The choral accompanist: a true team player.
The goal of this article is to identify and address the strengths that specifically pertain to choral accompanists so piano instructors can better train students in the private piano lesson setting. Young pianists in high school are often recruited to accompany for their school's choirs because the conductor knows they can play the piano. For the student to succeed, the piano teacher can devise a plan for when and how these skills can be learned. The abilities necessary for playing versus accompanying are similar in some regard, but ultimately are different approaches to playing the same instrument.
With this in mind, I ventured into the choral world to ask eight conductors in my community about their expectations of choral accompanists in rehearsals at the high school, collegiate, church and community choir levels. Most conductors discussed technical skills and their ability to remain engaged throughout rehearsals as well as how quickly an accompanist can react to requests. I was intrigued to hear that many value a personal relationship with the accompanist and look to the pianist as a musical colleague in the rehearsal process. Based on my interviews with the conductors, I compiled a list of both essential and suggested skills a choral pianist should possess. The following is a discussion of the abilities that every successful accompanist should have in their toolbox.
Choral Accompanying: Professional Multi-Tasking Sight-Reading
One of the most important skills an accompanist must possess is the ability to sight-read. Music must be learned quickly because accompanists are either given scores shortly before rehearsals begin, or they are expected to read on the spot. The conductor and choir members are dependent on the accompanist to find notes and read rhythms when first singing through a piece. The pianist needs to have the ability to efficiently analyze and identify places in the music where the choir as a whole, or a specific voice part, may need assistance with pitches, maneuvering large intervallic leaps or reading challenging rhythms.
If given music to sight-read, the accompanist's first priority is to focus on the rhythm. The game plan should be to play whatever can be managed at the right time. The pulse should never be sacrificed for correct notes. When playing melodic lines, the main theme, subject, imitative entrance or any other important line should receive the most attention. This may require the accompanist to jump fluidly from voice part to voice part. An experienced accompanist will also look ahead in the music to identify potential difficulties for the singers. Specific challenges to watch for are notes with accidentals, melodic leaps of more than a fifth interval, successive leaps, diminished or augmented intervals, voice crossings, unisons or parallel intervals with other sections. Chromatic notes or chords that do not belong to the piece's diatonic key are also places where the singers might need assistance. It is often useful to provide support by playing the bass line plus any reduced chords in harmonic rhythm. As the singers become more independent, they may only need to hear a chord or two to help find their pitches.
Another important strength related to sharp reading skills is the ability to play individual vocal lines as well as score-read multiple parts simultaneously. The accompanist must decode the texture and musical structure of the score to see how the melodic lines are horizontally and vertically woven together. Typically, the right hand will play the alto and soprano lines while the left hand covers the tenor and bass parts. The accompanist must remember that the tenor line is read in the treble clef but is sung and played an octave lower. Frequently, the tenor line will need to be redistributed to the right hand when the range is too big between the lower two parts. Even when a piano reduction is available, it is best to read from the full score to see each line individually. Instead of taking time to find a specific pitch in the reduction, the accompanist can see each line and quickly find the note or phrase without using precious rehearsal time.
The speed of the music learning process will increase when the pianist knows how to effectively assist the singers in learning their parts. Individual pitches should be played in the following order: bass line first, tenor, alto and lastly soprano. The bass line should be maintained most of all because it provides the foundation needed for the upper voices. If one part must be dropped, leave out the soprano because it is often the highest pitch and can more easily be found amid the texture. The tenor and alto lines most often get lost, especially in homorhythmic pieces. It is important to flesh out those parts so the singers hear how they relate to the other voices. Playing in two voice combinations of bass and tenor, bass and alto or alto and tenor would be helpful. If the choral texture is too thick to play all voices accurately, fall back on playing the bass line until the other voices can be added. Specific parts that need assistance should be played alone so the section can hear it clearly. Doubling that part at the octave so it can be heard is often beneficial. If the singers are finding their pitches accurately and singing with confidence, the accompanist can drop out and only play certain pitches or phrases as needed.
Navigating The Score
Creating a personal marking system that guides the eyes through the score can significantly benefit the accompanist. Depending on the pianist's preferences, the set of markings can include brackets, circles, numbers, or chord symbols to identify harmonic shifts and phrasing. Arrows can also show where pitches remain the same, ascend or descend. These markings directly help train the eyes to read from bottom to top, also known as zig-zag reading.
Having a sense of the text and the structure of the piece contributes to the speed of the rehearsal. All measures should be numbered so scores can be quickly navigated. The conductor may specify an exact place in the music in many different ways: the page number, the bar number, a rehearsal mark, a stave/system/line number (the third line on page 4), an aspect of the score (key change) or references to any of these (three bars before letter "B," two bars after the key change on page 6). Accompanists should also listen for instructions given with the piece's text. Conductors often return to the beginnings of phrases, and might say, "Let's start at 'Ave Regina.'" The pianist must be flexible and perceptive to the specific communication style of the conductor.
