Four Simple Tips to Help You Become a Great Vocal Accompanist

May 14, 2018 - By 

One of the most demanding jobs a pianist can have is playing for individuals or groups of people while they sing.

Why is it so difficult? It doesn’t have to be, but it is very different from playing on your own. Here are some tips for you to consider as you prepare to accompany your favorite singer in a performance.

1. Know the music.

This might seem like an obvious suggestion, but you might be surprised at how many times pianists are un- or under-prepared for their task. So, the first and most important part of a successful performance is to be very familiar with the music. Where are the tough parts? Marking them in with a highlighter so you know when they are coming can be helpful. How can you be ready for page-turns? Do you need to recruit someone to turn pages for you? Are there unexpected key changes or time-signature changes? Your vocalist partner will be counting on you to be aware of these things and to be prepared.

2. Make sure your volume level is appropriate for the setting.

You need to take a look at the room where you will be performing before you begin. Check the acoustics to be sure the piano is not too loud. It can be very easy to get involved in the beautiful music you’re playing and not realize that you’re too loud or too soft. If possible, have someone else listen from various spots in the room to see how your instrument sounds. Is the vocalist using a microphone? Is your instrument miked? You need to check on all of these things in advance. If you are fortunate enough to have a sound person on hand, make sure he is aware of the level of your instrument’s sound levels, and not just focusing on the singer. It is important to be sure you have a well-balanced sound. Unbalanced levels can spoil an otherwise exquisite performance.

3. Don’t play the melody along with the singer.

This may be questionable advice, depending on the circumstances of your performance. If you are playing for an amateur or a child, you may find that you need to help them in their performance, or that they can’t find the melody without you. However, if you are playing for a professional or even a good amateur, you probably don’t need to play the melody. In fact, at times it can be quite annoying to hear the melody line played along with the singer.

What do you do if the sheet music includes the melody in the accompaniment? You can usually simply avoid the lead line. Sometimes this means leaving out the top line of three staves, or the notes with tails pointing upwards on the treble line of a grand stave. If you are a good enough pianist, you may be able to improvise a counter-melody with your right hand. Another option, If you are capable of it, is to follow the guitar-chords that are often included above the staves. This kind of improvisation can be challenging if you are not used to doing it, but it can be particularly effective if you are playing jazz or pop music.

Of course, this advice is given with the understanding that the vocalist must be comfortable with whatever you choose to do, which brings me to the last bit of overall advice.

4. Make your vocalist into a star!

I’m sure you are a great pianist and you are to be congratulated for all the years of hard work it takes to get where you are. That being said, when you are accompanying a vocalist, you must always strive to stay in the background. If you do your job correctly, the listening audience should hardly be aware of your presence.

Follow the singer, no matter what! You may be an excellent sight-reader. You may always be right. That is not the most important fact during a vocal performance. The vocalist is the star, and you are there to back her up, no matter how great you are. It may be very likely that you are the better musician of the two of you, but your job is to make her shine, so even if she makes mistakes, you must do all you can to prevent your audience from knowing it.

If you need to slow down or speed up to follow her, do it. If she is a good vocalist, she will be interpreting the music according to the emotion of the piece, so it’s essential that you follow their lead. Don’t forget to employ your soft pedal when needed to make the dynamics of the music bring out the emotion of the singer, and come out strongly with energy and power to highlight the excitement and drama when appropriate as well.

Although the singer is the star, no performance is complete without the talent of a good accompanist. You can make or break it! By remembering and practicing these simple tips, you can become an accompanist extraordinaire!

Cameron is a contributor to The Singer’s Corner, which is a great place to learn, refresh, and delve into the music world. Visit his site to gain a new approach to singing, learn valuable tips to improve, and find ways to become the best of the best.

Posted In:  Church Music Ministry
2  comments
2 Comments
  • Great tips! I especially love the last point. My piano teacher used to tell me, “even if the song leader is wrong, the song leader is right”, and she applied the same principle to all accompanying. Too often I have watched/heard pianists try to run the show from the piano, and it is a huge detraction to the overall result. Of course, the one exception speaks to the last line of the 3rd point: what is the vocalist comfortable with? At times, I have had both vocalists and song leaders tell me that they would prefer to have me set the tempo because they are out of their comfort zone, and I think it’s best for the pianist to honor that request. It definitely causes problems when both people are trying to follow each other.

  • You’re exactly right. Pianists (especially church pianists) need to see the big picture. They need to be mindful of the fact that they are there to serve, and the best way to do that is to work towards the success of the vocalist. In that moment, there is no greater purpose.

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