What I Wish I Knew as a Beginner Accompanist
Looking back on the past three years, I have grown so much as a musician by working as an accompanist. I agreed to accompany my first event under the impression that it was a much easier type of performance than solo piano: all I had to do was play the notes right, and my job would be done. But I soon realized that there is so much more to being an accompanist than what I had initially expected.
The very nature of collaborative piano was surprisingly difficult to adjust to at first. I was so used to being the only one in control of my music that I couldn't follow the natural push-and-pull in the choir's tempo. I would get lost in reading the music, rarely glancing at the director, and I couldn't predict the choir's sudden swells in volume.
From my experience, the key to being a good accompanist is being able to anticipate the ensemble's needs. As you get familiar with each ensemble's specific disposition over time, it gets much easier to know when to provide more support or when to back off. You don't have to memorize the music, but know it well enough so that you can keep your eyes on the director. I am always watching the director's gestures and body language through my peripheral vision, which enables me to keep a steady tempo and predict the musical direction. I've also found that staying slightly on the front edge of the beat is helpful for choirs, since their natural tendency is to drag.
Eye contact is especially important at beginnings and endings. The whole performance often relies on that connection between directors and accompanists. Take your first breath with the director, and watch closely for the ritardando at the end of the piece.
Another piece of advice is to improve your sight-reading skills! I wrote another blog post about my tips for this. If you are good enough at sight-reading, you will be able to play music on the spot (as many directors may have you do). You will also find it much easier to follow the director without studying every note of the score. As an accompanist, it is important to keep the music flowing as you play with an ensemble, even if you don't play the written notes. I used to be self-conscious if I missed a few notes or I fudged my way through a song, but I have learned that no one pays enough attention to you to care. For many difficult pieces, I manage to get through it by playing the bass notes in my left hand and comping the chords in my right hand.
Last but not least, know when to turn the pages. I can attest that the riskiest moments of a performance tend to be the page turns. If you have a page turner by your side, give a nod to tell them when you are ready, since it's difficult to anticipate your timing without being able to read your mind. If you are turning the pages by yourself, try to memorize the music at these transition spots in order to prepare yourself for the turn. It also helps if the piece can carry on without the melody or the bass part, in which case you can use one hand to turn the pages.
Accompanying appears to be a background role, one that doesn't require much thought or skill. However, accompanists are truly the glue that holds the entire performance (or rehearsal) together. By watching, listening, and following, accompanists set the stage for the rest of the performers to shine.