Saturday, February 1, 2014

The Art of Accompanying on the Piano

I've had the privilege of accompanying dozens of outstanding professional singers and so I thought I'd share my principles of accompanying.

If you're an accompanist, you might find these ideas useful and if you're an audience member, reading this may help you additionally appreciate singing performances, live or recorded.

1. I never simply play what's written in the chart/sheet music. That's just the barebones. Accompanying is the art of creating the perfect support/surround-sound for that singer. I think of myself as a one-person orchestra. And thanks to my Korg SP-250 keyboard, indeed, I can sound quite full and varied. While sometimes a traditional piano sound is precisely the right choice, now there often are better options.

If I don't already know the song, yes I'll look at the sheet music and perhaps listen to the original recording of it, but I treat that as only the starting place. I will expand on it, playing by ear, what feels right.

The singer and I develop a singing and performance plan for the song with the goal of making it better than the best recording we can find, capitalizing on that singer's strengths. I often suggest that the singer give the song an arc: for example, from slow/simple to big/dramatic back to slow/simple. I also suggest we choreograph it, sometimes down to her every movement.

2. Many songs begin with an ad-lib section. I always let the singer know that s/he can be as free as she wants with the tempo, can vary that from performance to performance, and be reassured that I will, if it's appropriate as it usually is, come in the nanosecond after s/he hits the note. To the audience, it will sound like I intuitively know when to come in but it's really that I'm just listening my butt off.

3. Throughout the song, I'm vigilant to provide the appropriate amount of support. I'm always trying to listen as deeply as I can to every note. If what s/he's singing requires simple playing, I accompany simply. If big, lush chords are required, I do that. If it needs to be more energetic, I'll play more rhythmically or jazzy.

I pay special attention to the last note in a phrase. Those can be the singer's most impressive moments and I make sure I'm not upstaging him or her yet not diminishing that note's power by playing too wimpily.

4. Volume is critical. Too soft and you're not providing the support the singer needs, too loud and you take away from her. Often, you can't tell whether you're too loud or too soft. So if we have a rehearsal at the venue or right before the audience enters, I ask a venue employee to move around the room while I accompany the singer doing a loud, medium, and soft passage. As he walks around, I ask him  to raise his palm if I should play louder and lower her palm if I should play softer.

5. It's often conventional for the singer to expect me to play an eight-bar solo during the bridge (the material between choruses.) Unless s/he needs that break to regain her breath or energy, I recommend against it. It takes attention away from the singer, reducing the power of the lyrics and connection with the audience. If s/he does want me to play a solo, yes, that's the time for me to play my ass off but never so much that when s/he comes back to sing, I've given her a hard act to follow.

6. Note that key to doing all this requires the accompanist to suppress his ego. When you are accompanying, you are, pardon the pun, playing second fiddle. It's still high art and a most worthy activity. Indeed I find accompanying a great singer as rewarding as playing solo.

HERE is a video of me accompanying Jeffrie Givens at a nightclub.

HERE is a video of me accompanying Taylor Bartolucci and James Sasser on my NPR-San Francisco radio show. .

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