I recently read that there is a shortage of accompanists in the UK. Although there are many pianists, not all make good accompanists. Accompanying requires a different set of skills to solo playing. A good accompanist will be sensitive, reassuring and supportive, and the soloist they’re accompanying should always feel in ‘safe hands’.
One of the things which is perhaps more noticeable these days is that singers and instrumentalists don’t automatically have the piano skills they might have had in the past (in the days when most musicians learnt the piano to some degree). It means that there are a lot of teachers out there who are entirely competent, but who aren’t able to accompany their pupils in lessons.
More and more, singers and instrumentalists are relying on pre-recorded backing tracks as either CDs or downloads. Many exam publications now come with an accompaniment CD, but it most cases, you cannot use these in the exam itself. I do a lot of accompanying for exams, and candidates are often very surprised when they find out (often at far too short notice) that they will need a ‘live’ accompanist on the day.
Being accompanied ‘live’ is very different to playing along to a CD. For a start, there is a shift in responsibility. When playing with a CD, you don’t need to be so worried about keeping a steady pulse for example: if you speed up or slow down, the CD won’t. Equally, the CD will have a pre-recorded degree of musicality with little, if any room for an instrumentalist’s own interpretation. When playing with a ‘live’ accompanist, the responsibility shifts. If you speed up or slow down, the accompanist will usually do likewise. They are there to support you rather than to prescribe a ‘set performance’.
So what can candidates and parents do to ensure that playing with a ‘live’ accompanist isn’t too much of a shock to the system? Firstly, if you or your child is learning an instrument or to sing, at some time or another, you or they will play or sing with a ‘live’ accompanist, whether that be in a performance, or exam. The sooner you or they get used to this, the better. If your or their teacher doesn’t accompany them themselves, see if you can organise some occasional sessions with an accompanist; I provide such sessions on a flexible and cost-effective basis here in Lichfield.
If you or they are being entered for an exam, make sure you find out far enough in advance whether a ‘live’ accompanist will be needed. Depending on the grade, most accompanists will suggest a few rehearsals prior to the exam, depending on whether you or they have played with a pianist regularly before. I offer a variety of packages for exam accompaniment, and recommend what I consider to be a reasonable number of rehearsals. Apart from the pre-Grade 1 exams, I usually recommend at least two rehearsals for people who haven’t played regularly with an accompanist before. This gives them a taste of what it’ll be like, time to go away to digest this and apply it through their practice, and then to have one final run-through nearer the time. If you know there’s an exam coming up, don’t leave it too late to organise an accompanist (particularly if the news about the shortage is true!).
As you or your child get towards the higher grades, it’s important to develop a relationship with an accompanist with whom you or they get on with. Like a teacher-pupil relationship, player or singer and accompanist need to ‘gel’. If you or your child doesn’t have a teacher who plays for them in lessons, as the higher grades are reached it is worthwhile trying to get some regular (even monthly) sessions going with an accompanist.