equality of the pianist. Of course there is a genre of virtuoso showpieces where the pianist plays only an accompanying role, but that it just a small part of what we do. While all other musicians are simply called "violinist," "bassoonist," "guitarist," whether they be a soloist, or in a chamber ensemble or orchestra, a pianist too often is labeled the "accompanist"! The term "collaborative" certainly is a step forward, though wouldn't it be even better if we all were just "pianists"?

And yet, I teach in New England Conservatory's Collaborative Piano Department! So what is the need for a separate collaborative degree if we are all to be identified only as "pianists"? Why not just have piano majors? Repertoire specialization is one major reason. The repertoire with piano is so vast that no pianist can learn it all in a single lifetime. Most piano students use the undergraduate years to develop their musicianship and technical chops in the solo repertoire. This solid instrumental and artistic training prepares students for the crossroads of graduate study specialization: Do they continue the solo route, or prepare for a collaborative career? Going even deeper, do they specialize in the vocal repertoire and learn the associated skills (diction courses, foreign languages, coaching techniques) or will they devote themselves to a lifetime of instrumental partnerships? Each of these areas has an enormous repertoire that takes many years to know and master.

I was fortunate to have received an amazing musical education in my home country of Taiwan, where collaborative piano and solo piano were equally important to my upbringing. I first started playing with my classmates at age 6! Making beautiful music with the buddies I hung out with every day was so exciting that practicing for them was as important as practicing my solo assignments. Not to mention that my growth as a musician tripled through the years playing in the studios of great instrumental and vocal artist-teachers.

Pianists have increasingly come to understand that collaborative piano is not an escape for a failed solo pianist but is an exciting, rewarding field open to wonderful musicians who love making music and exchanging ideas with others. It's also the career path with perhaps the largest number of opportunities for pianists. After all, we are the most indispensable of musicians--whether vocalist or instrumentalist, no one can do without us! (I sometimes joke that we could rename the "collaborative pianist" the "indispensable pianist".)

Many pianists leave school without a collaborative degree and later end up looking for work as collaborative pianists. It is not unusual for older pianists (even with a master's or doctoral degree), to come back for a collaborative piano degree. Why? They realize their lack of collaborative expertise is holding them back, and...they need to pay the bills!

Besides teaching at New England Conservatory, I also have recently had the good fortune to create two new collaborative piano programs: A Master of Music in Collaborative Piano at California State University Northridge, and a summer fellowship program at the Bowdoin International Music Festival in Maine. At all three institutions, we admit talented pianists with solid pianistic skills and with a real passion for making music with others--the two most necessary ingredients to begin the journey. In addition to facing a huge new repertoire, the biggest challenge for most entering a collaborative program is the sudden need to accelerate their learning speed and hone their time management skills. Their partners pull them in different directions every day. They are always performing, and on a daily basis need to be prepared for rehearsals, lessons, repertoire classes, concerts, and studio classes. Interactive skills are also new to some who have spent most of their musical lives alone in a piano practice room, and the musical and interpersonal give and take, learning to make someone else's interpretive ideas work, are skills that only experience can teach.

Sam could never have dreamt of the number of music schools and conservatories today that offer graduate Collaborative Piano degrees. Fantastic pianists graduate and find themselves suddenly competing for college faculty positions where schools are looking to hire those who, in addition to teaching, can collaborate in concert with their instrumental and vocal faculty colleagues. In today's increasingly competitive job market, knocking the audience's socks off with a Rachmaninoff concerto usually counts less than knowledge of the instrumental and vocal repertoire. Knowing how to balance, lead, follow, interact--collaborate--that's where the jobs are! And I maintain that is where the joy of making music is as well. Much more fun interacting with others than spending a life alone in the practice room!

About Pei-Shan Lee
Pianist Pei-Shan Lee has toured the world as a duo and chamber music partner in concerts including the Kennedy Center, Lincoln Center, Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall, Boston's Jordan Hall, Cleveland's Severance Hall, Taiwan's National Concert Hall, venues in France, Germany, Belgium, Israel, and throughout the United States. A member of New England Conservatory's Collaborative Piano and Chamber Music Faculty, she has worked with the Boston Symphony Orchestra's guest conductors and soloists, and is seen as a pianist in the documentaries 'The Portrait' on the life of violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter, and in 'Talent Has Hunger', which is about cellist and teacher Paul Katz.

In recent summers, Ms. Lee has performed at the Mostly Mozart Festival, Caramoor Festival, Great Lakes Chamber Music Festival, Rockport Chamber Music Festival, Bowdoin International Music Festival, Heifetz International Music Institute, Chautauqua Institute, Music Academy of the West, Pro Quartet in France, Great Wall Academy in Beijing, Formosa Chamber Music Festival in Taiwan, and the International Piano Festivals in Spain and Russia.

A native of Taiwan, Ms. Lee came to the U.S. after winning the Youth Division of Taiwan's National Piano Competition. She is frequently invited for guest residency and masterclasses in China and Taiwan. Her doctoral thesis "The Collaborative Pianist: Balancing Roles in Partnership" has become an important resource for researchers and schools wishing to begin a Collaborative Piano program.

Ms. Lee is also on the faculty of the California State University Northridge, where she created a new M.M. in Collaborative Piano in 2013. A passionate advocate advancing the art of instrumental collaboration, she serves on the faculty of the Perlman Music Program in Sarasota, and directs the tuition-free Collaborative Piano Fellowship program at the Bowdoin International Music Festival in Maine. Pei-Shan's leisure time is filled with Barça soccer, goat cheese and good red wine.