Making the Most of Your Accompanist

This post was written before the 2020 Coronavirus Pandemic took hold; however, I hope it will be useful for a time in the future when we are, once again, able to make music together.

Remember the old adage: ‘those who can do, those who can’t teach’? I’ve heard another one too: ‘those who can do, those who can’t accompany’. However, accompanying requires a huge degree of skill, not just those required of a competent performer.

Accompanists are often hard to come by, so when we do find a good one, it pays to make the most of what they can offer us. After 25 years accompanying in one form or another, I wanted to share, from the accompanist’s point of view, some of the things which performers can do to make the most of the opportunity.

1. Provide the music in plenty of time

Generally, accompanists are excellent sight-readers. We have to be. I’m used to sight-reading pretty much anything put in front of me. I’m also used to stepping in at the last minute, with little or no time to rehearse.

That said, to create the best possible opportunity for performers to excel, there are occasions where accompanists need to (*shock horror*) practice. This may come as a surprise to you.

It is true, the longer I’ve been accompanying, the more accompaniments I’ve learnt, but even now, there are pieces which need a good deal of work before both rehearsal and performance.

With that in mind, provide the music for your accompanist in plenty of time. Accompanists all have different timescales they may work to, but both rehearsals and performances will always be more rewarding if we’ve had time to prepare in advance.

2. Provide legible copies of scores

Accompanists need to be able to play from legible copies of the score. With copyright issues in mind, in most cases, we need to play from an original copy of the music; however, that may not be possible until the rehearsal or performance itself.

It’s often necessary to provide photocopies or scans of the music in advance. A few tips if you’re going to send these:

  • Scans are much better than photographs which rarely come out clearly and do not print well.
  • Accompanists need to see the whole score on every page: copies with missing key signatures, time signatures, and indeed, whole bass clef lines cut off the bottom are of little use.
  • If pages aren’t numbered, it’s useful to do that, either so they match the original, or as 1, 2, 3 etc.
  • Similarly, if bars aren’t numbered, it’s useful to do this too, even if it’s just the first bar in each line. Both these things make rehearsals much easier.

Over the years, I have arranged many rehearsals where the music has neither been sent beforehand, or brought on the day. Performers seem surprised that they have rendered the rehearsal useless by bringing only their part, and no piano part.

3. Mark up the score

Virtually every performer puts their own stamp on the music, which means they may not be performing it exactly as written. It’s useful to mark up the score with anything additional to or amended from the original, such as:

  • Dynamics
  • Tempo changes
  • Pauses and breaks
  • Repeats (and especially where these have been cut)

4. Be on time

Accompanists are generally busy people. Come to think of it, we’re all busy people, and accompanists are no exception. If you have arranged to rehearse with them, make sure you are on time. You have booked a rehearsal slot and there should be no expectation that your accompanist will extend this if you’re late.

5. Be confident in your performance

Like I said above, performers interpret the music in different ways, and you should be as confident as possible in your performance. A good accompanist will support you, but they will also follow you. If you are unsure, this will be reflected in the performance.

Whilst accompanists are generally good at helping out where necessary, skipping the six pages you missed, or shouting out lyrics you’ve forgotten, the best performances are those where both performer and accompanist act as an ensemble.

6. Communicate with your accompanist

The best performer-accompanist ensembles are those where there is a good sense of communication. You will need to indicate when your accompanist should begin playing, and they will watch you for things such as slowing down, pausing etc.

These things all need practice, any many come over time with experience. They are, however, things which should be rehearsed in lessons before any rehearsal with an accompanist.

7. Pay

I know this is the thing you don’t really want to hear, but accompanists are professional musicians and for many, accompanying forms a significant part of their portfolio of income sources. The fees they charge don’t just cover the time you spend rehearsing with them, but also the time spent practising your music. They may also include travel time and expenses.

Make sure you agree with your accompanist at the outset which fees are due and when (and accompanists should make this clear too). There is then the obvious point that you do then need to actually pay when required.

It may come as a surprise to you that rightly or wrongly, first impressions count. If performers don’t pay on time, don’t provide the music and are generally disorganised, accompanists may choose not to work with you again in the future. This can cause particular problems where there are a limited number of available accompanists.

8. Thank your accompanist

I don’t accompany because I expect to be thanked; however, like anything, it is nice to have one’s skills appreciated and recognised. In performances, the focus is often on the performer; however, performers should also acknowledge the support and skills of their accompanist.

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