In defence of pianists

In defence of pianists

Jenna Simeonov

I’m a pianist who works with opera singers. It’s awesome, and I love it, and I can’t stop doing it. But in all honesty, I must address some gross habits of disrespect and neglect with which pianists often have to deal. Enough is enough.

Pianists, I’m not talking about how it’s annoying when you get single-sided photocopies from a singer, or a voice teacher keeps you late in a lesson because they don’t check their watch. I’m talking about shockingly common occurrences that just aren’t professionally cool. I bet some of this sounds familiar:

You schedule a coaching and the singer doesn’t show up. You play for an audition, and the singer didn’t bring any cash. You play at Some Company’s event, and you’re so not on anyone’s radar that no one at the event knows where your cheque is. For weeks. You play at a Rich Person’s party, and the host was just too busy to arrange your payment (and that Rich Person’s party, I promise, has plates of hors d’oeuvres that are more expensive than you). All of this means you don’t get paid on time, or at all.

But it’s a bigger problem than petty freelance nuisances. Contracts, for pianists, can resemble less a clearly outlined document than an amorphous blob of loopholes and vagueries. You decide to go and work on a show, say. When you get there, you’re surprised with several extra “performance opportunities”. You’re now going to be the recital/masterclass/audition bitch, and you’re probably going to sight-read all the music involved.

To be fair, most working pianists are more than capable of taking on the extra work; but the point is, it’s not what you agreed to do. It’s not what you’re being paid to do.

I suppose when we’re talking about no-show coachings or “I forgot my chequebook” crap, you could argue that they’re examples of the usual plight of the freelancer. But how can pianists protect themselves from having their income decimated by others’ disorganization? Perhaps a solution is to insist that singers send a deposit in advance for their coachings, and refuse to play that audition or that Rich Person’s party until you get paid first.

But here’s the thing: few clients will do that. It’s unfortunately true that if I suddenly started charging for coachings that are no-shows or same-day cancellations, I’d quickly develop a reputation of being a miserly, money-hungry coach who’s not interested in making music. I also just won’t see the money, because any singer who no-shows without explanation is also going to go AWOL when you ask for compensation. I could demand that Some Company or Rich Person pay me for his party before my hands touch the piano; I can demand all I want, but if they choose not to pay in advance, I’m out of luck. I either refuse to play the gig (and lose the fee), or I slink over to the piano and take my place as the grossly overqualified “help”.

I’m willing to give the benefit of the doubt to some of this Companies and People, often because they’re unfamiliar with how the pianist’s business is ideally run. But more commonly, your superiors come from an artistic background themselves. This means that they should know the value of a pianist. (I’ll give them a hint: it’s the same value as everyone else that helps put that opera together.) So if these people make a mockery of your schedule and make oversights that cost you money, they’re either doing it because they forgot to do a better job, or they don’t care. Both are absolutely, utterly unacceptable.

And why do pianists put up with it? Because we can’t afford not to. Sure, we’re thanked profusely (even publicly!) for our extra work. When we save the day by sight-reading like a monster for a masterclass, we’re momentarily everyone’s hero. But that’s not good enough. Again, in very few industries would you dream of asking a trained professional to do work that wasn’t on their contract, for which you have no intent of paying them.

So, pianists, I implore you: stop it. Stop playing the band-aid. Stop running in to save the day because other people are disorganized. Don’t play that gig until you’re paid (like most other services!). I know I just said that pianists can’t be too picky with their gigs. But en masse, we could really make a point. Could you imagine if we stuck to the wording of our contract the way other independent contractors do? If we boycotted that forgetful singer’s audition? If we refused to schedule a coaching until we’re paid upfront?

I’m being slightly sensationalist in my tone, sure. But only because we have to be our own union. We cannot have a fluctuating income because so many of our clients are flakey by nature (yes, I’ll stereotype artists for a second). Fellow pianists, you know as well as I do that if we were all to go on strike, the opera industry would freak out.

If you’re like me, you love this industry despite all of the above. I know you do. But remember that you’re more than valuable, pianists. You’re vital. Remind your colleagues of that with the only leverage you have: your ten fingers.

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