Tagged In: accompanying
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!
As a church pianist, I think it’s helpful from time to time to focus on your artistry. I know the church pianist serves a purpose, and it’s important for us to consider our role as servants in the church. (I do believe people are called to serve, and all Christians are “wired” with ways in which they serve the church. There is great value to servant-hood, and it’s a broad Scriptural principle.) But to maintain merely a utilitarian view of our position is to miss out on opportunities to be creative and artistic.
A couple of preliminary thoughts. First, make sure your leadership is on board with your ideas. This also means you need to clearly and precisely communicate your ideas. Don’t just do some of these “tricks” without informing anyone; that would not be wise. Further, know that change is sometimes difficult to implement, and can often be met with resistance. This is not a blog about change in the church, but I’m sure there could be entire blogs devoted to the subject. Just use your wisdom, and the combined wisdom of your peers, team, and leadership. In most of the examples below, I would recommend that you showcase or demonstrate what you have in mind–in detail–so that everyone is on the same page.
Change up the prelude.
Maybe you just have a CD play; spice it up with live musicians. Maybe you just play a bunch of hymns in the hymnal; change it up with some modern songs, or a variety. Maybe your church likes a lively prelude as people enter; consider throwing in one meditative song, perhaps in the middle, that might help people to reflect and pray. Add instrumentalists. Have an acoustic ensemble. Incorporate a student ensemble. Do something out of the ordinary that says you’re being intentional about all aspects of your corporate worship.
Add transitions between songs.
Tying your songs together with seamless musical transitions helps create momentum and a sense of direction. Including the lyrics on the screens or in the bulletins best facilitates this, but it can also be creatively achieved by using a hymnal. Some modern hymnals contain a few ready-made medleys available for use. Even if you have to spend time writing out your transitions, it will be well worth your time.
Provide background music for segues and prayers.
Sometimes, dead space is appropriate. But sometimes it’s helpful to include music to help transition, or to provide an atmosphere of thoughtfulness or reverence. Of course, we don’t “create” worship. But in the same way that a full orchestra aids in worship, or an organ or a guitar aids in worship, so can our keyboard artistry. Use simple, whole note chords and progressions. Don’t have distracting melodies, that might actually compete with the speaker or worship going on.
Introduce a poignant instrumental solo or ensemble.
At our church, we normally have an instrumental during our offering. It’s just been our tradition that has worked well, and it certainly gives a lot of our keyboardists and instrumentalists ample opportunity to serve. Perhaps you do too. But what if your instrumental was placed strategically at a location that really made people think. You could include some of the lyrics on the screens or in the bulletin. Especially if it’s thoughtful, and especially if it works well with the progression of the song portion of your worship service, this could be very effective.
Provide thoughtful invitation or response music.
Yes, our church still has an altar call. And if your church still utilizes a church pianist, there’s probably a good chance that you have one, too. Let’s not do a raise of hands, but many of us have sat through a boring, repetitive invitational played while the pastor prays, or calls the congregation to some sort of response. Why not play quiet, contemplative, and simple chords under the final invitation. An invitation hymn could be alluded to, but not outright played. And I’ve found playing at a much slower pace significantly helps the time to be more thoughtful and reflective.
Your service in the local church as a keyboard artist should provide you with many ways to explore creativity and imagination. With alignment and backing from your church’s leadership, you possess some powerful tools that enable you to provide variety and creativity in your church’s expression of worship. Ultimately, our goal is to exalt the greatness of our God (Psalm 145:3). In all you do–no matter how creatively or imaginatively–may that remain your top priority.
Simplified piano accompanying is not something new or original with me. A lot of people are teaching this concept these days. Bob Kauflin, and many others who lead worship with a band, emphasize the importance of utilizing the keyboard in a way that enhances the mix, and doesn’t draw attention to itself. (Many are even minimizing the role of the accompanists in an effort to emphasize the actual singing of the congregation, which is a great trend!) But I’ve found that this technique, while necessary and appropriate in a praise band setting, also works very well in a more traditional setting (which is what I’m more familiar with).
If you’re the only accompanist for the congregational singing, I suggest you take this tip with a grain of salt. Sometimes, what you play (or don’t play) will make the difference between the congregation feeling very confident and singing out, versus them feeling uneasy and possibly even derailing the song. Your goal as an accompanist is to build confidence and provide support. Another factor involved is how long you’ve been their accompanist, and how well the people are used to you. If you’re a newbie, you’re going to want to take every precaution to ensure your playing is super supportive.
