The Art of Accompanying Others

The majority of topics explored in this blog focus on one’s personal experience of life, however, we are all fortunate enough to play important roles in the lives of others, and it is this, more outward focus, that is the topic of today’s post. Whether we are responsible for the rearing of young children, cooperating with friends or colleagues, or trying to negotiate complex and sometimes frustrating relationships with our spouses, siblings, or parents there are many ways in which our primary task is to serve as a support to others. It’s not about us.


I have a friend in Santa Barbara who is a brilliant, young pianist. The topic of her final lecture, before being awarded her doctorate, was dedicated to composing a new piano reduction for Mozart’s 5th violin concerto in A major (an orchestral piece). Historically, piano reductions were used as a way to familiarize audiences with complex musical pieces when they did not have access to orchestras. The audience heard a version of the larger work by way of a performance of piano and one other instrument, such as a violin. Today, the role of a pianist playing reductions is often to rehearse and prepare their soloist partner for an orchestral performance. As I listened to my friend’s lecture touching upon various arcane music theory, what jumped out at me was the question of how to distill complex life philosophies, works of art, etc in a manner which retains the “spirit of the orchestral composition” while simultaneously presenting the work in a practical manner that supports the performance of the soloist. In other words,


How do you best convey the spirit of something highly complex while keeping it practical for a much more limited reality?


Reductive thinking, philosophy, and cooking all present slightly different views of the same general principle—a dissection and intensifying of a larger, more complex original source piece. For instance, do you understand the essential melody and harmony of a piece sufficiently well to distill a great work into a brilliant accompaniment? Which parts do you include? Which parts should be omitted? Or, how might a parent convey to his child an overriding life philosophy in a manner a child can understand, but leaving room for it to be applied on a grander scheme as the child’s abilities grow and expand? And, most importantly, why are you making these choices?


Finesse and an appreciation for the bigger picture is the commonality that runs through any successful distillation. In cooking, if you expose a sauce to too high a heat for too long, the whole thing burns and is ruined. Too much reduction, and the orchestral piece devolves into an arrangement for piano, missing much of what made the original composition so brilliant. Too little, and the reduction cannot be performed by the pianist, thus accomplishing nothing if the goal is to assist the solo performer, allowing them to shine.


If our overall goal is to support others, we need to do our best to understand what the “big picture” needs are for the person we are there to support. Whether this is a violinist practicing to perform with a 70 piece orchestra or a child taking his first steps towards self-sufficiency, we need to remember that our role is not to dominate the score, but to provide assistance by carefully choosing which chords we think add value to another’s performance. 


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