Piano Accompanying; Some Do's and Don't's
by Tom Haug
Keynotes, March 2007
Accompanying a singer or an instrumentalist is both an Art and a Science. While some pianists have more of an affinity for accompanying than others, it is not a skill that will be instantly realized when the pianist sits down with his or her first accompaniment. As with most other things it takes practice, different instincts, and lots of patience. It can, however, be very rewarding and will ultimately make you a better pianist. It is an excellent way to overcome "stage fright," or performance nerves, since the focus will generally be on the singer or solo instrumentalist.
Below I have listed a number of suggestions on accompanying that I have learned (most times the hard way) over the years. In addition, Susan Rudy and Felicia Weiss, both of whom are excellent accompanists, have reviewed the article and provided a number helpful suggestions and comments. The suggestions are grouped into three categories: choosing and learning a piece; collaborating with another musician; and, performing.
Choosing and Learning a Piece
- Start out your accompanying career with easy pieces. Don't start out with a Brahms Sonata for Cello (or whatever instrument) and Piano.
- If you are performing a piece, make sure you give yourself time to be comfortable with your part and time to rehearse. Since pianists don't play an instrument having a single melody line, it often takes us longer to learn music than singers and instrumentalists, who often feel comfortable sight reading even difficult music.
- Practice the pieces at a faster pace than the agreed-upon tempo. It is much easier to slow down than to speed up. This will ultimately give you more control during rehearsal and performance.
- Edit the pieces. Play the music through a few times and then begin editing the piece. This is quite common and expected when you are doing an orchestral reduction. Unless you are an excellent sight reader, or you have time to practice the piece to perfection, there are things that can be done to the score to make your job a little easier. On difficult passages, eliminate notes that don't contribute to the overall effectiveness of the piece. Better to play a fewer notes than to trash the piece trying to play every note.
- Make sure you practice your part. Many accompanists prefer the term collaborator, because the piano part is often an equal partner--especially in sonatas. Even with pure accompaniments, the soloist will feel much more relaxed if you are well prepared. Again, if editing is needed to get around the difficult spots, do it.
- Unless you are going to employ a page turner (which is recommended for lengthy pieces), you need to pay close attention to the page turns. If the piece is fairly short (3 to 6 pages), photocopy the music and arrange the pages such that the easiest passages are just before the page turns. This requires some time in copying and stapling the music front-to-back, but it will make your job easier and the performance will flow more smoothly.
- The best accompaniment writers seem to have a knack of writing music that is, at the same time: flattering to the soloist, relatively easy for the accompanist to master, reasonably interesting for the accompanist, and yet is pleasing to the listener. Those that come to mind are: Schubert, Mozart, Bach and Puccini.
- The difficult writers are those that write stuff that's also flattering to the soloist, are pleasing to the listener, but are very difficult to learn. Brahms, Mendelssohn, and Rachmaninoff are just a few. Some jazz and Latin pieces are difficult because of the rhythms and the fact that the rhythm is asynchronous to the melody line being played or sung. The accompanist needs to determine early whether it is worth his or her time.
- By impossible, I mean that the accompaniment, whether difficult or simple, somehow does not connect with or flatter what the soloist is doing. It has been my experience that you find this more frequently with singers than with instrumentalists (no offense meant) and also more with popular music than with classical or semi-classical music.
Some composers are better accompaniment writers than others. They seem to fall into three categories: the good, the difficult and the impossible.
Collaborating with Another Musician
- If someone asks you to accompany them, make sure you like the piece. That is a benefit of being an amateur musician. We don't have to play pieces we don't love! See if you can listen to a recording of it or can read through the music first. Although your enjoyment of a piece may grow as you work on it, when you are starting out, it is more beneficial and useful to work on something you like.
- In rehearsals, practice difficult parts with a metronome. This will let you know if you are either rushing or dragging.
- Carefully notate your score with the places the other performer plans to slow down, speed up, take a breath, etc. Don't rely on your memory; when you're performing and nervous, it will fail you and the soloist.
