Tips for piano accompanists at a choir rehearsal
Neil Hawes 2007

  1. Logistics
    The accompanist needs to be able to see the conductor easily whilst playing, and it is best if the piano can be positioned so that it is possible to see the beats and other indications using peripheral vision, i.e. without taking eyes off the score! The accompanist should insist on a suitable piano position before the rehearsal starts if this is at all possible. Scores provided need to be legible and easy to use. For example, paper pages can be difficult to turn quickly, so if the accompanist feels that it would be easier to have an original copy rather than a photo copy, they should ask if there is one available. On the other hand, some accompanists prefer to use photocopies and to mount them in their own loose-leaf binders for ease of turning.

  2. Warm-up exercises
    These are usually selected “ad-hoc” by the conductor and have to be accompanied “by ear”. The conductor should say if he wants any unaccompanied, but most warm-up exercises are much easier for the choir with accompaniment that provides the harmonic context, rather than just the notes to be sung. So, for example, when the conductor wants a scale or arpeggio of A major, it is best to provide a full chord of A containing the whole triad (with A at the top) which provides the note and also the feel of the key to the choir. To accompany a major scale, the accompanist might play a chord of A major spanning the first four notes of the scale, and then a chord of E major with the fifth note of the scale (an E) and a chord of A again with the top A of the scale. Many exercises repeat and ascend a semitone at each repeat, and most choirs have trouble pitching a semitone transposition precisely without accompaniment. The best way for an accompanist to help is to fill in the key changes with an appropriate couple of modulating chords. For example, when moving from A major to B flat major, play a perfect cadence in B flat major with the first chord (dominant 7th - F major with added E flat) with A at the top (using the A as a pivot note). The second of these two chords with then normally be the first note of the next repeat.

  3. Understanding a score
    As well as being a competent pianist, the accompanist is expected to understand as much of the score as the singers and conductor. They need to understand the layouts of short score and open score and particularly the way to differentiate parts that overlap in short score using the note stem directions. Obviously they need to understand repeat markings, speed indications, dynamic markings, accent and pause marks etc. (these links are to my my music theory website), but the conductor’s wishes and indications always take precedence. If the conductor makes a mistake, the accompanist needs enough confidence to tactfully point it out. It may also be useful for the accompanist to understand word underlay - this is a link to my web site on sight singing at sight-singing which might be of assistance to accompanists as general background information.

  4. Giving notes
    When the choir are rehearsing sections, or starting in the middle of a piece without an accompaniment introduction, the accompanist is expected to give appropriate notes for the choir without being asked. The first requirement obviously is to know where the conductor wants to start (see item 6 below), then to give the appropriate note(s) depending on what voice parts are being asked to sing. When only one voice part is singing, it should be clear enough what note is required, but often it is useful to give the first few notes to provide the context. When more than one voice part is singing, the notes for each part need to be given and it is much better to split them, in a slow arpeggio-style, rather than playing them as a chord. Even if there is a short accompaniment introduction, it can be useful to give notes in advance. Sometimes, if the conductor does not want to pause, the only time to give notes is while he is counting or beating the choir in, and this is certainly possible. Notes need to be given firmly and must be audible to the whole choir. Note that, in open score, the tenor part is written in the treble clef an octave above the actual notes sung using a “Tenor clef”.

  5. Accompanying.
    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.

  6. Finding the place the conductor wants to start.
    This can sometimes be difficult; the conductor may specify the exact position in many different ways, giving the page number, the bar number, a rehearsal mark, a stave/system/line number (e.g. the second line on page 3), another aspect of the score (such as a key change), or relative references to any of these (e.g. three bars before letter “B”, four bars after the key change on page five… etc.). If the accompanist has a good grasp of the score (as in section 3 above) and can understand what the singers are having trouble with, they can often anticipate where the conductor wants to start, and what they are trying to do. This will come with experience. The best rule is: if in doubt, ask - it is very confusing for singers if they are singing in one place but the accompanist is playing in another!

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