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How to Be a Good Choir Pianist? A Glimpse Into Accompanying Professional and Semi-Professional Ensembles
Accompanying a University choir, or a professional singing ensemble can be a most fulfilling and enjoyable job for an accomplished pianist. Chances are, if you are reading this hub, you might be wondering what it is like to accompany such a great chorus, or you might be a pianist yourself that is accompanying a great musical ensemble.
There are not many pianists that will get to accompany a professional choir, simply because the numbers of such choirs are small, and they are likely to exist in places where only those who have specialized training have access to. For example, many university choirs use students who are performance majors as their pianists, so their accompanists can get more practice, exposure and class credit. Practically speaking, professional ensembles and semi-professional ensembles also sing repertoire that is challenging, requiring agility and technical competence that not all accompanists can afford to achieve – yes, it requires many hours of practice.
If you are here out of curiosity or perhaps because you are clueless of what such a high honor this may involve, stick with me, as I give you a glimpse into what accompanying is like when you work with great singers.
To begin with, I cannot stress what a fun-filled experience this is, working with a great group of singers, and a charming conductor. Singing challenging repertoire – whether for the purpose of music education, performance or competition, will be a welcome challenge that all the musicians will be eager to conquer. Singing songs with clashing notes, sight-reading open scores, playing complex accompaniment – these are familiar scenarios encountered regularly.
Accompanists often find themselves playing parts that feel like the total opposite of what the choir might be singing. Scales and running notes, arpeggios all over the place, octave leaps, weird fingering, crazy open scores that have jarring harmony, crazy rhythms…. And BAM the scores fly off the piano. Or the heavy book of scores crashes onto precious fingers! Sounds like fun? It totally is. It’s a circus but a group of like-minded and musically-able people coming together to make music is always so much fun.
In a university choir, there is likely to be a strong emphasis in education during choir. What I mean is that the conductor (not an amateur, but likely to be a very accomplished musician) is most often a professor who will inject music theory, music history, vocal production….into the choir practice. Musically, this could be in the form of interesting warm ups and techniques to train the hearing of the singers. Some conductors who are nice give their pianists warm up exercises to prepare beforehand so that they are able to facilitate the choir or demonstrate together with the conductor. Pianists who are quick to learn and pick things up have little problem learning the warms up with the singers, and accompanying them. Smarter pianist know that while they transpose and move up a semitone with each repeat, they need to familiarize themselves with the conductor’s style of counting to lead the singers in.
As education plays such a large role in choirs (especially University Choirs, Chamber Singers…), it is so important to be sensitive to the intentions of the conductor. Some accompanists tend to fall asleep on the job, and some others are just so eager to play. In this setting, there will be instances when the choir needs to learn how to pitch their intervals without the help of the piano – great accompanists are sensitive to those moments where they remain silent to let the singers figure things out. Of course, this comes easier and easier after working with the conductor for a period of time.
Another cool thing about working with semi-professional singers is the opportunity to collaborate with other musicians. Some composers write for piano and flute, piano and strings, piano and ________ the possibilities are endless. The best accompanists relish these privileges and are always mindful when to draw back and when to shine.
One common mistake that performance majors make is that they forget to accommodate the singers and other instruments. Training as a pianist can be quite a solitary activity, unlike string instruments that often have orchestra practices and string quartet rehearsals…. As a pianist, your conductor will love you if you are sensitive to the musical role that you are playing. If you treat each choir rehearsal like a mini piano recital, you won’t be very popular!
Playing for an ensemble with such great caliber can be a most rewarding and joyous experience. To maximize the cool factor and minimize stress, the secret accompanists use is to practice your part so hard before turning up at practice. Sometimes, human as we are, musicians sometimes have unpleasant personalities, might play politics, or have other issues that might dampen the joy of making music. Wise accompanists keep their chin up, play from their heart, use their brain, and are ever so humble. Although seemingly inconspicuous at the piano (and obvious only when a wrong note is accidentally hit!), music that is played with sincerity and humility can do wonders. It is not usual for many magical musical moments to be created during a choir rehearsal. And many accompanists are the unsung heros of the choirs.
Do you sing in a professional ensemble? Are you accompanying a professional choir? Leave your comments here and let me know what you think!
Some skills good accompanists ought to have
- Good sight reading skills of open scores
- Ability to accompany warms ups in every key
- Ability to watch the conductor like a hawk
- Habit of listening to the choir to recognize which sections they may require more help
- Patience with the ensemble
- Ability to collaborate with other instrumentalists (depending on the music arrangement)
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