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 second question is: What are the three most important skills you have that make you a good accompanist?
I believe all good accompanists should possess these skills. There is not one that is more or less essential, but I will list them in order of ease of explanation.
The first important skill I have is the ability to play every genre of music. I can play classical, jazz (all types, swing and Latin – I know the difference between a Bossa Nova and a Salsa), musical theater, and popular music. I developed this skill by studying both classical and jazz piano, by playing in the jazz band in high school, and by simply playing lots and lots of different kinds of music. I have heard strictly classical pianists accompany a swing tune, and they didn’t swing well. The notes were fine, but it didn’t sound authentic. Being skilled in just one area of music can diminish either the quality of the music or the number of opportunities. I am glad I can play any genre because my work has come in various forms, from classical chamber music to musical theater pits to reading chord charts in a band. Some pianists are able to make a living specializing in just one genre, but in my work, which is primarily community music-focused, it is essential to have broader experience.
The second important skill is the ability to sight-read. Sight-reading, in a musical sense, is the ability to accurately play a piece of music the first time one looks at it. I tell people that sight-reading is my superpower. Someone can give me a piece of music and I can play it with at least 80% accuracy the first time. Even fairly difficult music. Even under pressure. I have stepped into many musical situations at the last minute when another pianist has been unable to play for one reason or another. Once, I learned the Hindemith flute sonata in two days. Another time, I learned the piano part of a difficult musical theater production in ten days. A few months ago, I sat down right before a performance and played a bass part for the first time. I am constantly learning new music, and it is often not simple. If I wasn’t an excellent sight-reader, accompanying would be a terrible job. It would be very stressful playing in front of a group teaching the notes if I was unsure of them myself. I would have to practice a tremendous amount and watch my hourly wage go down with every minute of work I put in. Accompanying is only for good sight-readers. Otherwise, it’s just not worth it.
The third skill is my ability to read the performer (or director.) This is primarily a skill of recognizing non-verbal cues, like how a person breathes or moves, and also being able to find patterns in a person’s approach to a piece of music. Written music, as a whole, is just a guide to how the piece should go. Each performer will approach it slightly differently, which is part of the beauty of live music. No two people will take a breath, hold a fermata, or interpret eighth notes, rallentandos, or crescendos the exact same way. My job as an accompanist is to support the performer/director, so I need to match their interpretations. When working with a director, I try to anticipate what is needed from me, especially during rehearsals before the ensemble’s understanding of the director’s ideas are solidified. This involves listening to what is happening in the ensemble and quickly assessing what I can do from the piano to enhance a section or solve a problem without the director having to stop and tell me what to do to help. As an accompanist, I work with a wide variety of people and ensembles, so I often play with people I have not previously met. The better I am at getting a read on how each person interprets the music, or what a director wants from me, the quicker the music will “gel” and the more efficient rehearsal will be.
Accompanying is not just about playing the piano. Many highly skilled pianists are not great accompanists, and good accompanists are not always cut out to be soloists who could play concertos with orchestras in concert halls. As I mentioned in my previous post, the definition of accompany is “to go along with.” The skills I described above support this idea. The ability to play any genre of music, the ability to sight-read, and the ability to read the non-verbal cues means I can play what, when, and however the soloist/director wants. I just go along with it.
That being said, there are times when I do have to speak up because there is a problem with the music that goes beyond a difference in interpretation. Sometimes, it is a mistake I made that I didn’t notice; it could be that the soloist or director made a mistake; more than occasionally there is an error in the written music that came from the publisher! Either way, “going along with” doesn’t mean that I just accept everything as it comes, without question. Neither does my ability to sight-read mean that I *like* being thrown into situations where I am needed at the last minute. I call it my superpower, and it is. But superheroes are weakened when they use their powers. Likewise, I find sight-reading takes effort and can be exhausting, despite how skilled I am at it.
On a personal note, thinking about these things revealed some things to me about myself and interactions with others. I am, at my core, an accompanist. It’s not just what I do, it’s who I am. It’s why I am suited for this work. If I am starting to stubbornly NOT “go along,” it signals a problem. I also do like being accompanied myself, from time to time, and may get upset if I don’t get a turn.