I’ve spent a lifetime accompanying singers. Mostly on piano, sometimes on guitar. I’ve provided accompaniment for soloists, ensembles, choirs, some with other instruments, bands, even orchestras, and lots of times just me. No matter what kind of style the music explores, I never tire of the adventure found in supporting and interacting with vocalists.
If the challenges and joys of accompanying were to be distilled into a single word, to me that word would be: dynamics. Voices expressing music are nothing if they are not dynamic, full of rises and falls, changes in time and timbre, telling musical stories with passion. To enhance that range of emotive expression the accompanist needs to truly be the wind beneath the wings of the vocals. When this happens, the whole performance is lifted. Even a full choir sings with more confidence and focus when the accompanist aids the conductor’s directing.
To be responsible to the singers, I feel the accompanist must be more deeply immersed in all aspects of the music than anyone else except the director. A strong working knowledge of theory, counterpoint and harmony combine with excellent keyboard skills to give the effective accompanist a Zen-like center from which they can move instantly through the infinite number of choices-of-the-moment that arise in performance. And, of course, no two performances are ever exactly alike. Challenging! Fun!
I’ll never be a concert pianist. I say that because when I hear folks mention “keyboard skills” I know that I’ll never play the Liszt Paganini Etudes or perform the Minute Waltz in 30 seconds. What has helped me a bunch over the years is the basics – scales and arpeggios, ala Hanon, and an easy command of chord inversions – major, minor, seventh, augmented, diminished, both hands. Metronome practice at reasonable tempos. Every day, to build a solid sense of time and meter. To me that’s enough athletics for what the accompanist requires.
Beyond that is the “chess game” that is played out in musical progressions. A strong, intuitive knowledge of theory and diatonic (and even non-diatonic!) harmony is essential for constructing effective dynamics. To keep things finite, here’s my recommendations for improving your game:
Play some of the Beethoven Sonatas. He is still the master of form and structure. His theme and variation ideas are amazing. Play them until you can dream them.
Play some of the Chopin preludes. His harmonies show up in Mel Torme and Miles Davis. Learn Horowitz’s rubato style of the Bmin. It’s a symphony movement in two pages. Then do the Ab.
Study Jerry Coker’s book – Improvising Jazz – you’ll never regret it. Teach it to someone.
Study John Mahegan’s Improvising Jazz, Vol. 1, 4. The first book is Tonal and Rhythmic Principles. The second (#4) is Contemporary Piano Styles. I spent two years learning the concepts and voicings presented in these two volumes. I’ve built a career on them.
Now imagine Beethoven, Chopin, Coker and Mahegan all wrapped up in one canny accompanist. Go for it.
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.