Musicians who Play well with Others

Recently, a former piano professor posted this on Facebook about a concert he’d just heard, featuring a famous pianist and an equally famous soprano, performing duo literature together: “Evgeny Kissin plays well with others.” He went on to extol how amazing the concert was, especially the wonderful collaboration between these two giants in their fields. Here’s why this was noteworthy: many great artists DON’T play well with others.

To be an artist takes a single-minded focus, a determination to chase down the idea, the sound, the image, the right word, and then we often feel like we have to wrestle the idea to the ground. Not to put it under our control – that’s the death of creativity – but to harness it, that burning hot ember of a creative spark. Getting it out into this world still as piercing as when we first imagined it, isn’t easy work. Especially because we all have to live in the real world. We need to be paying bills, promoting ourselves, working within all kinds of constraints, keeping our boss happy, fulfilling obligations (out of love) towards those we are in family or community with, etc.

No one makes art in a vacuum, though some people seem to be better at living a good life and also making great art than others. (Insert a list of brilliant artists whose works we love, but whose personal lives are problematic at best and at worst, cause us to wonder if they might, just on their own, cancel out the beauty or wonder of what’s been created. But that’s a discussion for another column!)

Some artists prefer to work alone, and I get that. Total artistic control, no compromises, no back- and- forth when visions don’t align. A friend and I were recently emailing about chamber music, and to explain why he only performs solo pieces, he said to me, “I get too impatient with anyone else’s musical ideas – I want to be tyrannical!” He does work well with others, but point taken. He doesn’t want to have to make the compromises that collaboration demands.

Very early in my musical journey, I found it fascinating to make music with others. For keyboardists, accompanying singers and instrumentalists is often seen as a necessary evil – it pays the bills or it fulfills graduation requirements. But I got tired of sitting in a practice room by myself, and sought out these opportunities. I loved the feeling that I could sense when a performer was about to breathe, or know I could follow them, no matter what happened in the throes of performance. (oh, we’re skipping that interlude? Got it!) And I learned so much great music I never would have encountered otherwise.

A writer friend and I were discussing collaborating last week. “Do you ever feel like you’re giving up too much of your own ideas?”, he asked. This is a real danger, and one of the reasons collaborations fail. I realized, in my experiences, mutual respect is crucial, and getting along well personally helps the musical collaboration immensely. I’d much rather play with an average musician who I really like than an excellent one who I don’t.

Now, in my fourth decade as a musician, collaboration has become a hallmark of what I do. I still love a solo performance (more minutes for all the cool organ literature out there that I still want to play!), but how fun when I can add another instrument or player, or build a program together with a trusted collaborator.

One series of collaborative concerts, I labored on for many years, full of false starts and dead ends, before it finally came to fruition. We made money playing those concerts, but in no way could it have compensated for what I’d put into the project. However, the night of the first concert, sitting still for a moment and listening to a colleague perform a solo, I was elated. I’d doubted my idea many times in the midst of the slog, but the end effect was truly magical. I’d made compromises, but I also came to find a vision, with the help of others, that was bigger than anything I could have had or done on my own.

Is it worth it? Absolutely. But that’s because of a huge list of amazing humans and musicians with whom I’ve played and learned over the years. They make it worthwhile, and to all of them – I’m looking forward to the next time we can play together!