- Another useful technique is to number each of the measures. This is especially helpful with some instrumental or chamber pieces, where the piano part is different from that of the other performers.
- Obviously, the more rehearsals you can schedule, the better the performance will be. It has been my experience that several shorter rehearsals are generally better than a couple of marathons. Also running through the piece (depending on the length of course) more than 3 times, is generally unproductive. This is especially true if the accompaniment is uninteresting or very repetitive. You probably will lose focus.
- When you are just starting out as an accompanist and working on music where the piano is truly an accompaniment versus an equal part, let the soloist take the lead. The accompanist should offer suggestions sparingly, and generally at the behest of the soloist. As the relationship of the duo continues and matures, a natural give and take will develop. Sounds like a marriage--and to a degree it is.
- With most well-written music, accompaniments are important. Often in vocal accompaniment, a pianist starts the piece, setting both the mood and the tempo. Even repeated chords are important. For example, they can be shaped to support a line or can push forward slightly to keep the melody line flowing. Discuss the mood you are trying to set with the soloist so you can sound like a team. With songs, think about the words and what mood they convey and how that affects your part.
- Because the piano is such a large instrument, it can dominate another instrument, especially in ranges where the other instrument does not project well. Be sensitive to this. Usually if you can hear your partner, you aren't too loud. If possible, have someone listen to the balance prior to performing in the room where you will be performing, as different rooms have different acoustics.
- You cannot stop or hesitate during a performance. If you get out of sync with the other performer, play one hand or the other until you figure out where you are and catch up or slow down. Some say play the left hand because it has the beat; others prefer the right because it has the melody or theme line. If that doesn't work, play chords until you figure it out. It is another way to get back in sync.
- One advantage the pianist has is that the score is generally printed in the pianist's part. Know the soloist's part. It not only will help you in performance in case something goes wrong, but it will help you understand how the parts fit together. For example, are you playing a line a soloist just expressed? How would you play it differently from the soloist?
- Learn to listen to the soloist as you're reading the music, as opposed to listening to yourself. If you're accompanying a singer, try to follow the words of the song. If the words are not in English, take time to learn the sound of the words. You don't have to know what the word means, but you need to know how it sounds so you can follow the vocalist. This will help you keep in sync with the soloist while you're performing.
- Counting and keeping track of the measures is absolutely imperative in accompanying. Pianists are generally lazy (especially me) when it comes to counting. This is especially true when the accompaniment doesn't follow the melody line and it is basically a contrapuntal effect underlying the soloist. The only way to hold the piece together is to be precisely on count. If you are not, it will be a disaster. If you really don't like counting while you are playing, or you think it interferes with your performance, don't take up accompanying.
- Try to keep one measure ahead of the score. Read the measure you're on and quickly glance ahead. This will not only help you in accompanying, but it will improve your solo efforts.
- After a performance, for sonatas where the parts are equal, you should bow together. For accompaniments such as art songs, generally the singer will bow, and then gesture to the pianist to take a bow.
I hope these suggestions, hints and techniques prove useful. Thanks again to Susan Rudy and Felicia Weiss for their edits and suggestions. I also hope some of you will try your hand (or rather your fingers) at accompanying. While there are a few diva's or ogres out there, 99% of singers and solo instrumentalists are extremely appreciative of your time, talent and effort. Accompanying will make you a better musician.
I leave you with an anecdote I heard some time ago regarding collaborative efforts and the need to be prepared for anything.
Serge Rachmaninoff was accompanying Fritz Kreisler in a recital at Carnegie Hall. As they were performing a particularly difficult Violin/Piano Sonata, Kreisler got lost and quit playing. Rachmaninoff continued on, ad-libbing and improvising. Kreisler sidled over to Rachmaninoff and whispered, "I'm lost, where are we?" To which Rachmaninoff whispered back, "Carnegie Hall."
Copyright 2007 Tom Haug
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