The Art of Accompaniment

I have been an accompanist for most of my life. For as long as I can remember, I have accompanied singers and instrumentalists on stages, examination venues, and audition rooms. I have calmed the nerves of many musicians and teachers (as well as parents!). I have experienced the anxiety of soloists having memory lapses on stage. I have dealt with bad page turners, and missing pages. I have dealt with musicians not indicating that they will do repeats in their performances. I have dealt with countless last-minute phone calls from frantic teachers or musicians needing an accompanist, assuring me that the music is easy to play on sight – only to receive a Hindemith sonata, or the likes, the day before a performance. I have had to keep a straight face when receiving weird and interesting requests, like the one from the Florence Foster Jenkins movie where she asks her pianist to play “a little more allegretto” (is that even a thing?).

I have earned my badge to broach this subject.

I have also experienced the joy of making music with musicians of all different ages and levels. I have had the privilege of accompanying very young musicians, and those who eventually chose a career in music. It is rewarding to see musicians mature before your eyes, and to experience their successes.

The popular definition of an accompanist is a person who provides musical accompaniment to another musician or to a singer. This narrative needs to change, and I’m here for it. Yes, an accompanist, in many cases, will be just that: the provider of the piano part for a solo instrument or singer. A good accompanist, however, can be so much more. Some institutions refer to accompanists as collaborative pianists – and rightfully so!

Good accompanists provide so much more than merely the “other” part to your music as they can enhance your performance in so many ways. They understand the nuances and limitations of your instrument and are able to support you with sensitivity. They are able to follow you, even when you lose your place, and will help you with initiating and maintaining the correct tempi throughout your performance. They will be supportive by not playing louder than you, unless they know that it will be in your best interest to camouflage a section where you are exposed and insecure, or if the music requires such. A good accompanist with a high EQ is a bonus; this person can form a good rapport with the musician/teacher/parent and can help to calm down their nerves.

Accompaniment is chamber music, on all levels, and deserves the same respect. Next time you see accompanists perform, do not take their skills for granted, and appreciate the value they add to the music.

As an accompanist, consider these five tips:

  1. Know your music and your limitations. Do not agree to accompany if you do not have enough time to prepare for it. (I have fallen into this trap more than once.)
  2. Always be early. Being on time is 5 minutes too late. This alleviates any extra stress for you as an accompanist, as well as for the musician whom you play with.
  3. It is not about you. Do not draw the focus to yourself unless the music requires it. However, be assertive in your playing, and not apologetic. Know when to follow, and when to lead.
  4. Understand the instruments you are playing with. Breathe with them – this will help you to understand and follow their phrasing.
  5. Control your anxiety. Your role is to support, not to be managed.

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