How to be a Good Choir Accompanist? Tips and General Guidelines for Pianists working with Choirs

Being a choir accompanist can be a most enjoyable job to some, while it can be excruciatingly stressful for others. Perhaps you have a great choir, perhaps you have a lovely conductor you enjoy working with, perhaps you are a proficient sight-reader, perhaps you just love making music. In this hub, I hope to offer some tips on how to be a good choir accompanist.

Since I was a kid, I have worked with several kinds of choirs - elementary school choirs, church choirs, college choirs, high school choirs... in each kind of setting, the role of the choir accompanist morphs a little according to the needs of the choir. But these experiences have taught me so many precious lessons and nuances about accompanying a choir.

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Are you a music major? Are you a volunteer? Are you a professional musician? Are you an amateur? Your life experience will definitely color your perceptions of being a choir pianist, and it will also influence how you accompany the choir.

Here are some guiding principles that all accompanists should abide by, no matter what kind of choir they are accompanying.

1. Your role is to support the voices of the singers

When we train as pianists, we often practice in a room all by ourselves, unlike other non-harmonic instruments that might play more often in groups (like violins) to create harmonies. This solitary training often cause pianists to be more individualistic in their approach to music, since we are so used to being trained to be a soloist.

In a choir setting, our job is to make the vocals sound good, not to outshine the singers. Accompanying the choir involves following the tempo that the conductor sets, and being sensitive to the gestures of the conductor - which indicate the kind of dynamic or feel that the conductor is trying to convey.

Being the choir pianist also involves being sensitive to the needs of the singers, during the rehearsal and during the performance itself. During the rehearsal, you should play the piano in a way that builds the confidence of the singers without confusing them. During the performance, this involves listening intently to the choir so that your music will enhance what the conductor is trying to achieve with his or her conducting - ideally, during the rehearsal, you should have already taken note of this so that during the performance you know what to look out and listen out for while you accompany the choir.

2. Always be attentive to the Conductor

As the choir accompanist, you assist the conductor and choir when they are learning their parts. All choir pianists must always be on high alert - where / which bar is the conductor starting at?

Always make sure that you are ready before the choir is - if the conductor switches from one song to another, make sure the entire choir doesn’t have to wait for you to arrange your scores, especially if the conductor wants to start playing the introduction, or if the conductor wants to brief you on a certain part of the song.

Also, always be ready to give the starting pitches of a section. When the conductor says that he or she wants to start from a particular bar, a good pianist will always give the pitches (or the chord, depending on your choir) automatically.

For choirs that lack discipline (eg. children’s choirs), your role as the choir accompanist also has a secret function - which is to call for the choir’s attention. They may not be aware, but every chorister knows consciously or subconsciously, that when they hear the introduction of a song, or the pitches being given on the piano - it is time to sing. Children especially are sensitive to these, and they often stop their chattering when they suddenly hear the piano introduction to a song.

3. Come Prepared, as far as possible

A good pianist can inspire the choir to sing and lift the mood of a heavy or draggy choir rehearsal. While we are often required to sight read a lot of music, where possible we should come prepared to play the accompaniment. If you are being paid to be an accompanist, you should really deliver your best, and not sound like you are learning your part together with the choir.

In fact, when a new score is passed out to the choir (and you see it for the first time too), besides the usual scanning through for the changes in time signature, changes in keys... a good accompanist will also scan through the vocal parts, to identify potential booby traps for the singers. Thus when the conductor is going through the new parts, you will facilitate everyone’s learning when you take extra care to play those tricky parts. It definitely helps if you are a singer yourself, but if you a not a singer, a good rule to go by is when you see unusual timings, pitch intervals or leaps (eg. melodies that have a sudden weird jump, diminished 4th intervals, augmented leaps......) things that are not in the familiar major or minor keys - these are likely to trip the average singer.

Are you a conductor, chorister, choir accompanist? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

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bluespiano profile image

bluespiano 5 years ago from Norway

Hi Charlotte! Very interesting article. I really understand the point with coming prepared for choir rehearsals. I remember I used to be a choir accompanist in my teenages and had very little time to focus on the choir stuff as was so busy with my other music lessons. That stressed me, but when it allways went better when I was well prepared.

Nice to see someone like you have some clever thoughts about music. Please post more :-D

Kjell


Charlotte B Plum profile image

Charlotte B Plum 5 years ago Author

Hey bluespiano!

Thank you so much for dropping by and for your kind comments. I too get stressed when I have to play songs that I in keys that are tricky (eg. A flat major, D flat, B major...) totally agree with you that it goes better when we are well prepared. =)

I'm so glad a fellow pianist posted here. All the best to you!


First Time Choir Pianist 4 years ago

There is a choir show coming up in my school in December and I'm totally stressing out. These few tips have boosted my confidence and hopefully I can perform the best possible so the choir does not get lost, or even myself! Thanks :)

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