Tuesday, January 11, 2011

How To Be A Choral Accompanist, Part III: Playing A Good Rehearsal

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It's hard to believe that it's been three months since I posted here! Life is unbelievably busy for me, as you might have surmised. Amazingly, I've managed to add a few new followers in my absence! Welcome to all of you, and I hope you'll be patient with my sporadic posts through this bumpy year. Here's Part III of Church Choral Accompanying for Beginners. You might want to read my two earlier posts, Part I: Learning the Voice Parts and Part II: Learning the Accompaniment.

Playing a Good Choral Rehearsal

If you've been following these posts, you know that I'm writing for beginning accompanists who work with TVCCs - typical volunteer church choirs. These choristers are wonderful people who love music but are not music professionals. They may not read music or may only read marginally. Every week, in churches all over the world, talented choral conductors perform musical miracles with these groups. Their ability to do that depends largely on the competence of their accompanist. Many of these tips seem quite obvious, but sometimes, the biggest improvements come from these seemingly small, obvious things.

Here are five things you can do that require no musical talent whatsoever, and yet contribute in HUGE ways to the success of a rehearsal.

1. Be on time. No matter how bad the choristers are about dragging in 5 minutes late, you be at the piano, music out, and ready to play by the stated rehearsal time.

2. Before rehearsal starts, arrange your music in the order it will be rehearsed. If your conductor does not provide a rehearsal agenda, you might ask for one.

3. Once the rehearsal starts, don't talk unless you need to ask the conductor for clarification. Do your socializing with choir members before or after the rehearsal. During the rehearsal, all of your attention should be focused on the conductor and the music.

4. Before rehearsal, make sure that the physical set-up of the piano will work for you. Is there enough light for you to see the music? If not, get a lamp. Can you see the director? If not, move the piano until you can. Is there an air-conditioning vent blowing your music? Find some way to divert the air or move the piano. Don't fail to fix a problem and then use it as an excuse later.

5. Have a pencil handy and make quick marks in your music if you realize you need to change the way you're playing something. Don't rely on your memory. However, do make quick marks. Don't hold up the rehearsal while you write "watch director - slowing down." Come up with a code for yourself if necessary. I have my own one-stroke symbol for "watch the director here" which I use when there's a deviation from the score's instructions.

The following tips take practice to do well, but are worth the effort.

6. Tune your ears and eyes to the choir and conductor. Accompanists have to listen to the choir and watch the director while playing. This is quite hard if you're not used to doing it. You need to be aware of balance - are you drowning the voices out or not providing enough volume to be supportive?Are you following the director's tempo or your own? The more you make an intentional effort to listen and watch, the sooner you'll master this skill. Don't hesitate to ask the conductor if he/she would practice with you, conducting the piece while you play. This is a great way to promote good relations with your conductor, too.

7. Stay alert and move quickly to the new rehearsal spot. As soon as the choir reaches a stopping place, the natural inclination is to let down and relax for a minute. Don't give in to this temptation, but listen carefully for the next directions. With most conductors I've worked with, it sounds something like this: "Tenors, will you look at page 3, measure 26?" I turn immediately to the spot, and give the starting pitch for the tenors. When she hears the pitch, she knows I'm there and ready to go. Because I'm quick about it, the choristers have become conditioned to be quick about it, too. You should move at the pace of the conductor, not the pace of the choir.

8. Stay in control of your feelings. Don't confuse "direction" with "correction," and as long as the conductor is treating you respectfully, don't take offense even if it is a correction. It's always uncomfortable to be singled out in front of people. The conductor can address a group of choristers - the altos, for instance, but in your case, there's no group. So, have the attitude that you are there to learn and to help, and don't be someone who needs to be treated with kid gloves. Do your best, don't make excuses, and let the small things go. Now, having said that, don't be a doormat, either. Neither you nor the conductor will respect you for it. You don't have to accept anything that makes you feel belittled, but remember that you should still stay in control of your feelings. Don't try to address this kind of problem in the middle of a rehearsal.


Chris said...

Hello, I found your blog and have a question for you. I am a very experienced piano teacher but am having trouble with a student learning to read. He just can't seem to grasp and remember the concept of notes on the staff at all! We keep repeating the same lessons over and over, I think he gets it, then the same thing next week. He is very bright otherwise, is pleasant and polite, but just can't seem to "crack the code". Any thoughts/tips? He is 8 years old, and a new beginner (few months). He was going ok with pre-reading, he understands counting/note values, but now we're starting with G, C, and F, and he seems to have no memory from week to week, or even through the course of the lesson. He tries to practice at home but is stumped when he looks at the book, and no one at home is musical. Thank you!

Laura Lowe said...

Hi, Chris, and thanks for stopping by! Your question deserves its own post. I'll try to get something posted between now and Monday.

Geraldine said...

Great article! I particularly like the last part, about correction. I never thought how the pianist is the only one in their part, and that's why criticism is harder to take in front of the group. As you say, the pianist as to be going at the pace of the conductor, and because of that, in many ways there is a conductor-pianist team. I think that's also why it's hard for pianists to hear criticism during rehearsal, because it challenges that team relationship.


Lornajane Altura said...

I played for a church choir and it sometimes hurts that the conductor does not have the technical expertise as a pianist does. This is not to brag but I believe that pianists know much more music theory compared to the conductors especially in small churches.

However, one valuable lesson is to follow the leader.

Though this can sometimes be frustrating when you hear him teach it wrong.

Laura Lowe said...

Hi, nice gal,
Yes, it can be very frustrating if you find yourself in a situation where you are more knowledgeable than the conductor. I've been there a few times. Fortunately, that's not the case for me, now! The thing to remember is that it's more important for the choir to be together than to be correct. It can be hard to let things go, but sometimes it's the right thing to do. And, if you just can't stand to stay quiet, be sure to deal with it in private, not in front of the choir.