Today we’re going to take a look at what it’s like being an accompanist. I’ve talked about piano teaching on this channel a bit in the past, so I thought it would be fun to take a look at other musical gigs, particularly the ones I’ve personally done.
In the past I have done accompanying work – where you play piano in the background while someone plays another instrument or sings. I personally consider it the toughest musical gig there is, which is why I don’t do it anymore.
Some people are really cut out for being an accompanist, though, and that’s what we’ll talk about today – the skills that are required to be a great accompanist, and why it’s such a challenge.
Accompanists are underappreciated
Being an accompanist is not the gig for you if you’d like to get any credit at all. When you’re playing for someone, it’s all about the soloist. The violinist, the singer, it doesn’t matter – you’re simply there to support them.
At best, you’ll get a thanks, or a footnote on an album. And you’ll get paid (obviously).
So if you’re the kind of person who likes blending into the background and you don’t need a lot of personal credit, then this might be up your alley.
Accompanists need to be excellent listeners
Some of the accompanying work I’ve done in the past is playing with band students. Some of these students are well-practiced and well-prepared; others are not. Some have a sense of tempo; others do not.
You have to be a fantastic listener because of this. The soloist might change tempo, they might skip an entire part, or they might play something that isn’t actually on the page. You need to hear all of these changes and adapt on the fly, almost to the point where you need to be telepathic.
Accompanists must be flexible
Not only does the accompanist need to be able to hear if the soloist is skipping part or playing the wrong notes, the accompanist needs to be flexible enough to adapt to it. See, it’s all about making the soloist look good. If you have to stop and pause to get your bearings, it’s going to really mess with the soloist, who has already messed up.
The accompanist needs to just go with the flow, and keep the musical continuity. Even if that means making up something that isn’t actually on the page. Even if it means repeating a part, or skipping a part. Musical continuity is key, and it takes a high degree of flexibility to figure that out.
The accompanist needs to learn the soloist part (as well as their own)
It’s usually not enough to learn your own part when you’re an accompanist – you need to know what the soloist is doing as well. Otherwise, how are you supposed to know if they’re skipping parts or going off the rails?
You need to know what they’re doing in order to help support them best. You need to know when they’re likely to take big breaths, or where a difficult passage is. It’s a lot of effort learning your own part, let alone two parts!
Being an accompanist means learning a lot of music
Whether you’re doing random one-off accompanying gigs, or playing for an entire school band, you’re going to need to learn a ton of music.
With my experience, band kids get to select their own pieces, and they aren’t necessarily easy to play. And they might change their mind and switch pieces a couple weeks before a performance or exam. Some of them will choose the same piece, but many will pick different pieces.
You need to be able to learn these pieces not only well enough to play them, but well enough that you can improvise them a little if the soloist messes up as we talked about earlier.
The accompanist must be an excellent sight reader
Since the accompanist has such a large volume of music to learn, and often very little time to learn it, they need to be great at sight reading – otherwise, learning all those pieces is going to be way too tedious.
Oftentimes accompanists will be thrown into situations where they’re expected to play, even though they’ve never looked at the music before. This on-the-fly rehearsal is only possible if you’re a good sight reader.
Accompanists must play with students and professionals alike
If you’re a great accompanist, you’ll probably start getting awesome gigs with professional musicians, in which case you’re much less likely to deal with tempo and note mistakes. But if you’re just starting out, you’re probably going to be accompanying a lot of amateurs and students.
When you’re playing with amateurs, you’re going to have to be a lot more creative and adaptable, and you’re also going to step into more of a leader role. If the soloist makes a mistake, they will likely look to you to lead them back into the piece. You’re the one who needs to be solid and in control.
If you’re playing with professionals, you’re much more likely to be led by them. They’re more confident and competent, and will control the flow of music – so be ready to follow along.
Accompanists must be willing to work unusual hours
Let’s face it – most gigs that you’d be accompanying are on evenings or weekends. Church mass, school recitals and performances are almost never in the standard 9-5 slots. Sometimes studio recordings are done in this time, but not always.
I’ve worked weird hours like this my entire adult life, and I’m fine with it. But you need to come to peace with the fact that your schedule is basically the opposite of every other human, so spending time with family and friends becomes much more of a challenge.
The accompanist must make do with short rehearsals
If the accompanist is lucky, they’ll have ample time to practice with the soloist. But in the real world, that seldom happens. When I accompanied band kids, we had about 10 minutes per student of rehearsal. And sometimes you don’t get any rehearsal at all!
The accompanist must be willing to be a leader
I mentioned this briefly already, but if you’re playing with amateurs, be prepared to take a leader role in the accompanist/soloist duo. If they slip or make mistakes, they’re much more likely to shrink back and wait for a cue from you than to barge ahead with confidence.
They’re going to be looking to you for tempo cues, for resuming after a ritardando, and so on. If you’re playing piano for a church congregation, they’re really going to look to you for guidance (and you’ll have to deal with the dreaded sound lag – feeling like they’re singing just a half beat or so behind because of the way sound travels).
The accompanist must be willing to simplify
Sometimes the sheer amount of repertoire you need to learn as an accompanist will force you to simplify the things you do need to learn. Depending on what you’re accompanying, the pieces can be extremely difficult.
This requires one of two things: Either clock an insane amount of time to learn a really difficult piece, or take shortcuts that aren’t going to undermine the integrity of the piece. You have to know how you can make things easier for yourself, while still making things sound great.
I hope you enjoyed this tour of being an accompanist, and hopefully I didn’t scare you off of this tough musical gig! Some people really thrive with this job – just not me personally.
Until next time!