Guidelines for Pianists


The purpose of these guidelines is to provide practical orientation for member pianists participating in playing sessions at ACMS playing days and camps.

Ever since its evolution through the eighteenth century, the pianoforte has been widely used in small chamber ensembles. The great composers all wrote extensively for piano in chamber music – reflecting the expressive capacity of this instrument. 

The art of playing chamber music is all about achieving 'sympathetic dialogue' between each of the players, and for a number of reasons it is often the case that the piano is the odd man out. Firstly, whereas most string or woodwind players will have had prior experience of ensemble playing, pianists are in the main taught to think and play as soloists. Secondly, unlike strings and winds, the piano is a percussive instrument, and for this reason it doesn't always blend sympathetically with the other members of the ensemble.  And thirdly, the size of the modern piano makes it capable of a huge sound - undoubtedly useful for concerto playing - but often a liability when attempting to blend in a small chamber ensemble.

So these guidelines are intended to provide the pianist with helpful hints about how to best cope with these challenges when playing chamber music, and more specifically to give guidance about how to go about preparing for ACMS playing occasions, together with a few words of advice about the art of self-improvement.

The Repertoire of Chamber Music with Piano

There is an extensive repertoire of chamber music with piano. As evidence of this, about half of the chamber works in the ACMS library include the piano as one of the instruments. The repertoire can be conveniently subdivided either by group sequence - or chronologically. 

By group sequence, we can divide the repertoire into a) works with strings, b) works with winds, and c) works for ensembles including both strings and winds (in addition to the piano). The most common ensemble grouping is the so-called 'piano trio' - comprising piano, violin, and cello. The smallest groups are duos, and the largest are perhaps the nonets, although there are really only a handful of works for ensembles larger than five instruments.  So we use nomenclature such as: PS3 (ie for piano + two strings), PW5 (for piano + four winds), and PSW4 (for piano + three instruments that includes a mix of string and wind).

Chronologically, it is generally considered that the classical period – from about 1785 through 1828 – represents the foundation of the repertoire. It was then that chamber music with piano truly became established. Before then most keyboard writing was for harpsichord, and the music was more primitive in the sense that one instrument (often the keyboard) usually has the dominant role – while the role of the other instrument(s) was merely to accompany or embellish. The idea of there being an equally shared dialogue between the keyboard and the other members of the ensemble only became a reality from the 1780's. Then from about 1828, we enter the romantic period. From then on, the music becomes more expressive, with the pianist’s role often becoming more dominant, and correspondingly more difficult. In summary:

Pre-classical (1700-1785):

Difficulty Generally accessible to grade 3 pianists.
Main Composers J S Bach, CPE Bach, JC Bach, Corelli, Handel, Haydn (early), Loeillet, Purcell, Stamitz, Telemann, Vivaldi
Other Composers Benda, Boccherini, Cimarosa, Gluck, Lotti, Quantz

Classical (1785-1828):

Difficulty Generally accessible to grade 2/3 pianists (Beethoven and Schubert mainly grade 2).
Main Composers Haydn (late), Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert
Other Composers Glinka, Hummel, Pleyel, Weber.

Romantic (1828-1900):

Difficulty Earlier works accessible to grade 2 pianists.  Later works more likely to be grade 1.
Main Composers Arensky, Brahms, Chausson, Chopin, Dvorak, Faure, Franck, Lalo, Mendelssohn, Rimsky-Korsakov, Saint-Saens, Schumann, Smetana, Tchaikovsky
Other Composers Bruch, d'Indy, Reinecke

20th Century (1900+):

Difficulty Music is stylistically varied, so difficulty may range from easy through to very demanding.  Therefore, choose thoughtfully!
Composers Bartok, Bridge, Debussy, Delius, Dohnanyi, Elgar, Mirium Hyde, Janacek, Martinu, Poulenc, Rachmaninov, Ravel, Roussel, Shostakovich, Sitsky, Suk, Turina

Choosing a Work to Play

As a general rule, we can say that the pianist will usually be the most stretched member of an ensemble when it comes to delivering the goods. This is essentially because the pianist has many more notes to find and deliver – and all with reasonable sensitivity!  So for an ensemble of equally graded players (ref. ACMS self-grading method), the sight-reading task will usually be most challenging for the pianist. It is for this reason that ACMS usually gives the pianist the responsibility for determining the music to be played. And it is important for the success of a session that the music that you choose lies within the capacity of all of the players.

The relative difficulties indicated above are based on the premise that a pianist of the grade indicated will usually be able to adequately cope with such a work during a playing session.  Even so, some prior familiarisation is recommended. 

As a generalisation, most pianists can reasonably expect to cope with works one level above their personal grading so long as they do reasonable preparation in advance. To this end, you are encouraged to borrow one or two works from the ACMS library at the conclusion of any playing day (or at any other time) – and to use the intervening period to familiarise yourself with the sound of the music and the piano part ahead of future playing occasions. You should then nominate your preference to play this work when registering for playing days.

Where to Begin?

As preparation for your first playing sessions, it is suggested that you familiarise yourself with one or two of Mozart's piano trios (or selected movements) and nominate your preference to play these works when registering. A single volume music score and a double CD set of Mozart's seven piano trios are readily available commercially. Thereafter, the resources of the ACMS library are at your disposal.

Self Improvement

The act of self-preparation ahead of every playing session is perhaps the most fruitful initiative you can take towards improving your ensemble skills over time, and will lead to greater enjoyment and fulfilment from playing. Advance preparation not only ensures that you will play more right notes, but gives you greater scope to interact sensitively with the other players. If you've ever wondered how it is that experienced chamber players achieve their mastery, the main reason is that over the years they have made it their habit to prepare ahead of group playing sessions.

The other major opportunity you have to improve your ensemble playing skill is to take full advantage of the experienced tutors that are on hand to assist members at all ACMS playing occasions. If indeed you have prepared your part in advance, you won't be using your tutor merely for the basic task of holding the group together. Rather the focus will switch to aspects of playing like dynamics, phrasing, articulation, and developing a greater sensitivity to the other parts.


The purpose of these guidelines is to provide basic guidance to pianists in the selection of repertoire for playing sessions as well as advice about how to improve ensemble playing skills over time. If you have any questions about these or other matters please ask other members, or any committee member, for assistance at any time. We hope that you will derive lasting pleasure from your participation in the wonderful world of chamber music.

Acknowledgment:  ACMS acknowledges the contribution of some experienced tutors in the preparation of these guidelines.