Accompanists must possess multi-listening skills to hear accurate pitches and correct rhythms in several voice parts simultaneously. If a specific section is particularly challenging, the pianist must discreetly but sufficiently provide support by playing the pitches to steer the singers back on track. The pianist must know the vocal parts well enough so their ears can focus on the choir while watching the conductor's gestures. When the accompanist has a firm grasp of the music, they can better predict what sections or voice parts a conductor may rehearse or what might be covered in a sectional.
Accompanist As Singer
Experience as a singer will greatly benefit a choral accompanist. Pianists can more easily observe the places where sections may need assistance finding pitches, hearing difficult intervals or executing rhythms correctly when thinking like a vocalist. Something as small as breathing with the choir can also have several positive effects during rehearsals, such as cueing entrances or leading singers to shape a phrase. When breathing together, the two entities of pianist and choir are connected to become one cohesive musical unit.
The Accompanist-Conductor Relationship
The dynamic between the accompanist and conductor is a special partnership that has a significant effect on the choir's success. (2) Clear communication is the basis of a strong union between these two musicians. When the conductor and accompanist have shared goals, together they can show the kind of sound expected from the choir. (3)
The ability to follow and respond to the conductor is another essential set of skills that contributes to the accompanist's versatility. The pianist must be able to watch the score and see the conductor in their peripheral vision while communicating with the conductor and choir through silence. (4) Cues to watch for are gesture for the overall tempo, articulation and possible moments of flexibility in the tempo. After observing and learning the conductor's tendencies, the accompanist can successfully assist so rehearsals run smoothly. When asked to play pitches or find specific measures in the score, the accompanist must consistently be on the ball to use rehearsal time in the most efficient way possible.
The pace of a choral rehearsal is directly affected by how well the pianist takes direction. The accompanist must almost be a professional mind-reader by being sensitive to both verbal and visual cues. One must think and listen like a conductor to know what section or set of measures might be returned to for the next segment of rehearsal. Even when an accompanist is not physically playing, they must be alert and ready to react quickly when they are needed to play or give pitches.
The Accompanist As Leader
In the early stages of the note-learning process, the pianist has the ability to affect the speed of how quickly the music can be learned. The accompanist plays a leadership role when they contribute to the teaching of correct pitches, intervals and rhythms. Both the conductor and the choir will be dependent on help from the piano. Any mistakes made by the accompanist will not only confuse the choristers, but will also take extra rehearsal time to re-teach the correct note, interval or rhythm. From the piano, the accompanist can lead the chorus to follow cues, dynamics and articulations, as well as give guidance in shaping their individual phrases.
Depending on the ensemble and conductor, the accompanist may need to help lead warm-ups at the beginning of a rehearsal. Pianists should be trained in playing ascending and descending five-finger patterns in major and minor keys. Knowledge of the dominant-tonic progression in all keys is also useful. The conductor may base his warm-ups on challenging intervallic relationships or text stresses taken directly from the choir's repertoire. Musicianship and aural skills will come into play during warm-ups such as these when asked to follow specific intervallic patterns while assisting the choir in finding the intervals as needed. If the conductor wants the choir to find pitches on their own, the pianist will need to listen for correct tuning. Some assistance can be given by playing either the tonic or dominant note of the specific key. By doing this, the accompanist is helping the choir improve their listening skills by showing them how their note lines up to the tonic or dominant pitch. The choristers can then make their own adjustments as needed.
The Game Plan For Developing The Ultimate Utility Player
Confident sight-reading is one of the most important skills to be taught in the private lesson setting. Students must always be trained to keep their eyes on the music, read ahead and never stop to correct mistakes. Sight-reading exercises should be one to two levels under what the student is currently playing. To practice this skill, teachers can cover up music that was just played so the student is forced to continue looking ahead. Combining sight-reading with other tasks is also a beneficial challenge. For example, the student could count out loud, describe something in the room, tell the exact time on a clock or have a conversation with you as they play (5) Simple repertoire pieces written in five-finger patterns, hymns or four-part chorales are also useful materials for sight-reading.
To develop aural skills, the student can detect pitch or rhythm mistakes in a familiar melody played by the teacher. Pieces currently being studied could easily be utilized for this exercise. The teacher can start with single-line melodies and work up to playing three or four voices so the student is forced to listen critically for mistakes made within a thicker texture.
