A great many people take up a musical career intending to become solo pianists, and then find the strain on nerves and memory, or the terrible competition of the present day, bars them from such a profession.
In many such cases they turn their musical gifts to the best possible use, becoming accompanists. An accompanist, though necessarily a brilliant executant if she is to obtain any success, does not stand alone, as is the case with a soloist.
She is able to feel secure in the knowledge that the whole burden of the performance is not resting on her shoulders, as she shares her work with vocalists or instrumentalists. And, again, a good accompanist is always sure of work, as this accomplishment is comparatively rare; while the moderately good solo pianists are as common as strawberries in July.
To many girls the work of an accompanist appeals in several ways. It does not entail a quarter the strain of solo work; it does not need the big memorising feats expected from a pianist proper; and it gives nervous workers a feeling of security.
An accompanist, once she takes her place at the piano, is working not for herself, but for somebody else; and the whole of her mind and ability has to be concentrated on the person whom she is accompanying. The accompaniment of a song or instrumental number is, after all, a secondary thing; but it needs perfection in its execution or it becomes unbearable. The perfect accompanist - of whom England numbers very few - is an artist who gains little credit from any save those who know. For her art lies in the utter subjection of herself to her principal. The accompaniment that thrusts its presence at an audience is invariably bad.
Training for this type of work is best gained at big musical schools, such as the Royal Academy or Royal College of Music. Among students who start at these schools, many find, at the end of two years, that their gifts are better suited to accompanying than solo work. The art of accompaniment is fully taught at all musical colleges, and intending accompanists can learn and practise with singers and instrumentalists, gaining actual experience in the important subjects of omission and compression.
The best-played accompaniment is not necessarily the most minutely correct; for in this work the chief art lies in sympathy, and a clear knowledge of the value of a good bass, which gives a voice the support it needs.
Working at a big college, a future accompanist becomes friendly with prominent musical people, and has plenty of chance to test her skill and "break the ice" at the fortnightly concert held by the students. She also becomes friendly with singers and instrumentalists of her own age and standing; and many an accompanist has risen side by side with a big violinist or vocalist who was her contemporary in student days. A good accompanist is soon discovered, especially if she has that wonderful feeling of sympathy and self-obliteration, that is as welcome as water in the desert to singers. The calls on her services start from the beginning of her career; for many singers are thankful to practise out of hours with a sympathetic assistant.
Work started in this friendly way continues when the training is done, and at the singer's first public appearance the accompanist who has made her value felt finds she is also making her initial bow to the public. A reputation is soon built up, if started in the right way; for agents watch new concert-givers, and it is an absolute fact that good and reliable accompanists are so rare as to be seized upon with joy when discovered. Most of our big singers have their own special accompanists, and every good concert agent has several reliable people on his books. Two or more accompanists are needed at big concerts, as one could not play through an entire programme; and in the season the demand for skilful players for At-homes, receptions, garden parties, bazaars, etc., far exceeds the supply. A girl who believes her metier lies in accompanying, and who has not an academy training, with its friendships, behind her, would do well to ask an agent to hear her play, for she would be practically certain of work - of which the subsequent growth would, of course, depend on herself - if she showed even moderate ability.
Sight-reading is of absolute importance in this work, and is taught at all academies. Transposition at sight is another desirable accomplishment, which can be learned, with care. Many singers find the only copy of a song handy at a concert is in a higher or lower key than they usually sing, and it is the accompanist's duty to transpose it at sight - if she can.
Every year big tours in England and round the world are arranged by prominent artistes. The little party includes singers and instrumentalists, and invariably a good accompanist, who is invaluable to the party. Payment for such work is good, reaching £8 or £10 a week, and all travelling expenses are paid.
In London, during spring and winter, many a good accompanist should make £10 a week; but her earnings fluctuate, of course, according to her reputation and the number of concerts given. In the summer many accompanists like to take up permanent work with first-class concert parties in the big seaside resorts, drawing £5 a week, or more, for three or four months consecutively.