After years of piano lessons and a lot of practice, most people gain a level of comfort with their keyboard skills. Playing piano starts to feel more natural and less like a chore -- or an ongoing and painstaking learning process.
A good pianist will almost inevitably get asked to serve as an accompanist.
For example, a student at school wants to sing a solo and she needs a pianist to play the tune. A choir director at church might ask you to accompany the singers. Musical plays are another major source of demand for the skills of an accompanying pianist.
These are situations when even skilled piano players discover that they still have a lot to learn.
If that's you, don’t fret. Those who have gone before you have plenty of tips and tricks to share. Follow this advice and you’ll soon move toward accompanist mastery.
Get the Part Down Pat
You don’t want to go into an accompanist gig without knowing your piano part extremely well. You will be relied upon to keep a steady tempo, not pause for slips and be the rock of support for your performer. Thus, if you take time to get the piece of music down solid, you won’t have to focus all your energy on hitting the right notes. This frees you up to follow and support the performer.
It's a great idea to have the music memorized if possible. Being able to stop or start at any point in the routine is a major plus.
Don’t Play the Melody
This may seem counterintuitive at first. After all, if you’re not going to play the melody, just what are you playing? Playing the melody is one of the worst mistakes you can make when you accompany! It’s amazing how many pianists choose to do so anyway. Most soon learn from that mistake, however.
Here’s the deal: As the accompanist, you are not the main show. The singer is. Your goal is the help that person shine and not compete with him or her. This means making a more minimalist contribution with your keyboard. In accompanying, less is more.
So if you’re not playing the melody, what are you playing?
The answer: Patterns.
The following are some tips on how to play patterns.
How to Play Patterns
If you are playing to accompany a solo singer, you have already learned the correct chords for the song, but you still don’t know the correct harmony tune. That’s perfectly okay! What you will be focused on is playing the chords.
Once you get the chords down pay, break up the chords and roll them. For example, if you are in the key of C, you can roll that chord by playing C, E and G. Then repeat the same sequence or just reverse and go back down G, E to C.
Another way to do this is to play a 9th chord. You do that by widening your reach. For example, you play C and G, but then play C on the next octave.
Follow this basic pattern and you’ll be golden!
During your practice, an incredibly good tip is to sing along with the part after you learn the music. This helps program your brain to concentrate on both the music and the singing. If you can get to the point where you can play the piece and sing the song without slip-ups, your contribution during the "big show" will be much smoother and easier for you at the same time.
A Recording is Your Friend
If you can get a recording of the singing part, you have the perfect tool to practice with for the real thing. Granted, a live performer will be markedly different from a recording you have grown accustomed to. However, you will still be much better able to go with the flow during the live performance.
Practice With a Real Person
It almost goes without saying that getting together to practice with the person you will be playing for is perhaps the ultimate way to get in sync and perfect the routine you’ll be performing together. If that’s not possible, cajole another singer to go through it with you. This way you can pinpoint all the tricky areas most likely to trip you up. Being prepared for these spots is your best defense against any screw-ups.
Speaking of practicing with a live performer, here are some tips on how to follow them more effectively:
You might consider wrangling a volunteer to clap the beat while you play. You can improve even more if you get your helper to increase the tempo by clapping faster -- and then play it again while they clap slower. You can kick this up a notch further by instructing your volunteer to change clapping the tempo in mid-song. If you can make the adjustment on the fly, you are ready!
Again using a volunteer, instruct them to sing at the volume of their choosing without telling you how loud or softly they will sing. When then start singing, see if you can match your volume of playing to the volume of the singing voice. The old switch-up in mid-song is a good idea too. That is, have your practice singer start loud and switch to soft during the song. This will help you pivot on the fly and stay with your partner.
What if You Don’t Have Time to Practice?
Experienced pianists who have done a lot of accompaniment gigs may agree with everything they have read so far. However, we may have triggered a kind of a certain “let’s-get-in-touch-with-reality-moment” attitude among those who are realists.
That’s because so many accompaniment gigs come on short notice. Often, time for practice is minimal if not nonexistent. Thus, what can you do to bring in the best results if you’re going into a situation with very little preparation?
Rule No. 1: Don’t panic!
Accompanying is an art, not a science. Remind yourself that your job is secondary. The performer is the star. That means Rule No. 2 is to never distract from the lead performer.
If you get lost, forget notes or make a slip, follow your leader (the performer) and play the notes that match the best. If you can’t remember the proper notes, move around on the scale until you find your place again. That will sound better than hammering around on the keys as you try to find the right note.
If you can’t play the right note, play the best note!
Trying too hard to get the precisely right note will only end up frustrating the performer and yourself. Don’t force the performer to catch up with you. Follow the volume and tempo taken by the leader.
Furthermore, go in with a plan but not one that is rigid. Even in those situations in which you have had time to prepare, a performance can sometimes stray from the original plan anyway. Thus, study the music as much as you can and practice if you can -- but be ready to think on your feet and be flexible within the situation.
One thing that performers love about their accompaniment partner is the ability to “read the room,” adjust to what the singer is doing and follow along even when things like tone, tempo and volume change unexpectedly.
Brush Up on Your Sight-Reading Skills
You will often be asked to accompany using a selected piano score. Some scores are a lot more challenging than others. In an accompaniment situation, it can be especially daunting.
If you can learn to sight-read music, then you have the incredible ability to just play what the notes are telling you. The problem with sight-reading is that not all pianists are created equal in their ability to master this skill. Some people learn to sight-read music sheets with relative ease while others struggle. That's natural because all people have widely varying degrees of natural talent in mastering any musical instrument or skill.
For those of you who have limited sight-reading skills, the ultimate bottom-line-go-to-hack is to just play the chords. This is almost always possible no matter how challenging the piano score.