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Pianists in Large Ensembles

Daniel Lee | April 2020

    Growing up as a pianist, I had many opportunities to play in my high school jazz band, accompany the choirs and soloists, and study privately and perform solo literature. Not until I started my undergraduate degree did I play piano in a large ensemble setting, and those early experiences caused me to question my abilities and musicianship. Although I also played viola and tuba in orchestra and band throughout high school, this did not prepare me to handle a somewhat challenging piano part to a concert band piece.

    A review of my past shows that the sum of all that playing didn’t add up to the total experience needed to successfully play that piano part. In the band, I was a wind player who was trained to respond after the information was given by the conductor and played an instrument that had a slight delay between the initiation and production of the sound. In the orchestra, I was also trained to respond after the gestures from the conductor were received, but also received information from the principal violist and the concertmaster about when and how to produce sound. Although I played piano in jazz band, it was conducted much less, and most of the emphasis was on the rhythm section locking in together, which was monitored through what we were hearing.

    My experience as a choral pianist influenced how I responded to the conductor on my first concert band piece. The biggest difference, based solely on my experience with multiple high school programs, is that choirs often follow the pianist (what they hear) rather than the conductor if there is any discrepancy between them. Just as I had done as a choral accompanist, I did my best to stay exactly with the conductor in the concert band, which is why it didn’t work. The experience I didn’t have yet was one of playing a percussion instrument in a conducted ensemble, and that realization was the missing piece.

    Since then, I’ve had many experiences playing keyboard instruments with bands and orchestras, and each has required me to remember that the ensemble creates sound at a different moment than when I see the beat. What has helped me the most is the same advice I heard as a tuba and viola player: listen to other parts within the group and breathe with each entrance. However, sometimes it is easiest for me to imagine when I would expect to hear the sound as a conductor and place the sound with that expectation.

Surveying Pianists

    This led to a desire to learn more about the experiences of other ensemble pianists and of other ensemble directors working with pianists. My sample size is relatively small but still useful in presenting different experiences and perspectives. I received survey responses from five pianists, including an undergraduate piano major, two current DMA piano students, a pianist with a DMA who performs regularly and professionally, and a pianist with a BA in music and a lifetime of experience playing piano for ensembles and as an accompanist. I re­ceived nine responses from conductors, representing conductors in band and orchestra from six universities and two professional orchestra programs.

    The responses from the pianists were mostly consistent, with the ex­ception being from the pianist who already had her doctorate. Most pianists described having challenges with following a conductor (both in knowing where they were in the music and in seeing unfamiliar gestures), playing piano parts that are unusual or very different than solo literature, and questioning when to come in because entrances didn’t feel obvious. One pianist mentioned difficulty seeing the conductor. When asked what steps they took to help alleviate the issues they experienced, all pianists reported that they listened to recordings of the piece and most looked at a full score to see how the piano part fit within the entire piece. The pianist with a doctorate explained that she regularly performs her part while reading from a full score (she plays mostly for orchestras and has a large library of digital scores). A few pianists reported working with the conductor or their applied piano teacher individually or working with other ensemble musicians outside or normal rehearsal time.

    The last question asked on the survey was about advice they would want to share with pianists who are new to playing in a larger ensemble, and the responses were interestingly varied.

    Undergraduate Student: It is essential to be able to play your part with a metronome up to tempo before rehearsing with an ensemble. Wind and string players may not do this, but their parts are usually not as technically demanding as the piano part is. This is obviously on a case-by-case basis. Once you can do this it is much easier to follow a conductor.

    DMA/Professional: Be prepared. There is no substitute for proper preparation. There will always be another person who can be hired. Work on your timing and listen.

    BA/Accompanist: Listen, count (out loud if necessary), watch everyone, and do not be afraid to leave out a note or so if it makes coordination easier. Do not assume that the other players know the rhythm. Be nice to everyone.

    DMA Student: I am a pianist who is new to playing with an ensemble. After I met the conductor, I felt more comfortable playing in the band because it is much easier to know the gestures.

