Thursday, September 10, 2009

How to Accompany a Singer

Since the word got out that I taught a piano course for
accompanying singers at music camp, people have asked
me if I have a training program for that topic so that
people could learn at home. Surprise. I do not.

But as I went through the course over a period of seven
days, one thing became very clear. Almost every aspect
of piano accompaniment style relates either directly or
indirectly to just about every other aspect of playing
piano. (With one important exception which I'll reveal
in just a moment.)

For example, using the piano as an accompanying tool
will often incorporate elements of the blues, left hand
and right hand variations, the Circle of Fifths,
playing by ear, introductions, endings, power chords,
and various piano style.

Yet it's on the whole easier to use the piano to
accompany a singer than it is to play solo piano. And
this brings us to the important exception I mentioned a
second ago. When accompanying a singer, a piano player
does not play melodies. That's the singers' department.
Much like a guitar player, a piano accompanyist
"strums" chords. And that's something that can be done
with just one hand on a piano.

If you play guitar, imagine how much easier it would be
if you could make chords by using just one hand instead
of two. But that is indeed what it's like with the
piano.

Of course there is more to good piano accompaniment
than merely playing chords with one hand. But that's
the basis of it. So will I ever write a book about
accompaniment? That's yet to be answered. No immediate
plans. But I will continue to educate people on the
fundamentals of chord piano. And remember, the
techniques are all applicable in one way or another to
piano accompaniment as well as solo playing.

And I do plan on repeating the class again next summer at
Lark Camp. (www.larkcamp.com)


Robert

7 comments:

  1. Robert, You are so right--playing accompaniment is much easier than trying to play the melody and chords together on the piano. I'm a singer/songwriter and will never be a great pianist, but I CAN have fun writing lyrics, singing the melody and accompanying myself of the piano. Thanks to your course, I can also play Christmas Carols, show tunes or standards while my friends sing along. That's what I call piano fun!

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  2. I actually hugely disagree with this. The great accompanist Irwin Cage said, “There are many great accompanists who are very good pianists, but there are not many pianists who are good accompanists.” Whilst the skills needed to accompany overlap with solo performing, reducing accompanying to merely chords is an insult to the complexity of it. Accompanying needs skills of listening and concentration, one must also have the ablility to follow another performer, even when they skip bars, come in early etc - a skill that most soloists do not possess. Whilst you are correct that basic accompanying does not require the skills that solo playing does, advanced accompanying, interms of techical difficulty, is just as difficult.
    However I do appreciate most of your other articles! So many thanks for those!

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  3. I've accompanied vocalists in church for years and chosen as the pianist for the experienced singers. I have 13 years of lessons under my belt, but when a new church member came to our congregation I discovered I knew nothing about accompaniment. He is a professional opera singer and a professor of music at our local state college. When I play for him I feel like I missed some sort of training. I can play what he gives me and follow his breaks and rhythm, etc., but I wish someone would publish REAL technique, not just the fluff about chords and melody. There is a correct technique in HOW to follow, but it seems to be kept secret. If someone finally publishes it pianists will be able to improve beyond a point of just being "adequate." I decided to approach the professor to get my answer, since the information on the internet assumes you're a beginner and the vocalist isn't a professional. If someone knows something, post it. It would help ALL musicians. I play for a lot of vocalists who think the pianist is in charge, and that means there are some bad pianists giving them this impression. Someone, like the post from Anonymous on Nov 7, 2011, appears to have been trained. If they read this, please share your knowledge.

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  4. Try sight reading the whole of Wagner's Ring Cycle as an opera rehearsal accompanist and then I think you will understand the art of accompaniment. 99% people I've heard accompany are awful. It's an art form not just something a pianist can do.

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  5. Accompanying is way more complex than just giving the soloist their right chords, and the approach varies according to the genre you are accompanying ( e.g. there's a great difference between accompanying schubert lieder or musical theatre, or a pop singer, or a violin sonata etc....). You needs tons of different skills for each genre you decide to embark on but basically all accompanying demands: great ear, knowing all the voices that are there, good sight reading, smooth phrasing, a sense of musically and mutually communicating through the instrument. And, yes! You need to be a fine pianist, with solid technique and good musicianship and always ready for complex rhythms and sudden key changes, or be be ready to transpose to adjust to the singer's possibilities...

    And there' s so plenty much more to it that's even hard to put in words now because honestly the superficiality of this article infuriates me, and you know why? Because what you write here is exactly what singers without musical training think accompanying is all about, thus they assume our job is simple and take all details out of the "real thing"...and...finally our job ends up sounding like it' s the most trivial s%it on earth anyone who plays some can do!

    Try being a pianist in a jazz band being a classical performer...or try accompanying a musical in a week with a conductor score whose layout is mostly four stave per system, loads of figured bass, directions and notations that are very specific and non- standard at all ( or absent at times such as lack of " tempo" markings etc). In such case you need to have sound arranging skills as well because not all music you are handed will be playable on one piano just because it' s " there"...

    Sorry about the rant but i would hate hearing that any of the non- musically trained singers that i play musical theatre with came, read your article and came to the conclusion that that's all my job is about.

    Thank you

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    1. I play jazz standards at several senior centers (melodies) and have also begun working with two jazz vocalists. Playing melody and vocal accompaniment are two entirely different kettles of fish. As you expounded , it's far more than playing chords. It's playing the RIGHT chords in the right positions, at the RIGHT time and knowing when "simple is better." A pianist can make a vocal arrangement as simple or complex as their ability...and PLANNING allows. When you come to those two-measure breaks before a melody resumes, it's the piano player's (brief) chance to be creative and THEN bring the vocalist right back. You do it with dynamics and phrasing. It's all accomplished through long hours of rehearsing the songs and listening their "voices," and HEARING where the emotion rises and falls. I'm Classically trained and quite proficient, but learning to be a talented player with a vocalist is no piece of cake. It's about knowing the music intimately, and then, with careful planning and rehearsal, execution of the complimentary backup.

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  6. 1 - Can you promptly recognize by ear the changes (chords) in a song even if you heard it just a couple times?
    2 - Can you improvise on the piano in any key and style?
    3 - Can you keep your ears steadily on the singer (even on his/her breathing) while you improvise?
    4 - Have you a solid, deep feeling of every mood the music you're handling must convey, and
    5 - Can you bring them to life on the keyboard with the same hues the singer is chosing, elegantly sustaining the melody, without doubling nor disturbing it?

    Five "yes"'s mean you are a wonderful accompanist, and singers you played with look after you...

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