Accompanying = It’s Not About Me

Last month, I interviewed for a position as the accompanist with The Greater Tiverton Community Chorus. (I am happy to say I got the job!) The panel asked me some great questions, and I thought it would be beneficial to write out expanded answers in a series of blog posts.

I first started accompanying when I was around eight years old, when I started playing with my church’s children’s choir and a young violin player at church who was a couple of years older than me. Since then, I have accompanied church choirs, school choruses, community choruses, and vocal and instrumental soloists. I’ve had a long time to think about my answers!

The first is: What is your philosophy of accompanying?

In short, I tell people, “My job as an accompanist is to make the soloist (or group or director) look good!”

When I accompany, the audience is really not there to see me. They are there to hear the soloist, or the group. As an accompanist, I am a support, someone who is there to enhance the musical performance, not to bring attention to myself. Of course, there is some music where the piano part is quite intricate and becomes more of an equal part in the piece, but most of the time, the piano provides more structure than decoration. It is my job to know when to bring out my part, and when to fade into the background.

In every instance, my greatest goal is that the group or singer do as well as they possibly can. I try to prevent and minimize their mistakes, and I cover their mistakes whenever possible. I am not saying that I never make mistakes myself, but I make few.  The group or soloist is depending on me to be a reliable rock, a foundation in the piece, always playing something the exact same way every time. When I provide that security, they can perform with more confidence knowing that if something goes wrong, I will be there and catch them.

I have repeatedly told performers, “Don’t worry, I’ve got you. Don’t worry about making a mistake. If something happens, I know exactly where you are and will follow you no matter what you do. No one will even notice. Just go out there and give it your all.”

How true this is.

One time, I was accompanying a high school senior who was playing the Hindemith flute sonata for an audition. During our rehearsal, everything went just fine, but during the audition, we got off. I am not exactly sure what happened. I can’t say it wasn’t my fault, but I thought she made a rhythmic mistake. Either way, it doesn’t matter. I had two choices: continue playing and make it obvious something was wrong, or stop playing for a moment and begin again in the spot where she was. I did the second, because that was my responsibility as an accompanist. Her mistake or not, I took the blame by acting like I didn’t know where I was, instead of potentially making it look like she got lost or making it sound like she was playing a bunch of wrong notes. I also wanted to prevent any confusion that may have led to her feeling insecure about how the piece was going. It was my job to make her look good, not my job to be right. She won a spot in our state’s honor recital.

There have been times when I have skipped entire measures to match a singer that didn’t come in correctly. I have covered mistakes by directors who have conducted beat patterns wrong. I have created aural cues and signals in the piano part to help groups and soloists to know when to come in or where we are in the music. As an accompanist, I need to know how to get from here to there anywhere in the music, in case of emergencies. Sometimes there is a big harmonic change, and a mistake could be very abrupt, weird, and obvious. I have heavily relied on my training in harmony at times, filling in something that makes reasonable sense in an instant. Most of the audience is none the wiser. However the soloist, group, or director performs it – that’s how the music goes, regardless of what is written on the page.

Besides a commitment to the group or soloist, my greatest commitment as an accompanist is to the director of an ensemble. The director is the one who makes the judgments about pieces to be performed, style, interpretation, and technique. I do whatever I need to do to help the director’s vision come to life. If I am helping to teach notes to singers in a particular style of music, I play it in that style. For example, the eighth notes in jazz are often swung, so if I am teaching the notes in a jazz piece, I play them swung. I model changing dynamics according to the wishes of the conductor so the ensemble can hear what that sounds like.  Occasionally, I might have an idea or be asked for some input. In those instances, I speak with the director privately.  I go according to what the director ultimately decides, because it is not about my ideas.

It is also part of my responsibility as an accompanist to model submission to the director. I have been in ensembles where there has been some negative chit-chat among members, complaining about the director’s decisions. I don’t engage in that. If someone asks me something about it, I say “I just play the notes. I am not involved in making those decisions.” If I do know the director’s reasons, I might explain them. In times when I am asked to fill in and run rehearsals because the director is absent, I teach the music according to the director’s wishes. It’s not my time to put my own polish on it. No matter what, I do not question the director. They have enough to worry about!

The definition of accompany is to “go along with.” That pretty much sums up my work. As an accompanist, I go along with the soloist, the group, or the director. Wherever they go, whatever they do – I’m there with them.

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