Dear Rhodri, I was wondering if you have any advice/tips and set expectations for pianists who are starting to accompany other instrumentalists?
Thanks very much for the question. Instrumental accompaniment covers such a large scope in terms of the repertoire, the skills you can develop and the huge variety of performance and rehearsal situations you get to be a part of. It can be challenging, but (unsurprisingly), I think it’s more than well worth the effort. Some pianists like to specialise in particular areas of instrumental accompaniment, but in my own case, as I talked about a little in the last post, I’ve always accompanied a wide variety of instruments. When you are starting out accompanying, I would encourage you to try playing for as many instruments as possible, partly for the variety in itself, but also because it teaches you so much about blending the various timbres and registers with the piano sound.
First, let’s talk about actually getting started, and creating accompanying opportunities. The thing to remember is ‘people always need accompanists’. For instrumentalists, unless they are preparing unaccompanied works or concertos, their repertoire will have a piano accompaniment and it’s going to be of great help to them to have someone willing to read through the accompaniment with them so they understand how the piece fits together. A great place to start is your group of friends who are instrumentalists. Either offer to do read-throughs of repertoire they are working on or just pick some relatively straightforward repertoire to sightread through. If you have pianist friends, try duos 2 pianos or 4 hands or concerto repertoire. It could be a regular thing, with an informal concert at the end of several informal rehearsals for example. During my time at college, I probably spent significantly more time in practice rooms accompanying other students than working on solo playing, even though that was the course I enrolled in. I think accompanying actually informed my solo playing (see the last post). You could also form a piano trio if you know a cellist and violinist, then you could also explore duo repertoire with each of them. If you are comfortable, again, informal concerts can be great fun. Perform for your family, friends, pets, local care home, hospitals. Great if you can give yourself performing situations in which you can feel comfortable, given accompanying is new for you.
Now, if as you say, you’re starting out, it’s worth me going through my shopping list of accompanying skills, with a few tips along the way. Of course be aware that for anyone learning about accompanying, it’s necessarily going to be an incremental approach in terms of acquiring and honing these skills. In other words, you learn on the job rather than having a perfect set of skills before you start, so don’t worry about being near the start of the road
Surely I will miss some things out, but here’s my list in no particular order:
Sight reading – I encourage you to do as much as possible. Best to start with fairly straightforward pieces. Try to get an overview of the whole piece. Choose a sensible tempo (remember when practising, you can go as slow as you like) and above all prioritize accurate rhythm. Even it feels like a train wreck, get used to the feeling of keeping going no matter what. Even drop down to one part if necessary. The bass part is usually the most important for the harmony and structure. In orchestral reductions it’s often best to leave out the less important parts to make the accompaniment playable. Listen to a recording of the piece to get a sense of which are the more prominent parts of the accompaniment and which could be left out.
Rhythm and tempo – Rhythm was already mentioned above but one of my obsessions. It’s so vital to be able to maintain a steady pulse. I use subdividing a lot, especially in slow pieces (for example, feeling semiquaver pulses to keep a steady crochet beat). Can be difficult to focus on this when you are thinking about the other part as well, but you’ll gradually learn to synchronize everything.
Listening/singing – Get to know the instrumental part you are accompanying. Sing it yourself from the score (without accompanying). Doesn’t have to be incredibly accurate in pitch but again with excellent rhythm always. When you’re more familiar with it, and have listened to several recordings, try accompanying yourself singing the instrumental part. Even if you start very slowly and with a very simple piece, starting early with this skill will really help later on. Also, can’t emphasize enough how important listening to good recordings is. This will help you understand the piece as a whole, give you an idea of other people’s interpretation and their approach to accompanying, and allow you to focus on the instrumental part in the context of the harmony. Always listen with the score to improve your fluency when playing. You’ll be amazed how much this helps when you go back to the piano.
Ensemble skills – Everything that you’d normally put into a musical performance – phrasing, dynamics, articulation, tempo changes etc – now involves another factor: the other person. The collaborative aspect of accompanying is I think what makes it fulfilling to do and what makes the performance engaging (or not, for bad ensemble). As someone new to accompanying, a great thing to do is watch other people accompanying. You’ll notice breathing is important, for example to start a piece, or between phrases. The best way to ‘lead’ at the start of a piece or section is to give a clear, rhythmical movement (can also be an in-breath) which matches the tempo you are going to play). If you are leading, you must have a very clear idea of the tempo, perhaps by counting a bar in your head before leading. If you are being led, the signal you are watching for, has to become part of your preparation to play. Another point is about adapting to what you are hearing. So much of accompanying is reacting on the spur of the moment. This is really something you can only improve through doing, but the better you can know the instrumental part, the more likely you’ll be able to react when the violinist takes some extra time on a shift or the flautist takes longer than usual to breathe, or the trumpet player skips a bar (sorry, why did it have to be trumpet player?)
Adapting the score and balance considerations – I already touched on this, but worth mentioning again in relation to preparing an accompaniment score. Balance is probably one of the hardest things to get right in accompanying. There are several variables which can affect the balance – (obviously) the instrument you are accompanying and which register they are playing in (e.g. lower register can easily get lost in the piano texture), type and size of piano, acoustic and size of the room, and then of course your own dynamic control, voicing and tone. Again, a skill you very much learn by trial and error. Be aware that the middle of the piano register can easily become overpowering if the instrumentalist is also playing in that register. Brass instruments – chance to flex your muscles.
So, you can definitely adapt the score either to make things more pianistically possible or musically satisfying. Your ear is the best guide and the ideal is to be experiencing the music through both parts at once. Sometimes the accompanist role is perceived to be a binary loud or soft type of thing. I encourage you instead to think of a rich tapestry of orchestral colours through your accompaniment with many possibilities for providing support. Sometimes you have to lead, sometimes you have to stay under the solo part, sometimes you are equal partners. All 3 are possible within a couple of bars.
Hope that’s helpful and let me know if you have any other specific questions about any aspect of that!