Another important aspect of sight-reading is transferring the recognition of intervals on the page to the kinesthetic feel of them on the keyboard. Students can identify flash-cards of various ascending and descending intervals, chords and five-finger patterns. After identifying the card, these four steps can be followed:
1. See it.
2. Say it.
3. Feel it.
4. Play it.
The goal is to mentally recognize the pattern, know how it feels when playing it, then correctly execute the chord, interval or pattern on the keyboard. To encourage practice, students can be challenged to see how many cards they can identify and play in 30 seconds or one minute (6) To avoid looking at the hands, students can also play with their eyes closed to increase their kinesthetic experience.
Students will need to be introduced to reading with wide spacing between the vocal lines. Teachers can create a system in which the student starts by reading two voice parts with the standard line spacing. When the passage is played accurately, the teacher can raise the level of difficulty by increasing the spacing between the lines. The next step would be to add text to each stave. Finally, the student can say the text aloud while playing the music at the same time. By following this process, the student can focus on the important parts of the music such as pitches and rhythms, while learning to eliminate extra markings in the score that might be distracting.
The ability to follow basic conducting patterns is another essential skill students must learn. The group lesson or a monthly studio class is an ideal time for teachers to introduce this concept because students can practice with other musicians. After the teacher demonstrates the patterns in 2/4, 3/4 or 4/4, students can take turns directing and accompanying. The goal for the pianist is to watch the conductor and play simultaneously. In a private lesson, the teacher can help practice cues, releases or tempo adjustments, such as a ritardando or accelerando by conducting a solo piece while the student plays.
To prepare for choral warm-ups, students can practice with five-finger melodies and chord progressions. Assigning students basic chord progressions such as I-V-I or I-IV-V-I in major and minor keys will familiarize them with various patterns that may be used in rehearsals. This exercise can be expanded by having the student prepare their own progression to a melody by ear while incorporating various accompaniment patterns and meters. They can also modify the left-hand progression by playing with inversions for smooth voice leading. With these skills, the student will be well-equipped to follow a conductor's warm-up while adding a supportive harmonization for the singers.
Students of all levels can be introduced to accompanying through ensemble playing. Duets provide a perfect opportunity to practice general music skills such as listening, following, adjusting balance and regulating tempos with other musicians. Ensemble members must know the other parts to see how their specific line fits into the bigger musical picture. This directly relates to learning choral parts because the pianist must know each line and recognize the function of each part within the overall texture.
Although solo playing is crucial in the development of piano skills, it is important for studio piano teachers to set reasonable goals for students while taking advantage of the many opportunities that exist outside of the solo experience. (7) For young students, playing the piano is an "alone" skill: students practice alone, have lessons alone and start performing alone. One practical and rewarding way students can become lifelong musicians is to develop their collaborative piano skills. Choral accompanying provides both social and musical interactions between musicians, as well as the opportunity to be a member of a team.
Baseball and choral accompanying are both based on situations. The pianist is constantly watching and listening for different circumstances in the rehearsal setting. An effective and versatile pianist can be one of the most valuable assets in a choral rehearsal. (8) To a large degree, the extent of a choir's success is dependent upon its accompanist. With clear communication and flexibility, the pianist can follow their conductor's cues and anticipate how to effectively assist and lead the choir to listen attentively and sing with confidence. Professional mind-reader might be an ideal description for an accompanist. Just like a utility baseball player, the accompanist also plays multiple roles of listener, trouble-shooter, anticipator, problem-solver, helper and overall supporter of the ensemble. A well-trained and experienced player eliminates the idea that the accompanist is solely there to play pitches, and elevates the choral pianist to collaborating musician and part of the leadership team that guides the choir.
(1.) Anita L. Castiglione, "Choral Accompanying: Identification and Effective Use of Important Skills and Attributes in Choral Rehearsal" (DMA diss., University of Miami, 2002).
(2.) William Gokelman, "Professional Concerns: Developing Musical Relationships--Conductor and Accompanist," Pastoral Music (September 2011): 47.
(3.) Ibid., 47.
(4.) Castiglione, "Choral Accompanying."
(5.) Kayla Paulk, "Nurturing Collaborative Skills In The Private Piano Studio." American Music Teacher (February 2013): 24.
(6.) Joyce Grill, Accompanying Basics, San Diego (CA: Kjos Music, 1987).
(7.) Ibid., 79.
(8.) James Koerts, "How to be a Great Choir Accompanist," Koerts Music. http://koertsmusic.com/church-music/how-to-be-a-great-choir-accompanist/. (accessed February 23, 2016).
By Jenna Braaksma
Jenna Braaksma recently completed master's degrees in collaborative piano and piano pedagogy from the University of Missouri. She will be starting her phD in music education with ephasis in piano pedagogy at Florida State University this fall.
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|Publication:||American Music Teacher|
|Date:||Aug 1, 2017|
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