But if you are fortunate to play with other instruments (an acoustic band or a church orchestra), or your church is a four-part-harmony-singing type of church, you might find it helpful to simplify your accompaniment to compliment the ensemble or the singers. Let me give you a few examples.
Here we have a pretty basic rendition of Amazing Grace, built on the harmonies found in the hymnal. This will work well with playing with a church orchestra.
In example 2, you’ll find a much stronger bass line. I will often incorporate this style, especially if we don’t have adequate representation of the bass section (either brass or strings). Also, our church’s piano is a 9′ concert grand; those bass notes resonate beautifully and powerfully.
Example 3 emphasizes the mid-section, and also provides some momentous movement in the left hand. (Movement helps maintain momentum, or keep a lagging group moving forward. But be careful. Too much movement–sixteenth notes and such–can slow things down.) This rendition works well when your highs and lows are represented well in the church orchestra. It also works well when you’re the only accompanist, or one of a few.
Now things are starting to get exciting. Example 4 shows how you can eliminate some melody notes, and still provide support and momentum. Let’s face it, most people know this song really well. So the melody on beat 3 of the first full measure is not necessary. Notice the right hand pattern in the second full measure. It grows out of the harmonies of the chord, and provides the movement while the voice holds a half note out.
Example 5 will actually only (best) work when you are the only accompanying instrument, mainly because we’re beginning to steer away from the harmonies found in a hymnal. If you are playing with an organ, or with an orchestra, or with four-part singing, this option likely won’t work. It will work best for congregations that are used to singing melody, or used to occasionally singing in free form.
Go ahead and hum the melody while you play through this example. The second full measure is really exciting to me. It not only helps continue to maintain momentum, but it builds into the next measure. Notice I removed the E minor chord on beat 3 of the third measure.
It occurred to me that you’re beginning to see the thought process that goes into arranging music. A pattern like this would work well for accompanying a soloist (vocal or instrumental) on this song. Even while simplifying, great interest has been added.
Now let’s have some fun. Again, hum through the melody while playing this example. You won’t be able to get away with this pattern for a whole stanza, but you might be able to maintain it throughout the first half. It’s very open sounding, almost ethereal. This will also work well when you want a stanza to be very reflective.
Since we’re getting crazy, have a look at this fun example. This is obviously very open and sustained. It will work in very few contexts. Our congregation follows a song leader who is confident and inspiring. Vocally, he can keep the momentum. That being the case, I might have liberty to experiment with options such as this. It wouldn’t be common, however.
Hopefully, whatever you decide to do, you will provide the congregation support, and you will enable the most important thing about congregational singing to be emphasized: the singing itself.
As a church pianist, do you like to alter what you play from the printed hymnal version? Maybe you like to add your own unique chords as a soloist, or while accompanying your church’s congregational singing. But is it a smart idea to change the chords found in your hymnal?
Well, it depends.
If you are playing during a worship service with other instrumentalists (and vocalists), then no, those chords are probably not optional. If you start altering your chords, you’ll clash with the other instrumentalists, because chances are they won’t be playing the same chords as you. At that point it will become a guessing game that could end very badly. That’s why it’s wise to stick with the hymnal harmonization, each player using the same harmony, weather by hymnal or lead sheet.
But if it’s just you, then go for it. Changing the harmony for an instrumental solo is a great idea, especially because hymnal harmonies are usually basic (and often predictable). In fact, when it comes to arranging, this is one of the most effective ways to be creative and fresh: change-up the chords and chord progressions.
If it is just you as a pianist or organist accompanying the congregation, then it depends (again). If the room is filled with people who read parts, and everyone is following along in the hymnal, it’s probably going to be a good idea to stick with what’s written. However, if your congregation is singing lyrics projected on a screen, and most are singing the melody, then it might work well to change the harmony. I often do this in our church during the invitation hymn, when I’m the only one playing along with the congregation. It’s very effective, and the audience enjoys singing along with the new songs.
The bottom line? You don’t want to be distracting. Rather, you should be enhancing the overall worship experience.
Great choirs have great accompanists. The extent of a choir’s success, to a large degree, is dependent upon it’s accompanist. The choir accompanist plays a vital role in the overall choral ensemble.
As a musician, there’s always room for growth and development. There are some excellent resources out there for church choir accompanists. (An excellent recommendation is Choral Questions and Answers, Vol. 5: Accompanying [Pavane Publishing]. You can check it out here.) I know of very accomplished (and professional) musicians who continue attending private music lessons to further their musical development. Not a bad idea.