    DMA Student: Put numbers on the repeated measures (the measures that have the same materials for a while.) Conduct the piece as you learn and practice. Look at the conductor as much as you can.

Surveying Conductors

    The survey given to the conductors was based on the same or similar topics but from the perspective of the conductor. Not all the conductors reported working with pianists who had challenges with being in the ensemble, but from those who responded the most common concern was with pianists not feeling the same pulse as the rest of the ensemble. A few also reported that the ensemble pianists seemed to have difficulty following a conductor, or specifically seemed to have difficulty with the parts written for newer pieces (late 20th century and later). A follow-up question was asked about how the conductors addressed any challenges, and most of the responses follow traditional and logical rehearsal strategies:

  • A one-on-one lesson.
  • I used standard rehearsal strategies for pulse, timing, and ensemble unity.
  • Pianists are often more accustomed to playing by themselves or with few other performers. With this in mind, if the pianist is struggling to find pulse or follow, I will isolate out a few other players in the ensemble whose parts can represent the composite pulse and have them play for bit with the pianist as a sort of trio or quartet. Often, I do this without conducting at all, recreating the listening responsibilities pianists are accustomed to in chamber music. Then, in adding more players/doublings to the texture, the pianist has acclimated to what they should be listening for to locate pulse. When I join in as a conductor, the pianists’ newly found comfort allows for them to have more flexibility in following my gesture.
  • Once the pianist is familiar with the piece and gets comfortable being a part of the large ensemble (orchestra), the pianist is able to follow the conductor more easily.
  • I addressed the challenge by asking the pianist to collaborate with a particular instrument or section of the orchestra and to breathe with these instrumentalists.

    The last question for conductors was an open-ended request for additional thoughts on the topic. One director responded, “I’ve generally had great experiences with orchestral pianists. I think the biggest problem we run into is that they’re totally unaccustomed to counting rests.” My experience, on both sides of the baton, is the same. It is usually the long stretches of rests that lose the pianists, especially if the music contains rubato or fermatas, or if there is a slow and more horizontally conducted tempo or style.

    A different director commented, “Often, in large orchestrations where piano is required, it is necessary to place the piano in a spot that does not impair the usual setup of the orchestra. This can result in the piano being far away from the percussion section, or at the least, far from the center of the orchestra. Some discussion of possible spacial and hearing challenges before the first rehearsal often results in a significantly better performance through rehearsals and performances.” From a piano player’s perspective, although there is room for debate on this stance, I think it is acceptable and necessary for pianists to look at the keyboard from time to time. This is especially true when there are large leaps or changes in register, when playing in octaves within a hand, or when coming in out of rests on a new entrance.

    Wind and string players do not have this concern (with the possible exception of string players visually spotting for shifts) and could likely play any memorized piece of music with their eyes closed. This leaves their eyes free to look at just their music and conductor, and they can also adjust their stand heights and angles to minimize the distance between the two. Unlike most of the other musicians in the ensemble, the pianist’s music stand is mounted to the instrument and cannot be raised, lowered, or angled left or right. A challenge that I experience regularly in ensembles is that my eyes and head are regularly changing position to go between the conductor, the music, and down to the keyboard. Percussionists may be the only other musicians in the ensemble who experience playing with the same range of visual coverage. If possible, position the piano so that the pianist is looking right at the conductor.

    The placement of the piano within the ensemble can vary based on the space or other needs of the ensemble, but the most common locations are at the front edge of the stage to the left of the conductor, or in the back of the ensemble approximately 30 degrees to the left or right of the conductor. In all three cases, the piano is placed so that the pianist is facing the conductor. These positions can allow for line of sight, and will allow for the sound to come out with the lid up. The reason the edge of the stage to the right of the conductor is avoided is because the lid would then open to the back of the stage, rather than the audience. Taking the lid completely off might allow for more options of piano placement, but this usually involves more work than just moving the piano.

    Returning to the matter of pianist placement relative to the other percussionists, the piano parts are often written as part of the larger percussion section and placing them away from the rest of the section can cause timing problems. Although the distance between players is relatively small compared to a marching band spread across a football field, the difference in stage location combined with players trying to listen across the stage (especially stage left to right) can lead to a noticeable phase to the audience. This situation might require isolated rehearsal to allow all players to hear what it will sound like to them when the sound reaches the audience at the same time.

