While most vocal music groups perform at least some material without accompaniment, having an instrumental reference is often a key part of instilling the building blocks of choral performance. As every chorister knows, the piano is the typical accompaniment of choice. Yet with changing technology, budget restrictions – pianos are quite expensive, after all – and an influx of musical influence from cultures that have their own unique instrumentation, it might be worthwhile to re-examine some long-held assumptions about choral instrumentation.
This recent Choral Director survey asks readers to share their accompaniment experiences – the instruments they use, how their ensembles collaborate with instrumental groups, and the latest relevant trends among school choral groups.
Which instrument do you typically use to accompany your school choirs?
“I use a Yamaha Arius YDP-V240. It has a very good digitally sampled piano sound. It, unlike acoustic pianos in our dry climate, is always in tune. I can also record accompaniments for use in rehearsal.”
La Cueva High School
“I try to plan music to give opportunities to students in my choirs who play flute, violin/viola or any other instruments that I might be able to work in.”
Hillcrest High School
“I perform a lot of songs that use percussion instruments.”
Ambridge Area High School
“I generally use the ‘canned’ accompaniments available.”
New Road School
Does your school choral program have a full time accompanist?
“I encourage my students who play piano to accompany one song each for the performances. This has worked out well and they all enjoy the experience.”
Mt. Olive Middle School
Budd Lake, N.J.
With the prevalence and accessibility of electronic instruments, have you noticed a trend towards non-traditional choral accompaniment instruments?
“My students are craving digital accompaniment – either CDs or keyboard.”
Dunkirk Middle School
“While I think that is true in many districts, it is not the norm in our district. We fortunately still use predominantly acoustic rather than recorded or electronic instrumental accompaniment.”
Cheston Elementary School
“What would a choral performance be without percussion! All kidding aside, there is an abundance of good choral music with percussion, especially multicultural selections. We’re lucky that our school has a percussion ensemble! We also combine one choir and our jazz band from time to time.”
Margaret Anne Butterfield
Wilmington Friends School
“While we know it is out there, we are very traditional for the 2/3 of the year and then we end the year with full-blown pop productions.”
Edina High School
Does your vocal music program collaborate with instrumental ensembles in your music department?
“Occasionally we will have a string quartet play with the choir, or soloists if the piece calls for it. The Omaha Symphony has a great collaborative program with Opera Omaha that brings together several HS choirs each fall to perform a large choral work and opera choruses with professional soloists. Our school performs every other year. I would love to be able to perform a large work with our HS orchestra someday.”
Omaha Central High School
“I seek out opportunities and/or write music for my choral students who study on other instruments. We have used students on harp, French horn, violin, cello, clarinet, oboe, and trumpet. My assistant director and accompanist are also skilled on flute, violin, and percussion. I am also Orff certified and frequently use an Orff ensemble for choral accompaniment. We often perform in church and have use of a wonderful pipe organ. I also have a professional bass violinist and a drummer who play (for a fee) on most major concerts.”
Rock Valley Children’s Choir
For those that do collaborate with instrumental groups, what are the primary challenges of bringing vocal and instrumental students together for a single performance?
“Time to get all students together. Music students are always in other extra curricular activities and sports. Schedules are difficult to coordinate”
Absegami High School
“Balance – high school instrumentalists are challenged to play softly and vocalists do not have the development to sing over a band or orchestra.”
Mary Beth Shumate
Brevard High School
“Attempting to re-create authentic performances of ethnic music with complex rhythms. I have found that with the really good arrangements, the songs take on a totally different rhythmic feel when percussion is added.”
Jesse O. Sanderson High School
Additional thoughts on recent trends or developments in choral accompaniment and accompaniment instruments?
“I think there should be a dramatic push for hiring accompanists at the local level for high school choral programs. Even the best pianists/choral directors simply cannot effectively evaluate singers while playing simultaneously! We should be given the flexibility to conduct, which is what choral conductors should do. Too often we are forced to accompany instead in interest of time. It should be a standard procedure to have a staff accompanist, particularly at the high school level, and I believe strongly that much advocacy needs to occur to make sure that we work to provide this resource for our secondary choral directors.”
Patton High School
“I enjoy the fact that authentic multi-cultural music is available and if you have some exotic instrument, you can usually find a piece that can use it. I have a concert quality didgeridoo and have been able to use it in choral concerts because I’ve found music for it.”
Gross Catholic High School
“I think that it is a ‘forward progression’ to bring other instruments into play when appropriate, besides the piano.”
The Gow School
South Wales, N.Y.
“I think sometimes we believe using a track is a cop-out. We rarely use tracks, but I try to remember that sometimes it is fun to sing with a track. The instrumentation can add a lot to the piece of music.”
Vestavia Hills High School