In Part I of this series, I discussed why I believe it's important for independent piano teachers to teach choral accompanying skills, and gave some tips on preparing to play the voice parts in a choral piece. The next step in the process is learning to play the accompaniment. Here are some tips I can share from my 25 years of accompanying TVCCs - typical volunteer church choirs. I hope these are helpful for high-school students in a first-time situation, those called into accompanying service at their churches, or church substitutes!
Church Choral Accompanying for Beginners, Part II: Preparing the Accompaniment
Beyond learning to play the music, there are some things to consider when preparing a choral accompaniment as opposed to preparing a piano solo.
1. Of course, learn the music well. Observe the dynamics, phrasing, articulation, etc. Beginning accompanists should play with a metronome at least once to check for unconscious speeding up or slowing down in spots.
2. Double-check the tempo with the conductor. It's the conductor's prerogative to alter a given tempo, so make sure you know what she plans to do.
3. Remember that you must follow the conductor, and she isn't likely to be metronomic. Practice being flexible, and practice looking up for the conductor's gesture. This will be especially important at a ritardando, a meter change, the end of the piece, etc. If possible, arrange to play through the accompaniment with the conductor actually conducting so that you can practice following and troubleshoot any difficult spots. You may need to adjust the position of the piano to improve your sight-line.
4. Spend extra practice time on the key changes. The choir will be looking for their new pitches, and their comfort level will depend on your note accuracy.
5. Plan how to turn the pages and spend extra time practicing the page turns while playing. It's rare for me to have a page turner at church. Most of the people who read well enough to help me are already singing in the choir! The fair use clause in the copyright law allows you to copy a portion of the piece to facilitate page-turning. I often copy a first or last page, but usually try to manage the best I can with the middle pages. That means dropping a few notes in one hand while I turn, but if I leave it to chance without making a plan and practicing it, I'm much more likely to flub some notes. So, don't leave page-turning to chance! Using plastic sheet protectors is often a good solution. If your music director will allow it, disassemble the piece and put the pages in sheet protectors in a ring-binder. The plastic will stick to your fingers and you can just sweep it across without having to get your fingers behind the page. This also keeps loose pages from flying away (oh, the stories I could tell...). Just keep that sheet-protected copy in the file with the choir's copies, ready to use the next time they sing that one.
6. Pay attention to what will be happening in the voice parts as you play, and use your knowledge of the choir to prepare intelligently. For instance, you may have a forte indication at a spot where only the tenors are singing. If your choir contains only two timid tenors, then you may need to modify your "forte" to avoid drowning them out.
Coming next...playing a good rehearsal.