What Does a Pianist Do? With Real Examples
Though it takes years to learn how to play piano at an advanced level, anyone can sit down regularly and play a few notes. But are both of these people pianists? Or is it just the more advanced players? Read on to find out.
What Is A Pianist?
A pianist is someone who plays the piano. While this can be someone who plays as a hobby, typically when people use the term pianist, they mean playing piano as a profession.
Special Skills Pianists Have
A pianist in a professional capacity must display technical competence with a piano. That often means pianists go through years or decades of study, sometimes including private education and sometimes degree programs at an institution of higher education.
Besides instrumental proficiency, a pianist also needs to be a good sightreader. That entails the ability to look at a fresh piece of music and play it thoroughly with correct notes and musicality, having no prior rehearsal. It takes many years of practice to be able to sightread well; it’s comparable to becoming fluent in a new language.
Most pianists also need to be able to have flexibility so that they can perform alongside other musicians. That means developing the skills to communicate with their onstage colleagues in a rehearsal and performance setting.
Rather than learning one piece of music a certain way (such as a fixed tempo or musical interpretation), the pianist must stay open to different interpretations.
Examples of Pianists
There are multiple avenues of performance that a pianist may find themselves interested in. Where they choose to focus their skills depends on their specific type of training and knowledge of musical genres.
Not all symphony orchestra programs incorporate a pianist. Before the Romantic era of the mid-1800s, the piano was a solo instrument and not part of symphonic music at all.
However, in the late Romantic and progressing into the modern era of composition, the piano became a fixed part of an orchestra’s roster. Major symphonies hire a pianist on their list of personnel, even if they aren’t required for every concert of the season.
Often, a pianist hired by a symphony orchestra is also expected to be familiar with other instruments. The organ is a common secondary proficiency for many symphony pianists. Some classical composers also feature the celesta, glockenspiel, and harpsichord. Though these may require the knowledge of specialized players, pianists sometimes perform on them.
A symphony pianist must be acutely aware of their surroundings and able to follow the conductor as well as the musicians in other sections of the orchestra. This skill lifts them above the status of a solo musician and places them into the realm of a collaborative pianist.
Another collaborative career is that of a choir accompanist. That is where a pianist takes a supportive role to vocalists, providing stabilization of the melody and filling out chords with harmonic lines. There is usually only one pianist per choir unless the music calls for the rare but not unheard-of instrumentation of a piano duo.
A choir that hires an accompanist expects them to be present for rehearsals in addition to performances. In a rehearsal, the pianist plays vocal lines alongside the singers, so they can hear notes and rhythms while learning the repertoire.
The piano became the go-to choice for an accompanist due to its versatility and wide range. A piano also emits clear, bell-like tones that vocalists can easily hear over the texture of a choir.
There are thousands of church pianists around the world. The piano remains one of the most common instruments on a worship team and fits into almost any style of church music.
The music a church pianist plays depends on the church denomination. For example, Catholic masses use traditional hymns, written in four-part arrangements that a pianist can sightread easily while the congregation sings along. Other styles of worship include pop/contemporary, gospel (often in conjunction with a large choir), and modern arrangements of traditional hymns.
For the past century, Broadway shows have been a crucial part of the entertainment community in most mid-to-large-sized cities. Almost all theater productions use a piano as the baseline of their musical ensemble, or “pit,” so named because the musicians often sit in a hollowed-out area below the stage.
The Broadway style is fast-paced and energetic, requiring the pianist to be always on their toes. They must be extremely proficient at reading music, as many musical numbers are in obscure keys with multiple sharps or flats. In addition, a singer may not perform the same phrasing twice, so the pianist needs to be ready to pivot with them at any time.
Cocktail Bar Entertainer
There are many performance avenues where a pianist could find a home performing for enthusiastic patrons. Restaurants, cruise ships, or any other place with a liquor license are valid areas for a pianist to provide an evening of music.
Often, these pianists work for tips in addition to their salary or agreed-upon wages. They also commonly take requests from the audience, which means they must have a wide range of familiarity with various musical genres.
Some pianists are highly proficient at their instrument but are unable to perform or do not enjoy it. These are good candidates for teaching. After all, performing pianists need to learn skills like sightreading and communication somewhere!
Some piano instructors build studios in their homes or rental spaces. Others travel to their students’ locations. In any scenario, they employ the skills of a teacher and a performer to encourage their students’ musical and personal growth.
What Does A Pianist Do? Final Thoughts
Not all pianists require a specialized degree to learn their craft, but some attend music programs and achieve degrees or certifications. Regardless of the level of education, the piano is an instrument that is accessible to nearly anyone with the time and energy to learn it.
Once a pianist reaches a level of proficiency, they can choose what type of performer or teacher they want to be and display their talents to the community or the world.
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