The role of the Accompanist

Choir Accompanist

I run a number of choirs in and around Wiltshire and often one of the hardest things is finding a good accompanist.  Currently my ladies choir, the Pewsey Belles, is looking for an accompanist and finding someone is proving harder than you might imagine.

The bigger challenge, for me at least, is running rehearsals on a temporary basis without an accompanist.   I like to consider myself fairly competent as a keyboard player and organist and indeed have accompanied many choirs in the past.  Whilst it’s perfectly possible to direct a choir from the piano in the early stages of learning a song, there comes a point where trying to conduct with one hand, play the keyboard with the other and gesture at the choir with various flicks of one’s head just isn’t practical.  It also doesn’t help choir members much either!

What does an accompanist do?:

The role of an accompanist depends on the needs of the performer. An accompanist may provide musical accompaniment by playing an instrument while the singer is performing. They may also play the role of back-up vocals to the main vocalist.

What instruments are played by an accompanist?:

The most common instrument used by accompanists is the piano, other instruments such as guitars are also popularly used. An organ is often played when accompanying a church choir.

What are the qualities of a good accompanist?:

Aside from being able to play an instrument and knowing how to sight read, a good accompanist can adjust his/her playing style or technique to suit the performers’ needs. An accompanist must be able to take direction and build a rapport with the singer in order for the performance to come out well. An accompanist is comfortable playing a supporting, yet equally important role, to the performer, or in the case of a choir, to the choir director and singers.

What other pointers should an accompanist keep in mind?:

  • Practice your instrument regularly.
  • Make sure to practice the piece you’re going to play.
  • Run-through the piece several times with the singer you’re going to accompany.
  • Make certain adjustments to your playing to suit the singers’ vocal style and technique.
  • On the day of the performance be prompt and dress appropriately.
  • Make sure you position the piano, or yourself in such a way that you have a clear view of the conductor.

The type of accompaniment required depends on the context. Being able to provide the best type of accompaniment for conductor and singers will come with experience, but here are some guidelines.

  1. If a single voice part is being asked to rehearse a difficult short phrase that they are having trouble with, it may be best to play only the notes that they need to sing, as they sing them. But to be any use to the choir, these notes need to played very slightly ahead of them (only a split second), certainly not behind. Sometimes, it may be worth playing the part in octaves (doubling the notes to be sung with the octave above or below). Notes in the middle of the piano are easier to pitch, so it is best to double the higher parts with the octave below, and the lower parts with the octave above.
  2. As the singers become a little more confident, some of the other parts and/or piano accompaniment should be played. This is because many singers judge their pitch and the intervals they need from other parts, and from the harmonic context. Any other parts or notes being played need to be below the part being sung, not above. So, for example, if the altos are singing on their own, it is usually helpful for them to hear some of the tenor and bass parts and/or accompaniment, but not the soprano part (this can be difficult when playing the bass part, so this more often needs to be played on its own). This is because singers can usually easily pitch the highest note they hear, but most will be put off by hearing a part above the one they are trying to sing. Where there are gaps in the phrases being sung, it is very helpful to fill in by playing other parts, or all or part of the accompaniment, any of which might be cues.
  3. If several voice parts are singing at once, there is always a decision to be made as to whether the voice parts only should be played, or whether the accompaniment should be played, or some of each. If the parts are in open score, the accompanist needs to be able to read up to four parts at once – this is an advanced skill, but professional accompanists are expected to be able to do it. While singers are still uncertain of the notes, it is useful for the accompanist to play mostly the voice parts. As the singers get more confident, the accompanist should move towards playing more of the accompaniment (this might require reading up to six lines of music at once!), with the aim eventually of playing only the accompaniment. The conductor may give guidance on this.