The practice of Zen

is forgetting the self in the act of uniting with something.

~ Koun Yamada


Solo pianists, instrumentalists, and often accompanists themselves often perceive Accompanying as an inferior Art-form.  Accompanying, on the contrary, is the most difficult and complex of all the Performing Arts.  It requires the skills of a soloist, the mind-reading of a clairvoyant, the improvisational skill of a great jazz artist, the modesty of a Monk, and the creative formal invention of a great architect.  

How much easier it is to step onstage alone and create your own destiny!  Even Chamber Music is easier.

I’ve been blessed to work with many great performers – singers, instrumentalists, dancers and visual artists.  The greater the performer, the easier it is to accompany him.  The movement of the energy is so pure, clear, and logical that it requires no compensation at all, only support and comprehension.  You simply breathe together.

Once as a teenager, I was about to go onstage with a violinist.  She said, I’m not concerned about the ensemble, I just want us to breathe together… 

Obviously easier said than done.


Still water has no mind to receive the image of the migrating geese.

~ Zen Proverb


Accompanying is a selfless occupation.  Its ultimate goal and challenge is to make the soloist sound better than he actually is.  This may sound arrogant, and you needn’t point it to the soloist … but he usually thanks you for it!  Some feel at first as if they’ve had a moment of inspiration, as if their more-successful-than-usual performance was their own doing.  But most realize eventually that they’ve reached beyond their own abilities by the help of a master accompanist.

There are countless ways to become a better accompanist.  The first is to learn the solo part as well as your own.  Sing it through as you play and discover your own interpretation of it.  Define where its inner Energy Pillars lay hidden.  Put into words the emotions and colors that define each phrase { write them into your score }.  Notice where the soloist may need extra time, either to breathe or get through some technically difficult passage.

In rehearsal, subtly shape the soloist’s phrasing to your own vision, without forcing.  And listen for where his vision is more convincing than your own and adapt.  Talk about the direction of energy and make the soloist conscious of his interpretation.  Remember that performing mustn’t be an improvisation.  As an accompanist, you’ll constantly deal with this mentality and you need to make the soloist make choices.  Even if they are inferior, a strong performance often results more from the unity of the vision between soloist and accompanist and its polish than from the details of interpretation.  Also – and this is extremely important – the soloist must believe in his own interpretation!  Don’t force yours on his when there’s not enough time to make changes or your words fall on deaf ears, or worse, she'll try to make changes and everything will fall apart.  The soloist needs to feel confident in the value of his work and supported by you in all their final decisions.  Thus, the accompanist’s position is always a delicate, compromised one.

Many soloists are afraid of being the soloist.  They want to bathe in your light and energy and shy away from the audience.  In the rehearsal process, this is fine at the beginning, but as the performance nears, they need to make the transition to being in the spotlight and leading.  There’s nothing more difficult or awkward for an accompanist to follow someone who’s following you.  It’s like pulling up to a four-way stop at the exact moment as someone else and sitting there gesturing to each other to go ahead for half-a-minute then finally pulling forward at the same time and run into each other.  It ends up being embarrassing for the soloist.  He needs to be aware that the audience rarely gives extra points to the soloist for being accommodating or for being a good chamber musician.  Chamber Music is a separate Art-form.  


Things turn out best for those who make the best of the way things turn out.

~ Art Linkletter


In performance, your eyes must be soft and your demeanor full of praise.  You have to on the one hand feel as if everything coming out of the soloist is the best thing since sliced bread, and on the other, know that’s it’s not and constantly compensate, reshape, redesign and gently inspire the soloist to the greatest possible vision.  And all this while you remain in the shadow, seemingly innocuous.  Never be tempted to compete with the soloist!  Be ever prepared to sacrifice your own ego and make yourself look bad for his sake.

As an accompanist, contrary to the soloist, you MUST rely on improvisation in the moment of performance – it’s your constant companion.  You must be more sensitive than expressive.  The circular balance between the two is more balanced toward sensitivity than in solo performing.

Accompanying gives you intimate contact with various instruments and voices, and many different types of interpreters.  This helps develop your inner ear and your feeling for interpretational style.  If you have a clear understanding of various sounds, you’ll be more likely to be able to translate those sounds into pianistic sounds.  And if you learn to absorb and blend with interpretational styles foreign to your sensibilities, you will grow as an interpreter.

Becoming a skilled accompanist inevitably makes you a better soloist.  Never treat it less seriously than your solo playing.  It will give to you as much as you give to it.

When you make yourself into zero, your power becomes invincible.   - Gandhi