Once I played a set of pieces on a concert shared by a number of musicians. The evening was a benefit for a local charity. At intermission a woman came up to Matt and said, “You know, Amy is a really good pianist. I think she could be a professional.”

Telling me this comment later, Matt laughed. I laughed too; after all, depending on your definition I have been a so-called professional my whole life. I started playing the piano for church services in nursing homes when I was in junior high. My dad, leading the services, paid me with ice cream cones. In high school I accompanied the choirs at school and church and played for my friends performing instrumental solos during festivals. During college, my scholarships were earned by accompanying singers and instrumentalists in their lessons and at their end-of-semester juries.

Despite the real-life work experience I had accumulated over the years, there was no conventional career, no 9-to-5 job waiting for me after graduate school. No newspaper advertisements that read: “Wanted: Concert Pianist. Great Benefits. Reasonable Hours.” My work schedule was bi-polar, swinging wildly between too much and not enough. Some weeks I worked four hours, some weeks I worked forty, my monthly income reflecting this discrepancy. I flung myself from project to project, performance to performance, like an acrobat on a high wire. It was terrifying and exhilarating all at once. I had no five or ten-year goals, no Franklin Planner. With nothing but my lifelong practices and familiar routines to guide me, I worked. Translation: I said Yes. A lot.

Admittedly, when a job offer becomes a stand-in for self-worth it is hard to say no. I said yes to challenging gigs on short notice just for the thrill of rising to the occasion, the adrenaline rush a happy perk. I said yes even when the circumstances were ridiculous or, at best, unreasonable. There was, I discovered, something about feeling needed that was strangely addictive.

Thirty years later, my own students have gigs, and as the world once again explodes open, the gigs multiply exponentially. I can hardly keep up. Nathan is playing Friday nights at a country club. George plays for chapel at the private school he attends. Kathryn performs regularly at various nursing homes and retirement centers. Annie accompanies her choir at school. One junior just finished playing piano in the pit band for her high school musical. The local children’s chorus sometimes employs my students as accompanists for their concerts every semester. None of these kids are superstars. They often place in, but not win, competitions, their lives littered with activities and obligations, just as mine was as a child.

I suspect I have no future professional musicians in my current studio, but I have been surprised before. Recently, a former student contacted me. I hadn’t heard from Claire in years. Today she is working on a degree in music therapy. Last week another student looked me up. I taught Grace a decade ago; she is now pursuing a master’s in musicology. I have a former student working as a freelance musician in Denver and another in NYC. Two students graduating in the last few years have gone on to take piano lessons in college while majoring in other subjects. They write me emails telling me what they are playing and asking for advice about practicing. Truth be told, there is no guessing where my present students are headed, where their musical lives will lead them, what gigs might be in their futures.

The first Christmas my younger sister came home from college, she announced to the family that she was “never going to play any music that didn’t speak to her.” Matt and I tried hard not to mock her. Even thinking about this conversation years later, I can almost taste my smirk. Beth was a saxophone player, majoring in performance, nineteen years old, and, in our opinion, naively idealistic. “We’ll see how that works out for you when you’re hungry,” we told her. Several years later she was living in Los Angeles, auditioning to be a part of Kid Rock’s tour group and had a gig in a Hanukkah Mariachi combo. We couldn’t resist. “You sell-out,” we joked, “what about music that speaks to you?”

Almost every professional musician has worked her version of Hanukkah Mariachi gigs. I’ve played at weddings where I had to accompany the twelve-year-old cousin of the bride breathlessly singing the theme from Ice Castles. I have played at funerals where the aunt of the deceased was supposed to sing The Lord’s Prayer, and instead sobbed through the entire thing, forcing me to carry on solemnly as if the piece was intended to be a piano solo. I have arrived at gigs to discover painfully out-of-tune pianos, or even worse, pianos with half the keys sticking (“Can’t you work around it?” the presenter asked when I pointed out the problem. Uh. No.). I have played at holiday cocktail parties and been leered out by creepy older men spilling drinks down my dress as they requested that I play “Santa Baby” for the thirteenth time.

While I might have outgrown—at least for the time being—the job of playing for solo and ensemble festivals, my students haven’t. ‘Tis the season, and music festivals of all kinds are bursting out of the long silent lockdown like the tulips in my garden after a long cold winter. Every week another student announces to me that they are going to accompany their friend who plays the clarinet or the flute or—heaven help us all—the saxophone. “Have you seen the music?” I ask hopefully. “No,” they answer, not at all concerned.

Ah, to be so innocent again. What I know after a lifetime of accompanying is that this work is hard-earned money (and my students aren’t even getting paid.). It’s challenging not only because the music may be difficult, but also because frequently the young players are completely unprepared and unorganized.

Case in point:

One spring soon after we moved to New Mexico, I found myself coaching and accompanying a number of high school students for solo and ensemble festival, echoing the work that, like my students now, I was doing at age seventeen. Late one Friday on the night before one festival Saturday, the telephone rang. It was yet another instrumentalist who needed an accompanist and she wasn’t at all apologetic about her last-minute attempt at finding a pianist. Taking this phone call, I was beyond irritated. I wanted an apology for why she might be nonchalantly calling me less than sixteen hours before the event. As far as I was concerned, the only thing that could explain this lack of foresight was if the kid would have led the conversation with: “My pianist just died.”

When I didn’t hear any such excuse, I snapped. For the next few minutes, I did everything in my power to persuade her not to try performing with an accompanist she had never met who would be sightreading the music. To make matters worse, this student then admitted that as of that moment she had never heard the piano part of her festival piece. I have two degrees in music and a lifetime of performing under my belt and I’d never go out in public under these circumstances. “But I am a good counter,” she argued to me, “and besides this is really important to me.” Having had just endured two weeks of rehearsals with other high school students who were not—let’s just say—”good counters,” I seriously doubted this first part of the argument. Given the fact it was sixteen hours before her scheduled audition time, I also doubted the last part.

But unfortunately, this was hardly an unusual situation. I once sightread a wickedly difficulty jury piece for a flute major whose pianist was nowhere to be found. Even as I played, I wasn’t entirely sure where the fault lay: with the instrumentalist who may have never relayed the correct time and date to her pianist or to the pianist who had simply not shown up to a paid gig. Being a freelance musician, I decided as I drove home after the jury, was a lot like speed dating. On Mt. Everest. Sans cocktails.

Thankfully, my students are still young and naïve, and already addicted to the drug of adrenaline. They are so thrilled at the idea that they might be able to play with their friends that they overlook the fact that they have agreed to these gigs sight unseen. They are so seduced by the notion of a free trip to Disneyland to accompany their show choir that they forget about the hours and hours spent working out tough piano parts to tricky pop tunes. Suddenly, they have a new appreciation for their years of harmonizing ear tunes and all the many sight-reading books they have painstakingly worked through over the years. One student even threw me a bone, “Miss Amy, now I know why you make us do these things.” It was music to my ears.

But I’m afraid that cynicism is creeping in quickly. Last week one kid told me that the saxophone player she was accompanying “didn’t follow.” She continued: “I know I’m supposed to follow, but he didn’t listen at all.”

I just smiled.

 

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