The seasoned pianist’s guide to musical collaborators


The wife of one of my relatives is a classical pianist. She shared with me her hot takes on musicians she collaborates with.¹

  • Violinists tune forever. Her husband is a casual violin player. Their daughter is a beginning violinist. For fun, her husband decided to play a duet with their daughter. Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. Great. He picks up his violin and starts playing and says, "No, wait, stop, I need to tune." He then spends the next ten minutes tuning his violin, and then tunes his daughter's. They then play a song for 30 seconds.
  • Singers are always complaining about the temperature, the ventilation system, and any other imaginable aspect of the venue.
  • To be fair, she concedes that pianists take forever adjusting the bench.
  • Cellists complain that the piano is too loud. "Of course it's too loud. You're sitting right in front of the open lid. All the sound is being directed into your head. Besides, the piece is a piano trio. Piano trio. Guess what instrument this genre of music is named after. Uh-huh. Oh, and your cello part? Yeah, you're basically doubling my left hand. So suck it up."
  • Reed instrumentalists blame the reed for anything they mess up. "Oh, of course, it's the reed's fault. Wait a second, didn't you make that reed?"
  • She asked a French horn player, "Do you need to tune?", fearing a tuning marathon based on her experience with violinists. But the horn player said, "Nah, I'll tune as I go." Because apparently this is what horn players do because the characteristics of the instrument change as it changes temperature, etc.

As you might expect for a pianist, she is hired to do a lot of accompaniment. I learned that she makes makes more money from bad musicians than from good ones. For one thing, bad musicians are generally willing to pay a higher rate. And for another thing, they ask for more rehearsals, which means that you get paid a higher rate for longer. (The downside, of course, is that you are accompanying a bad musician.)

Though there is one specific musician that she refuses to work with any more. The other musician is drop-dead gorgeous but is always a measure late. I guess there are some musicians so bad that you won't accompany them at any price.

Story time: When she came to visit me last year, she asked if she could bring some music with her because she had to practice for a performance. This was a silly question because everyone should have a house pianist.

While she was out, I peeked at her music. One of the pieces was the Busoni piano transcription of Bach's Chaconne in D minor. I fumbled through the first page before giving up. One of the tempo markings was non affrettare (don't rush), which made my mind boggle that there are people so expert at piano that rushing is even possible!

Anyway, I told her about my experience trying to play the Busoni/Bach piece, and she replied, "Oh, yeah, I love that piece. I use it to warm up."

For me, so difficult I can't even get past the first page. For her, just a warm-up.

¹ Note that attitude may have been added for entertainment purposes. Actually, that note pretty much applies to anything I post.

Comments (17)
  1. Brian says:

    Happy birthday to your piano-playing wife of one of your relatives!

  2. laonianren says:

    Bonus irony: “piano” means quiet.

    1. R P (MSFT) says:

      Bonus to the bonus: the instrument we call a “piano” was originally called a “pianoforte,” because it can be played quietly or loudly, unlike similar instruments such as the harpsichord.

      1. It’s still pianoforte in Italian (although it’s often abbreviated to “piano”). What’s more interesting is that the modern pianoforte is the evolution of the fortepiano, which is what people such as Mozart or Haydn actually used/wrote music for.

  3. if they are a measure behind, are they really a musician ??

    1. Neil says:

      Or indeed if they willingly play out of tune. (Having said that I will play out-of-tune pianos as I don’t have the time or equipment to tune them, but I find it much harder than playing instruments that are in tune.)

  4. typoo says:

    Piano is short for “pianoforte”, soft-loud. A pianoforte had range of ‘loudness’, unlike a harpsichord.

  5. Erik F says:

    This sounds eerily similar to my experiences working with rock musicians. Drummers seem to *always* need to tune their drums (electric guitarists aren’t far behind!) and singers always need more of themselves. About the only people who are ready to go most of the time are the bassists and keyboard players, and the sound guy! (Note: This comment is somewhat exaggerated, and I may be biased towards bass players and sound technicians.)

    1. Joshua says:

      Drums have the excuse of being easily knocked out of tune by setting them up.

      An array of tuning forks and a pair of rubber mallets is a great musical instrument.

    2. Playing both electric guitars and electric bass, I can tell you it’s not so strange – electric guitars do get out of tune way more often than basses, especially when you play songs with a lot of bendings and you have cheap tuners.

    3. I tend to worry more about guitarists that think tuning once before the beginning of a gig will keep their guitar in tune for the next 2 to 3 hours ;)

  6. Moritz says:

    Brahms made a piano arrangement of Bach’s Ciaccona (for the left hand only, published as “5 Studien, Anh. 1a/1”) . That might be easier to start with. It’s also closer to the original. (Adding harmony when playing solo pieces on the piano is fine in general, but I think Busoni is way over the top.)

  7. Clockwork-Muse says:

    > She asked a French horn player, “Do you need to tune?”, fearing a tuning marathon based on her experience with violinists. But the horn player said, “Nah, I’ll tune as I go.” Because apparently this is what horn players do because the characteristics of the instrument change as it changes temperature, etc.

    As a sometimes-hobbyist musician, pretty much _all_ instruments, especially those using breath, have this characteristic. Tuning only gets you the gross range, and many instruments will require subtle adjustments for different notes (what needs to be adjusted depends on what the instrument is).

  8. alegr1 says:

    I was at a concert once where Beethoven’s Pathetique was played. The pianist seemed to have a brain fart in the middle of one speedy passage (1st movement recapitulation closing theme, if I remember right), and practically BSed his way through a few measures. That made me chuckle.

    1. Brian says:

      That’s when it really helps to be playing solo

  9. Evan says:

    > Oh, and your cello part? Yeah, you’re basically doubling my left hand. So suck it up.”

    Ouch. ;-)

  10. D-Coder says:

    “Anyway, I told her about my experience trying to play the Busoni/Bach piece, and she replied, “Oh, yeah, I love that piece. I use it to warm up.””

    Maybe. Or maybe, “Yeah, I had to rewrite it as a double-red-white splay tree and interfrobulate it with the ORM, but no big deal.”

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