By Fred Bogert
The other night I was providing the piano accompaniment for a combined choir that had gathered for an Easter week service. The director was a fine young fellow who worked in the music program at a local high school. He was well-versed in choral conducting techniques, admirably displayed as he encouraged the singers through warm ups and run-throughs of the pieces we’d sing in the service.
As we got further into the rehearsal, I started to notice that as the singers paid more attention to the director’s instructions about breathing, dynamics, pitch, etc., the performance became dryer, slower, and less interesting to listen to. Obviously, none of this was intentional on the part of the director or the choir, but the effect was noticeable, and I started thinking about how I could help improve things from the keyboard.
The written piano parts to the pieces we were singing were logical and sensible enough, but didn’t support the singers at critical times – entrances, harmonic movements, sectional dynamic changes and establishment of meter and tempo. Now, if the choir had already spent lots of time rehearsing these aspects of performance so that the unity of sound had already been established, then I’m sure that the accompaniment played as written would have been fine. But in this situation, I perceived a need to go off the score in places and ways that would more strongly support the director and singers and build their confidence.
I started including cue notes for the entrances of voices, and making those notes prominent enough for the singers to refer to at their entrances. I also pushed the tempo some when I played piano figures that occurred under longer notes held by the choir. This helped them keep their energy up when they reentered the next metrical phrase. And, when needed, I’d add upper octaves to vocal lines that seemed challenging to the singers. This helped them with pitch and rhythm reference without competing with their actual notes. When there was a modulation between sections, I’d make the change more obvious in both meter and pitch, so the choir could be more confident in its entry. All these details supported the director by portraying his ideas in the accompaniment, not just in the choir.
To support the expression of dynamics, I’d leave notes out of the piano part for the soft phrases, softly playing the notes the choir was singing. For the louder passages, I’d add harmonically congruent notes as needed to increase the choir’s conviction to form a big sound. The net result of all of this was a strong short-term support system that gave more confidence to the singers and better options to the director. Now he didn’t have to spend so much time and energy on each problem he encountered. As he would identify the musical need, I’d portray the change in a slightly modified accompaniment, and by doing so, help the choir make that correction and move on.
I’ll admit that I enjoy interpreting scores this way, and that “leaving the page” can be inappropriate at times, mostly when developing performances of known choral classics, and among established, accomplished choirs. There’s lots of times when these interpretive techniques can really help increase the energy and performance of both choir and repertoire. Done responsibly, I find that the directors enjoy it, too!
Fred Bogert has spent the last 45 years in the music business. He has produced, written for, and performed on three Grammy-nominated CDs, as well as appeared as a composer, producer and performer with a variety of artists from John McEuen and David Amram to the Austin Symphony and the Nashville Chamber Orchestra. Fred’s Nashville studios included RCA Studio B and Studio C, where he recorded over three thousand songs for a who’s who of independent artists. His website is fredbogert.com, and his choral scores are available on sheetmusicplus.com. He lives in Louisville, KY.