BBC Young Musician’s ‘accs’

7th May 2016 | Concerts, Musings, Teaching | 7 comments

BBC Young Musician is underway on BBC4, and once again the talent and accomplishment of the young players is absolutely admirable. To watch and listen to them is inspiring and gives one great hope for the next generation of classical musicians.

Having said that, I am still vexed by the way that the collaborative pianists are treated. By ‘collaborative’ I mean the pianists who play with the string players, the wind players and the brass players in their respective sections of the competition. A lot of the time they’re performing big sonatas conceived by their composers as equal duos, or indeed as works ‘for piano and violin’ as many composers designated them. Nevertheless in all cases the BBC has chosen to shine an actual spotlight on the string/wind/player and to keep the pianist literally in the shadows. Moreover the pianist is only named in small type at the bottom of the TV screen, their name preceded by the revolting shorthand ‘acc’, meaning ‘accompanist’.

As the American fortepianist Robert Levin brilliantly said when asked on one occasion if he was the accompanist: ‘No, I play the piano and am the pianist. I do not play the accompano.’ All collaborative pianists should memorise this remark and use it when necessary.

Last night I watched the string category final, and I think I’m right in saying that the only pianist whose name was uttered by the presenters was the excellent Isata Kanneh-Mason. That was mainly because she was the sister of cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason (winner of the string category final), and because viewers had seen Isata perform as a solo pianist in a previous competition. The other pianists last night had to be content with their name appearing at the bottom of the TV screen, no matter how important and/or challenging the piano parts were.

Now I understand that this is a tricky issue to resolve in a competition for young musicians still in training. The competition is for individuals, and is to some extent an example of the ‘cult of personality’. These individuals, whose music education has focused so far on their own instrumental mastery, have not yet had time to develop mature working relationships with duo pianists, and in any case the competition is not for duos.

Yet some of the best repertoire for violinists or cellists (for example) comes from the great duo repertoire, often composed by someone who was himself a pianist and who meant the piano part to be central. Musically it makes no sense at all to pick out just one of the players in TV lights while the other plays torrents of arpeggios in the unlit background. For me it’s as if the producers are sticking their hands up and shouting, ‘I don’t get the artistic point!’

The people who wrote this music wanted a give-and-take between the players. Becoming aware of this should be part of musical training. Realising that it is not a ‘soloist’ and ‘accompanist’ situation is essential to artistic maturity. Developing a sensitivity to one’s musical partner and an awareness of how the musical material passes back and forth between the players is a crucial skill for young violinists (etc), yet this skill is rarely referred to in competitions, and does not seem to be a stated requirement. In my view a demonstrable awareness of, and respect for, one’s musical partner should be something the competition is actually looking for.

Music education (and particularly competitions) is full of these unfortunate lopsided examples, and I can see how it happens. But I can’t see how, year after year, despite protests from experienced musicians, nobody addresses the problem. One solution would be for instrumentalists to play either totally solo, or in concertos with orchestra where they are, actually, ‘the soloist’. But that would cut out a vast chunk of fabulous collaborative repertoire. So of course they want to be able to play big duo pieces, and so they should. But they are not ‘the soloist’ in those big duo pieces, and the programme should avoid giving the impression that they are. Because then a whole new generation will go away thinking that only the violinist (or whoever) is ‘the star’, and a new generation of intelligent pianists will decide that collaborative playing is a mug’s game because you never get proper recognition.

The least the BBC should do is to give due credit to the skills of the pianists, highlight the value of their musical contribution, light them properly and speak their names. And stop calling them ‘accompanists’!!


  1. Ivan

    So true. And the same thing has happened for decades with pop music and pop talent contests, where the star singer (often not particularly good) is the only performer who matters.

  2. Fran Wilson

    I think this issue is part of a wider problem with the way BBCYM is presented. It’s been given a talent contest makeover with its glamorous presenters (who aren’t that slick, it must be said) and an undue focus on the “celebrity” aspects of the competition. I would like more about the competitors’ teachers, some thoughts from them on the processes involved in learning and preparing their music for the competition – this would offer useful advice and inspiration to other young musicians.

    I remember enjoying the competition as a teenager in the 1980s. It was presented as a serious classical music competition in those days. Now, it would appear that the programme’s producers don’t think we need to hear all the pieces in the competitors’ programmes, and there is a distinct lack of 20th century or contemporary repertoire being broadcast.

    Having said this, I think the range of talent in this year’s competition has been very impressive and I’m very much looking forward to attending the final in London next Sunday

  3. Mark Caudle

    Very glad that this has been brought up as I made exactly the same remark on watching yesterday. I also thought it was considered impolite for a string or wind player to play from memory in duo repertoire where the ?accompanist?/pianist reads from a score.

  4. Shoot the pianist? | Katy Hamilton

    […] of collaborative pianists on #bbcyoungmusician: a cry from the heart!’. And there was a link to an article, by pianist and writer Susan Tomes, in which she puts forward the case for treating accompanists (a word she seriously dislikes) as […]

  5. peterv

    The situation is even more absurd when the duo repertoire is itself lopsided. Beethoven’s violin sonatas, for example, have better and more challenging piano parts than violin parts (because he was a much better pianist than violinist).

  6. Jeremy

    Watching the string final last night, I entirely see your point. I believe there was another reference, to Louisa Staples’ duo partner (I admit I didn’t register her name), specifically in the context of them having worked together for years, but others were certainly ignored. It was only in that instance and the Kanneh-Mason family that you even saw the duo working together.

    There, to some extent is the problem. The competition focuses on the individual, culminating in the big concerto finale, where chamber music is replaced and the duo partner dropped entirely. Most will not have had the chance to build up a duo partnership, having sampled many different groups, to enhance their own development. Any detailed partnership preparation is not recognised. I suggest the competition also favours dazzling pieces that place the spotlight on the individual over collaboration. And the prize probably is the concerto circuit, at least in the short term.

    Several of the young players seemed to pay little attention to their partner, positioning themselves such that interaction was practically impossible.

    It is not a chamber music competition, for duos and other groups who have collaborated over a period of years to create a synergy and combined skill. Happily, some individual winners, such as Guy Johnston, have seen the value of combining a concerto career with chamber music. I wonder whether that’s a consequence of the musical family from which he comes – like the Kanneh-Masons – where chamber music must have been a key building block.

    Seeing the build up of work and interaction of maturing chamber groups: now that would be worth watching.

  7. James

    Masterful remarks about ‘artistic maturity’ and I’m so glad that you mention Robert Levin. I still remember a brilliant lecture he gave to us when I was at university. It was about his own recomposition of some of Mozart’s Requiem (the parts that Mozart most certainly did NOT write, but perhaps simply played for Sussmayr who couldn’t remember them well enough to record the notation accurately!).
    In my musical life the worst moments have been when I have been considered not as “good” as someone else. It really hurts, especially when you feel a great love for the music. I think that when we take to the stage, whether it be with a skilled solo violinist or a young girl singing a show tune for an eisteddfod, that we are among equals and we should celebrate the music itself, not the famous person who’s performing it.


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Risk assessments

Risk assessments

The other day I was part of a coffee gathering where people from various lines of work were talking about their experiences of...

read more