I was wondering if you have any advice/tips on accompanying children who are preparing for their AMEB exams? I recently encountered an issue when I was accompanying a student - I had trouble working with them, which hasn't happened to me before. It felt like we weren't in sync or not connecting properly, which felt out of the ordinary. Do you have any advice for this working with people who don't, for whatever reason, feel like they fit?
That's a great question! As it happens, I've done quite a lot of AMEB accompaniment since moving to Australia, so will share some advice and observations based on my experience of this. Of course, much of this would apply to accompanying children in other performance situations such as VCE exams, school concerts, auditions etc.
First, some general advice about what you can do before rehearsals start to make sure everything runs smoothly. You'll most likely be dealing with the parent of the child or sometimes a school teacher. In the first conversation, text or email, ask or clarify:
- The time, date and location of performance
- The performance repertoire
- How you'll be receiving the music (Via email? Via post?)
- What your fees will be for both the rehearsal period and the performance
Once you are in the rehearsal situation:
Remember that a lot of children don't get the chance to play with a "real life" pianist very often, if at all. This lack of exposure could well be the source of the problem with connecting or being in sync that you mentioned in your question. Playing with piano is a skill which is all too often is left till a week before the exam to start working on or even thinking about. It would be pretty surprising if things weren’t a little rocky in the first few play throughs. Having said that, there are a few things you can try to help things go smoothly.
A lot of AMEB pieces are short or very short, so a comfortable start is vital for a settled performance. If the start is rocky, the piece can already be half way through before the child feels comfortable. Therefore, rehearse the beginning multiple times. Getting the student to lead is key here. Ask the student to breathe rhythmically, in the tempo of the piece, as they begin to play. You'll need to decide whether a crochet, minim or longer breath is better. This will depend on the tempo. For a piece in 2/2 time, a minim may be best, rather than a crochet. Of course, all this applies to starting a piece or section together, but the same principle applies to any of their entries. Encourage them to use these kinds of signalling breaths on the beat before they join the piano. Wind players and singers naturally have to breathe anyway, but string players can find this awkward at first, so it needs some choreographing. I sometimes use the analogy of a conductor who would always lead the orchestra by giving a preparation beat. The crucial thing is that the breath/lead/signal happens in rhythm and on the beat before you play together. Also, the style of leading should match the character of the piece - for example, a fast energetic gesture doesn’t work if you are starting a slow lyrical melody.
Sometimes it takes children a long time to feel this naturally. In the meantime, if the leading is not clear for whatever reason, as you gain more experience in accompanying you will develop a sixth sense about when a soloist is going to play. Wind instruments and singers will have to breathe anyway, even if they don't lead you clearly, and string players have to move the bow, which you can usually synchronise with by watching closely. Worst case scenario - you can catch them on the next beat, by using your knowledge of what the tempo is going to be (see below).
Another good strategy I always use is to ask the child to give me the tempo before starting to play. As it's so unlikely you will guess the right tempo given there can be so much variation depending on their level, technical ability, interpretation etc, it’s always best to clarify it. Once you know the tempo, take a second to write down the metronome mark. Sometimes, with challenging works, I often write to the student in advance of the first rehearsal and ask them to give me their tempo metronome marking for a particular piece. This gives you an insight into what to expect in the rehearsal and allows you to make sure you can comfortably play everything at that tempo. Mostly it’s best if you can rehearse at the tempo the child is used to practising. I'll almost always ask the student to play the first 8 bars or so in their usual tempo to give me an idea. Setting tempos is just one of those things many people find difficult so it’s possible the tempo they show you may be different to what they actually want to do, but at least it gives you a starting point.
Unless you happen to be playing a piece littered with accelerandos and rallentandos, keeping a steady tempo between the two of you is going to be crucial to the overall ensemble and sense of togetherness which you noted was lacking in your question. Given that you’ve done all the preparation you can from your end and are playing at the student’s comfortable tempo, here’s some potential problems which may arise and some possible solutions.