There are basics to choral accompanying that are essential. The accompanist is part of the leadership team and, as a result, must remember that greater expectations exist for leaders. Concepts such as arriving on time, dependability, and being prepared for the rehearsal, are critical. Further, a right attitude and team spirit are vital to the success of the music ministry. (This can be especially difficult in situations where an accompanist may feel they have more training or are a better musician than the director.) Finally, a good church accompanist exemplifies godly character and is a role model to young Christians.
Then there are important musical qualifications. If, as an accompanist, you struggle with site-reading or playing challenging sections in a song, be sure to obtain the music in advance for adequate preparation. You should be able to play the accompaniment in addition to the vocal parts at various speeds. Depending on your situation, improvisation may or may not be appropriate. The important thing to remember when improvising, though, is that you follow the chord structures found in the written music, as the voices and other instrumentation are following these chord progressions. (If, when you improvise, you find yourself unable to stick with the harmonies written, you will be a frustration to many of the musicians and the director. You’d be better off to stay with the accompaniment as written.)
If you’re looking to take your accompanying skills to the next level, I’d like you to consider a couple of things. You can develop and master these to become a much sought-after choir accompanist.
Working together with another musician (the director) will probably require great flexibility on your part. The director may have an entirely different interpretation of a song than you. Be willing to publicly embrace all suggestions and ideas, and save your opposing opinions for private appeals. Regardless, be willing to follow and support the direction of the leader.
During rehearsal, an accompanist—if not careful—can actually slow down the choral learning process. Over time you will have the opportunity to study your director and how they operate a rehearsal. You will be able to sense when he wants all vocals parts played consecutively. When he says, “let’s rehearse the tenor section here,” you will be able to know to immediately play the tenor’s starting pitch. Though genuine mind-reading will never truly be achieved (wouldn’t that be nice!), you can develop your anticipation of the process. Anticipation requires attentiveness to details, a clear knowledge of the director’s approach, and an alertness to all instructions.
I’d like some feedback, if you would. As an accompanist, what things have allowed you to excel in your field? As a director, what else would you recommend to any accompanists that might potentially read this article?
Exceptional piano accompanying is to a soloist what fine China is to Christmas dinner.
Growing up, dinner time was always a family time in our house (as it should be). That was especially true during the holidays. For Christmas dinner my mom would make a feast and serve it on our dinning-room-only China dishes. The food was awesome, and the China it was served on contributed to make for a memorable family time.
I’ve squeezed about as much as I’m going to get out of that analogy. Let’s just say it’s a generally accepted fact that an accompanist will make or brake a performance.
So let’s break this down. How can you be an exceptional piano accompanist for your church soloist or ensemble?
1. Prepare well individually.
Spend the time necessary to be able to play the arrangement at various tempos. Know where the repeats are, and be aware of all expression marks. This is the foundational step to accompanying well.
2. Rehearse often together.
The more you can rehearse with the soloist or group, the better the “ensemble” will be. Less rehearsal sacrifices confidence on the part of both the vocalists and the accompanist.
3. Become comfortable enough to improvise.
This one’s a little more advanced—but if you can take something out that’s not working, or add something to improve, do so. I use to feel that if it is written, it has to be played exactly as notated (the whole play-it-as-the-composer-intended-it issue). But that’s not always the best option. For example, orchestra reductions don’t always work well with just the piano. Imagine what might make it sound better. What can you add (or subtract) to make it match your pianistic style?
Just make sure your improvisations don’t interfere with your primary role: accompanying. If you add too much, you have the potential of slowing down the performance or coming across as a competing component in the ensemble. Conversely, if you don’t add enough, the vocalist might feel unsupported, which can ultimately contribute to a lack of confidence in the final performance. Like anything, you need to strike a balance.
Developing your accompanying skills is a worthy goal, especially in the service for the King. In my experience, far too many pianists miss out on the opportunity to refine their accompanying abilities, which is truly sad. Perhaps they don’t consider it necessary to focus on. Regardless of the reason, I believe you can never pay too much attention to the details that help to make a song minister with greater effectiveness. Sure, God can “use” a song that is poorly prepared and unrehearsed, but let’s not put Him in a box. Let’s give Him our best.
Christ deserves our finest China.
Question: What helpful tips can you share that have helped improve your accompanying skills?