As you might know, piano accompanists, or collaborative pianists, as they are now called, are expected to be excellent sight-readers. Having been an accompanist myself for the last decade, I know this to be true. The reason being that the majority of the time, we’re given several pieces to learn in a short amount of time so the better we are at sight-reading, the faster we can learn our parts and pull it off. But what people don’t often realise is that the art of piano accompaniment involves a lot more than just sight-reading. It appears we’re sight-reading but is that all we’re doing?
In this article, I’m going to take you behind the scenes and give you a glimpse of what it’s really like to be a piano accompanist and the tricks I’ve learned along the way.
N.B.: To respect the privacy of the musicians involved, I won’t mention any names or give any details concerning the instrument or pieces.
Arranging / Leaving out notes
I was once asked to accompany someone for their audition. As is customary, the musician sent me the list of pieces of the program (seven in total). I went online and found the piano parts for these pieces and listened to recordings to get a feel for them. The piano part didn’t seem too hard and I liked the program so I accepted the job. Amongst the pieces was a particularly tricky one. It was a piano arrangement of an orchestral accompaniment.
It didn’t seem so bad when I looked at the score and listened to a recording. I wished I had looked more closely at the score though because it turned out to be a nightmare to learn; the number of accidentals, voices going from one hand to the other, a rhythmic ostinato throughout, etc. This piece was clearly not meant for a pianist but an orchestra! I spent hours trying to learn the piano part but as I only had a week to learn it, I decided to use one of the tricks of the trade: arranging.
I went through the score, bar by bar, and crossed out the notes that I thought could be left out without losing the harmony or the rhythm. Then I practised this simplified version. It was still difficult, especially up to tempo, but more manageable than before. The score looked pretty messy but I couldn’t afford to recreate a new version from scratch in Finale (music notation software). I did manage in the end but it was stressful. I wish I had been given more time!
When you’re given large amounts of music to learn in such a short space of time, you’re forced to cut corners whenever necessary like in this case. Our job is to support the other musician(s) harmonically and rhythmically and if we need to leave out notes for whatever reason, we will. This is not to say that every piano accompanist does this but sometimes, there is just no other way.
Working around your own limitations
Some pianists, like myself, have small hands so there are instances where playing big outstretched chords is just not an option. In those cases, leaving out the less important notes, or taking some of the notes in the other hand is the only solution. Whatever your limitations, it’s good to be aware of them so that you can adjust on the fly, instead of trying to play all the notes and failing miserably.
As a collaborative pianist, you always have to keep the end goal in mind, that is, being able to play the piano part fluently and as easily as possible so that no matter what happens, you’ll be able to cope and keep going. No one will wait for you!
I’ve accompanied many young players over the years and boy, do they keep you on your feet! Every now and then – usually during their recital or exam – they will skip a beat or two, or play the wrong rhythm, or not come in when they should… You have to be ready to pick up from anywhere, slow down, speed up, anything to stay with them and cover their tracks 😉 This is why knowing your part is crucial. You need that extra headspace so that you can listen to the other part and know where they are at all times.
I once accompanied a musician playing a sonata. The second movement was manageable but the performer played it quite fast and the piano part was full of semiquavers… Once again, I wasn’t given much time to learn the part so I had to grab the most useful trick out of my bag of tricks: improvising. I tried my best to play what was written but every now and then, when my brain just couldn’t keep up, I made up the semiquavers around the chords. It’s far better to play something close to the original than not play at all and break the flow of the music.
Another time, I accompanied a musician for a music exam and one of the pieces was a fast waltz. On the day of the exam, the performer was nervous and started rushing. It turned into a VERY fast waltz. It felt like we were on a dizzying merry-go-round. Panicking, I ended up improvising most – if not all – of the chords! (My part consisted of the typical waltz pattern, bass note followed by two chords.) I was holding on to dear life and made it my mission to keep the rhythm going no matter what. I just hope whatever chords I played didn’t throw off the soloist too much.
There are many other skills that piano accompanists are forced to develop that I’ve managed to avoid thus far: transposing the music at sight, sight-reading from a score reduction, playing from lead sheets, etc. And the world of piano accompaniment is wide and varied. You could accompany choirs, vocalists, instrumentalists, chamber groups, ballet, etc. in various settings: churches, recitals, exams, auditions, rehearsals, and so on. Each variation comes with its own set of difficulties and it’s not suited to everyone. Besides sight-reading, you need to be able to adapt, think on your feet, be sensitive to your surroundings and listen to the other performer and breathe with them, learn music efficiently, have a good understanding of music and know when to support the performer or lead, and of course, a good technique.
If any of you are aspiring to become a piano accompanist, I urge you to go for it. Don’t let my stories stop you. It is a rewarding job where you get to play with many instrumentalists and vocalists and where you always have new music to learn. It’s never boring. And, you can get paid for doing what you love: sight-reading! Yes, it can get stressful under pressure but over time, you acquire your own set of tricks that you can pull out in any emergencies.
Are YOU a piano accompanist? If so, I would love to hear your stories. What tricks do YOU use when you get in a tight spot? Let me know in the comments below.