Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Am and Am Not

There are only three syllables in the word, but oh, they are such dangerous syllables. Pianist. Do you say it pompously, snobbishly, in a way that emphasizes the first syllable as if the word were three sixteenth notes placed squarely on beat one? "You're a PI-an-ist?" This sounds haughty and condescending to my ears--I do not, after all, play a PI-an-o--but I always smile forgivingly and reiterate, "yes, I am a pianist," as blandly and evenly as possible. In "notational" terms, out of three sixteenths, I tend to make the first a pick-up, saying the word "piano" and yielding to the "ist" four-fifths of the way through. (Sixteenth - bar line - two sixteenths.) Bleating like a lamb through the middle syllable (essentially giving it the full value of an eighth note) is another sloppy mispronunciation; though when accompanied by rolled eyes and lots of laughter, it's also the perfect way for partying pi-AAN-ists to make fun of themselves. I have a soft spot for "pi-an-ISTE," in a faux French accent, because I hear in its flamboyant delivery some sort of giddy admiration. Stressing the end of the word creates a graceful rhythmic articulation--the final syllable just barely kisses the downbeat--and makes me feel as though I've been acknowledged with extra respect. [Curtsy.]

Accompanist, for the record, is NOT a five syllable word, nor should it contain that stray syllable that belongs, anatomically speaking, between the femur and tibia. These verbal transpositions occur all the time, from the galloping mouthful "ac-COM-pan-KNEE-ist" to the more condensed (almost but still not quite right) "ac-COMP-KNEE-ist." I have no hang-ups about the term (some pianists find it belittling) and prefer, particularly on choral music programs, to designate myself as "accompanist." The best accompanists are wholly integrated into the architecture of the music and the performance. Accompanying is not just "supporting." Rather, we have the opportunity to play the bas to the relief; to be audible, of course, but sometimes "invisibly" so; to completely intertwine ourselves with the soloist(s) and/or conductor. Accompanying begins with nuanced and artistically interpretive piano playing but ideally evolves into companionable collaboration. We're pianists who are able to think--dance, sing, gesture and play--outside the box. The accompanist who quibbles over terminology probably plays too subordinately; for them I might suggest we bring the word repétitéur back into vogue. (I have always had an issue with that one. On receiving the phone message: "We'll be needing a repétitéur for the afternoon and hope you can come in," I laughed out loud and promptly called back, declining. I had another gig! Really!)

The kids these days seem to have scrapped the term accompanist--in its all-encompassing definition--for the phrase "collaborative keyboard artist." Prestigious universities even award degrees in this field. I feel old, as though I'm looking in from a great distance, and I wonder what was wrong with "pianist" and "accompanist." Collaborative keyboard artist? Keyboard collaborative arts? Sigh. Of those, all I can say is, I am...not.


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