In the case that the child is rushing throughout the piece, don’t be tempted to follow them. It’s much better to maintain your steady beat and allow them to adjust to you, otherwise neither of you will have a solid sense of where the beat is. Can be useful to point out to them where/how they are rushing e.g. cutting short long notes, not leaving enough time between notes in staccato passages, swallowing up semiquavers in passage work etc. If the rhythm is wrong/not clear, you should try to fix it. However, always be encouraging, respectful and constructive in your comments. "Let’s try this again", "the rhythm wasn’t clear there", "I didn’t quite understand that bar" etc … as opposed to “can you not rush there", "play a full crochet please", "why do you cut this note short…” etc.
Consider that rhythmical mistakes which happen in the rehearsal may have been “practised in” over many weeks/months. It can be useful to make a physical or mental note of particular notes/spots where the child is likely to be unstable rhythmically, given what you’ve heard in the rehearsal. In the case where it’s just a couple of notes across the whole piece, you need to be adaptable in terms of preserving the overall ensemble. In other words, if the child’s rhythm is generally good throughout the piece, be prepared to adjust to a couple of rhythmical inaccuracies so that the overall sweep of the piece is preserved, rather than sticking to your beat come what may.
Talk about subdividing:
A good way to help the ensemble, as well as encouraging the child to know the piano part well (see below), is to point out specific things in the piano part which the child can listen for e.g. if the solo part has a minim rest, point out that the piano plays 2 groups of 4 semiquavers in that rest, or in the passage where soloist plays 4 straight minims, ask them to listen for the straight quavers in the LH of the piano. Also, encourage them to subdivide in their own part - mentally dividing the longer note values into quicker values, like crochets into quavers or semiquavers -to prevent rushing. Often, listening carefully to the piano part provides this context for the solo part.
Recording the accompaniment:
As well as encouraging the child to listen to good recordings of the piece while following their music and following the piano score, you could also spend a few minutes of the rehearsal recording the accompaniment onto their parents phone. This helps them to get to know how their part fits into the accompaniment plus they get a much better understanding of how you play the accompaniment, rather than listening to a recording of someone else. They can also play along in their practice to get used to the sound of the accompaniment.
Much of what I've said focusses on helping the student through their performance, based on the challenges of working with a pianist. While this consideration is important, there are also many things you can do from the piano-playing side of things to help the situation. In terms of preparation, knowing your part as well as you can makes accompaniment so much easier. Being able to divert part of your brain to focus on the solo part is a skill you should always be developing. Work on this in your own practice by developing the ability to sing the solo part while you play your part. If you find this very difficult, which most people do, try playing the solo line first and accompanying with the left hand piano part to learn how the solo line fits with the accompaniment. It’s quite surprising how much being familiar with their part makes rehearsals much more relaxed for you. Listening helps a lot too. Watching the score as you listen fuses your visual experience of the score as you play with your aural map of the piece and almost always makes you more comfortable in the rehearsal. I usually do around 5-10 back-to-back listens of any piece I’m accompanying before rehearsals start. If you can’t find a recording, even playing or singing the solo part is very beneficial.
Also, give some thought to what you can emphasise about the accompaniment to help the soloist. Depends on the situation of course, but I’m thinking things like:
- A slight emphasis on the strong beats of the bar, in a classical Allegro for example
- Using less or no pedal to keep the articulation clear and easier to lock into.
- Considering the instrumentation if you’re accompanying concertos - are you being strings, woodwind etc - listening helps a lot with this.
- Balance considerations. As a general rule, a more prominent bass is a good idea.
- In some concerto accompaniments, leaving out some parts of cluttered orchestral reductions can be a good idea to simplify the texture. Listen to a recording to understand what is more prominent in the texture.
Please feel free to ask a more specific question about any aspect of this. I wish you all the best for your exam accompanying in the future.