Saturday, October 16, 2010

How To Be A Choral Accompanist*, Part I

Of all the things I do as a musician, church choral accompanying has been the most financially lucrative and emotionally satisfying of my activities short of teaching. Ironically, not one minute of my formal piano instruction was ever devoted to this craft which requires an additional set of skills beyond those of performing well as a soloist.

Many of today's young students will one day be asked or employed to accompany what I like to call the TVCC - Typical Volunteer Church Choir. The TVCC is usually made up of wonderful people who love music but who often either don't read music or read marginally. Whether it's a volunteer accompanying position or a paid one, there are skills specific to this job. So, I've decided to incorporate choral accompanying into my teaching. The accompanist truly collaborates with the conductor in teaching the music, so preparing for a choral rehearsal with the TVCC involves so much more than merely practicing the piano part. It's worth breaking down all of the skills and teaching them explicitly.

This year at Christmas, I'll have my studio sing a choral anthem accompanied by one of my high school students as I conduct. I'm compiling my thoughts as she learns the piece, and will post them in four installments. I hope this will be a helpful guide for piano students, those called into service at their churches, or church substitutes. Feel free to expand upon these ideas from your own experience - I'd love to hear your comments!

Choral Accompanying for Beginners, Part I: Preparing To Play The Voice Parts

1. Learn the vocabulary and symbols you'll find in a choral score: Soprano - alto - tenor - bass - divisi - tutti - unison - breath marks - 1st and 2nd soprano (etc.). If the conductor calls for you to play the 2nd tenor line and you aren't sure which one that is, valuable rehearsal time may be lost. Piano teachers, you should teach your future accompanists how to decode a choral score. It's part of being a pianist. You can't assume that the student is being taught this at school or church - they often aren't using traditional SATB scores in these situations.

2. Look over the entire score noting repeats, key changes, accidentals, tempo changes, meter changes, dynamics, and vocal texture changes (i.e., note when the choir is in unison, or divided into parts). If you need help understanding anything, ask the conductor beforehand so that once rehearsal begins, she can focus her teaching efforts on the choir.

3. Use a metronome or consult the conductor to find out what the ultimate tempo for the piece will be. Even if you need to play more slowly as you learn the notes, it will help to know what your ultimate tempo goal is. Keep in mind that the conductor decides the final tempo, and she may choose to deviate from the metronome speed.

4. Just as in medicine, the motto is "do no harm." When you play the voice parts, if you make mistakes with note or rhythm accuracy, the choir will learn it incorrectly and then it will require extra rehearsal time to fix. So, you must prepare for rehearsal by learning the voice parts well. Start by playing through each single voice part, and sing along. Note where it feels difficult to find the next pitch or to get the rhythm right. This is where the choir will have trouble and where you will need to be accurate. Give special attention to notes with accidentals, melodic leaps of more than a 5th, successive leaps, voice crossings, and syncopated rhythm.

5. Learn to play all of the voice parts together. Pay special attention to key changes, meter changes, accidentals, and any places where dissonance results between two or more voices. (Open score will seldom occur in music for the TVCC, so I'm saving instruction for that 'til later. This post is for beginners playing choral parts written SATB on two staves.)

6. At the rehearsal, the conductor may ask for any combination of parts, so be prepared to play them in any combination, for instance, soprano + tenor, bass + alto, soprano + alto + tenor, etc. Look for voice pairing - places where the composer has created duets or trios against the other voices. You can be sure that you'll be asked to play those together.

7. When playing the voice parts, be sure to observe correct articulation and dynamics. The TVCM will not always notice or understand the score markings, and they will unconsciously imitate what you play. Create success by modeling how it should sound. Listen carefully at rehearsal when the conductor gives instructions about where the parts should breathe and how she wants to handle dynamics. The conductor has the option to overrule the score.

Coming soon: Preparing the accompaniment and playing a good rehearsal

*Note: I mean no disrespect to the profession by using the term "accompanist" instead of "collaborative pianist" and have delayed in writing this post out of fear that someone might take offense at the "A" word. I just can't figure out the proper way to refer to a choral accompanist. "Choral collaborator" sounds like I organized the music library. "Choral pianist" sounds like a chorus of pianists. "Choral pianistic collaborator?" Really unwieldy. I'm settling for the old stand-by "accompanist" because it's concise and we all know immediately what it means, and certainly not because I think of it as a lesser role. I hope this post and future ones will demonstrate that. I love Chris Foley's post about this issue and take heart that he is not offended by the "A" word. I hope no one else will be, either.


Mr Lonely said...

nice blog.. have a view of my blog when free.. .. do leave me some comment / guide if can.. if interested can follow my blog...

Sheryl said...

Hi Laura,

I'm a church music director as well as an independent piano instructor. I so appreciate your comments on accompanying! I also want you to know that I have nominated you for an award! I appreciate your blog and your hard work in teaching and wanted to express that! You can see the award on my blog at

Cori said...

This is a great article. I will refer to it as I begin mentoring young accompanists at my church!

liz garnett said...

I do like your 'do no harm' point - one of the only vivid memories I have of accompanying the university choral society as a student was playing a wrong note in a complex score (which was being conducted by its composer) and all the altos singing along with it!

And on the 'A' word. A colleague of mine once commented on the perception that 'accompany' implies a subservient role: 'When I ask Liz to accompany me to the cinema, I don't make her sit in the row behind and not give her any popcorn'.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for explaining what it takes to be a choral accompanist, my sister is interesting in this musical field, so I've been looking online to learn more about it. I like how you mention the importance of learning the various vocabulary and symbols that comes with performing with a choir. I'll share this article with my sister.