Suggestions for Conductors

    Nothing beats experience, and if you find a pianist who shows promise and (more importantly) interest in continuing in the role as an ensemble pianist, keep this person as long as you can. Although I still have to make adjustments each time I play with a new ensemble or conductor, my ability to adapt has grown considerably over time, and no amount of reading or imagining could have replaced the experience of playing in ensembles.

    If an extra score is available, have the pianist borrow it to make markings in their parts and to use during rehearsal. Even if an extra score isn’t available, having an extra copy of a melodic part at the piano could help the pianist make connections about when sound is produced relative to the conducting gestures.

    Piano performance majors might not be required to take undergraduate conducting classes, so their understanding of conducting patterns and gestures can be limited. Setting up a short meeting to explain some of the basics can be informative, and it can be immensely helpful to discuss moments where tempo changes occur (especially if changing the note value that is conducted), and how fermatas will work. Although most ensemble players have enough experience reading around fermatas to know that rests in their parts usually imply that someone else in the ensemble will be playing on those rests, people new to ensemble playing might not know how or when to move on from the fermata.

    If there are multiple ensembles with multiple pianists at differing experience levels, ask if partnering would be of interest to the players. Less experienced players can sit next to (and turn pages for) more experienced players to see and feel how they interpret time and the conductor. Similarly, more experienced players can sit in and offer advice throughout the rehearsal and serve to double check the counting and interpretation of the beat.

    Aside from these suggestions, the common methods already mentioned of helping any individual within the ensemble align their internal pulse to that of the ensemble will also be helpful for the pianist.

    Although pianists might need help with the above aspects of performance, most classically trained solo pianists will be ready from day one to receive feedback about the color, tone, line, and weight of their playing. Pianists spend a lot of time thinking about their approach to sound production, including the weight and speed they use to press a key, the level of pedal to depress or release at any moment, and the amount of overlap between pressing a new key and releasing the old. Describe the sound you want to hear or the approach you want the player to have in creating the sound.

Suggestions for Pianists

    In addition to individual practice on the part, spend time with a copy of the score or audio recording and write in audible cues from other instruments in the piano music, especially during rests. Unless the piece is formatted with rehearsal numbers every five or ten measures, most rehearsal marks follow phrasing, and noticeable changes usually occur between phrases. Even if a section is simple to count, having a written-in trumpet entrance halfway through an 80-measure rest can be reassuring when it confirms where you think you are in the music. Related to this, when there are measures with extreme rubato or fermatas, try to find the active rhythm from the ensemble (or check the score) and write the rhythm in the music above the rubato passage or fermata.

    During rehearsals, pay attention to how the other players – especially the percussionists – breathe before their entrances. You will most likely find that your entrances are with other players, and breathing with them before you start will help you align the timing.

    If you feel that you are playing out of time, especially in early rehearsals of the piece, play softer or even stop for a moment to check in on what the rest of the ensemble is doing and join back in when you feel the group’s pulse. Work to play with a strong sound while still being able to hear the other parts. Other players are also listening to you to confirm their tempo and pulse as well.

    Play along with a recording to learn the music leading up to your entrances. The website allows you to upload mp3 recordings and change the speed without changing the pitch, as well as isolate specific sections to play on a repeating loop. The drawback of this is that most ensembles might not sound like the ensemble in the recording, and your position in the ensemble will not give you the same balance as that of the recording, but overall this can still be helpful.

    Do not be afraid to ask for help from the conductor, other ensemble members, other ensemble pianists, or the piano faculty on how to approach challenges to the experience.


    As a conductor, conducting student, and band and orchestra teacher I’ve spent much time studying the considerations needed when conducting and rehearsing wind players, string players, percussionists, and choirs. A conductor should be able to make music with any type of ensemble. Still, knowing more about the approach a musician has in creating and shaping sound on their instrument can greatly inform how to approach leading them from the podium.