To say that I am the Musical Director of the Pewsey Belles Ladies choir sounds terribly grand and perhaps rather pretentious. The reality of this is somewhat different. Most choirs are fortunate enough to have a musical director or conductor, who essentially is in charge and directs the music – as the title would suggest. Then additionally there is usually an accompanist, which although often regarded as a lowly role is in fact, certainly in my opinion, on the most important roles in the choir. The accompanist has a lot to so; firstly they have the most notes to learn. They also need to almost commit their part to memory in order to watch the conductor – this will vary according to how demanding the conductor is in terms of changed tempos and dynamics etc. Nevertheless, ultimately it is the accompanist who holds it all together by watching the conductor and listening to the choir.
However, currently the Pewsey Belles do not have an accompanist – they just have me as the so called Musical Director who has to double up as accompanist, conductor and choir trainer all at the same time. Now, this is not intended to be a sob story as I am quite sure there are many choirs and choirmasters in a similar position. Rather, this post is concerned with how I deal with this situation.
In many respects during a rehearsal being conductor and accompanist has some benefits as you can quickly play parts through and jump from one thing to another without having to communicate to both choir and accompanist. This may seem a small point and perhaps part of it is me looking for a positive spin on not having an accompanist. However, it is performances where a lack of accompanist becomes an issue. The only real way to attempt to direct a choir from the piano is if the piano is right in front of the choir, but then your performance looks like a rehearsal. Off to one side, however, and you lose all contact with the choir and this makes things quite tricky, I’ve also found that the choir are less confident if I am occupied playing the piano stage left and they are faced with just the audience.
To get around this I prepare backing tracks for use in concerts which are anything from a simple piano accompaniment to a full orchestral track. A lot of these are adapted from the rehearsal tracks that I prepare for the choir to help them learn the parts. Obviously there is a wealth of difference between a metronomic rehearsal track and a track which can be used as a backing track in place of an accompanist or orchestra and this does take some extra preparation in terms of balance, dynamics and subtle speed changes.
Whilst I would be the first to say that a pre recorded backing track is not the perfect substitute for a real accompanist or orchestra, it is far better than attempting to play the piano and conduct at the same time and means in the case of the Pewsey Belles I can ensure that entries are together. Without wishing to blow my own trumpet, the choir do sound better and far more confident when I am conducting.
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