Skills for an Accompanist

Just because you can play the piano does not mean you are automatically a good accompanist. Accompanying is another, different set of skills which must be added to the ability to play. And like playing the piano, accompanying requires practice. Alas, the only way to gain this skill is to accompany!

The accompaniment part necessarily easy! Anyone who's even looked at the accompanyment for Schubert's "Erlkoenig" will realize that this piece is no walk in the park! Therefore, being an accompanist is not an also-ran to being a piano soloist.

I feel there are different techniques needed for accompanying a choir, vocal soloist, or an instrumentalist. The skills interlock, but there are some subtleties which make a difference.

Here are some hints to help you through your first rehearsals with minimal embarrassment and to assist when it's time to go on the stage.

Accompanying a Choir

Know your music well. Practice playing it faster and slower than rehearsal tempo in case there is a change at performance.

Be familiar with the choir's music. How many parts are there? How many singers on each part? What's the form (ABA? rondo? stanza and chorus)?

Know where the choir is doing what. For example, where do they begin the fugal section?

Number the measures in your score.

Ask the director if she/he would like to add rehearsal letters. Make sure you have these marked in the correct spots.

Watch the director. This means you must have a good working knowledge of the geography of the keyboard so you don't have to watch your hands all the time. You'll need to look up frequently, perhaps as often as every 2 seconds.

Accordingly, be able to find where you were in the music when you look back. That is, know approximately in the score where you were and remember it so your eyes can return there. For instance, "line two in the middle of the score".

Have a knowledge of chords. You can simplify the accompaniment if needed; or fake it if you get lost. I suggest you write in the chord names above the measures or somewhere you can see them easily. Knowledge of scales is another help for you.

Have a knowledge of how to arppeggiate chords and play them in inversion in case you have to fake it. A good working knowledge of the I-V-I bass pattern is also useful in faking it.

Have the ability to play one voice louder than the others. The director calls this "bringing out" whatever voice that is; pianists call it "voicing". This means you'll have to learn how to play one finger louder than the others.

An ability to hear which part is having a bit of trouble and bringing out that part is helpful in keeping the rehearsal going smoothly. Perhaps doing this will negate the director's taking time to work with that section on that area. Just a little support from you will do the trick. This is a judgement call for you, of course. Be careful not to tread on the director's toes!

Support the director in proper deportment for the choir (especially helpful with children and teens). Be on time; have your music open; have a pencil tucked behind your ear; be sitting on the bench, etc. Model good professional behavior for the choir.

Other tips for children and teens:

If you see a child having trouble but making an effort, be sure to compliment the child after rehearsal on how hard he/she tried or how much improvement you saw or how well the child watched the director. Find something musical to praise especially to that child on that day. Despite having trouble, if the singer knows that somebody noticed his/her effort, the child will be less inclined to quit, thinking he/she "is obviously not able to do this".

Be prepared to level a "look" on especially rowdy ones. Follow this by a wink or a smile. If warranted, compliment the child for calming down. Kids sometimes (often?!) act out because they are having difficulty and don't want anyone to notice that. By being a disturbance, attention is focused on the behavior rather than the problem or - - more commonly - - on the fact that there *is* a problem.

At performances, help corral the kids and calm them. Help them robe or do whatever other preparation is necessary before going on stage. If the children are young, ask if any of them needs a "potty call" before robing.

Adults will not need "mothering" kinds of help, of course, but do model professional behavior. Many adults have not sung in a choir before and will appreciate your subtle assistance.

Accompanying a Solo Singer

Many of the techniques are the same, such as knowing your and the soloist's the music well, marking the music (including rehearsal letters), and watching the soloist.

Although you are enhancing the performance of the soloist, consider yourself a safety net, too.

Be prepared to jump forwards or backwards in case the singer gets lost. You must, as far as possible, cover the goof.

Be prepared to "vamp 'til ready" if the soloist gets lost and then rattled and misses the next entrance. If the soloist knows she/he can count on you to cover, it is a great feeling of security. Although the soloist is the star, you are really a team. An experienced and sensitive soloist knows this.

Watch carefully for the solist's indication to begin and end. Rehearse beginning and ending quite a bit. If the soloist is not making these indications obvious enough to you, say something! If you say nothing, you may have a disaster in performance.

Also, watch carefully for the speed the soloist sets. You have rehearsed this and you know approximately what to expect, but watch carefully, anyway. If it is a child or teen and this is a competition, the tempo set may be a little/quite a bit faster than was planned. If so, there is an 80% chance things will start to go downhill and skid precariously at the most difficult spot. Be prepared for damage control!

Generally, the soloist comes on stage first, and you follow. Work out whether you will bow together before the piece or whether the soloist will bow alone (while you sit down on the piano bench unobtrusively). Work out how you will bow afterwards. Normally, the soloist extends his/her arm, palm outwards, to "indicate" the accompanist, upon which signal the accompanist rises, steps away from the piano, and bows. Sometimes the pair of you bows again. (If they're still clappin', honey, take another bow!)

If this is a competition, be especially sensitive to how your playing may influence the judge. Don't overplay. Don't "lead" the soloist.

Accompanying an Instrumentalist

In addition to the tips given about for a vocalist, consider these additional tips when accompanying an instrumentalist.

Make sure you know how to assist in tuning. For example, a violinist will want A 440 (the A above middle C) with a D Minor triad laid in underneath. A young child violinist may find it helpful to hear the pitches of all the strings.

copyright 2001, Martha Beth Lewis, Ph.D.
Contact me for reprint permission.

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