Why a ‘live’ accompanist matters… Part Two!

Why a 'live' accompanist matters... Part Two
Girl playing the fluteThis is a follow-up post to the one I wrote last year about the importance of accompanying. Recently, I again came across an online debate about accompanying. This debate was, as is often the case, driven by economics, in other words, why should parents and candidates have to ‘pay out’ for an accompanist when they’ve already paid the exam fee. Some suggested that exam boards should allow the use of CD accompaniments in exams to reduce the cost and to remove the difficulties in finding and engaging an accompanist.

In my previous post, I wrote a bit about playing along to a CD accompaniment and I believe that holds true. My argument then was the same as it is now, that the question is one of responsibility. If you play to a CD backing track then it will take care of any tempo changes, expression markings and characterization; true, you have to know where these come and you have to be able to do them, but nevertheless, these things are pre-determined by the CD. When you play or sing with a live accompanist, this responsibility shifts, and suddenly the player or singer finds themselves needing to lead and to make these performance decisions themselves.

As I’ve said before, an accompanist can make or break a performance, but to my mind, they aren’t an anonymous figure who morphs into the background while the soloist takes centre stage. On the contrary, the combination of soloist and accompanist is an ensemble, a partnership if you like.

One of the arguments put forward in the debate was that this didn’t matter because the exam wasn’t testing ensemble skills, but only the playing or singing of the soloist. To my mind, this reaches to the very heart of the debate about assessment – what is the exam actually testing? The implication seemed to be that it didn’t matter about the accompaniment or accompanist because neither that nor the ensemble skills necessary for such a performance are explicitly mentioned in the mark scheme.

For me, it’s dangerous to assume that certain things don’t matter because they’re not mentioned in the mark scheme. In an exam, the performance of the candidate is to be assessed. In their new marking criteria, ABRSM list requirements such as ‘Fluent [Time], with flexibility where appropriate’ and ‘Vivid communication of character and style’. It seems to me that these are very difficult to achieve if the accompaniment is pre-defined on a CD. For a candidate to achieve this kind of individuality in performance, then the skills of working with a sensitive accompanist, and thus creating a convincing ensemble between the two, are essential, at least for exams which are primarily classical-based.

It’s easy to underestimate the qualities and skills of an effective accompanist. Regardless of cost or convenience, they should not be seen as the ‘last-minute nuisance’, arranged a few weeks before the exam on the instruction of the teacher (who so often seems to forget to point this out earlier!). It’s never too early to start taking responsibility for your performance and as you progress, the necessities of making your performance individual will only increase.

So, for me, CD backing tracks have their place, but they are not, and should not be seen as a substitute both for the skills of a ‘live’ accompanist and to avoid making the judgements necessary to make your performance your own.