Katherine Bartol’s Top 6 Tips for Beginner Accompanists

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Collaborating with other musicians is a great avenue for an instrumentalist’s professional growth. For pianists, learning how to accompany is a vital skill that provides a myriad of benefits and opportunities otherwise unavailable. 

The accompanist’s musicianship will improve immensely, and new techniques will be discovered. Accompanying fosters a greater awareness of the musical skills of the soloist or group being accompanied. The accompanist must follow the dynamics and articulation of the other musicians while featuring the important piano parts that need to be highlighted in the ensemble.

The accompanist must also learn to keep a sharp eye on the conductor and follow impeccably if a conductor is required for the ensemble. If there is no conductor, the piano accompanist usually takes on this role while playing at the same time. Working with other musicians unearths these new skills within the pianist, requiring extreme flexibility in different settings as compared to a soloist.

Whether working with an individual singer, a solo performer, a small group of musicians, or a whole ensemble, the accompanist must be well-prepared for any situation.

Katherine Bartol, a professional conductor and pianist, says that learning to be an accompanist requires practice, persistence, and preparedness. With her professional experience spanning decades, she shares her top tips for beginner accompanists.

1. Check the music details and develop your ear

Before practicing, it is helpful to know the pace at which an accompanist should play during the rehearsal or performance. Tempo, rhythm, as well as the various musical commands throughout the piece, are the basic steps to performing the music well. Be alert to any changes in time signatures and tempo. Beginner accompanists must confirm these details from the soloist or the conductor in charge of the musical interpretation. Additionally, Katherine Bartol says it’s important for accompanists to be prepared for any changes that may happen during rehearsals and even performances.

Take time to listen to a recording of the music to be rehearsed. Try to internalize and get to know the composition without looking at the score. Developing your musical ear is a crucial element in becoming a great accompanist. You will need to free your eyes from the music to watch for the conductor or other musicians’ cues and breathing patterns, etc.

 2. Practice sight-reading and transposing regularly

Performing music without prior preparation can catch a pianist off-guard. However, accompanists must be able to sight-read immediately. It is a skill expected of them especially in a professional setting. Often, the first time you will see the music is when you begin rehearsing with the ensemble.

Katherine Bartol recommends that beginner accompanists should practice sight-reading skills to be able to handle the pressure during rehearsals. While it might be stressful to sight-read on the spot, especially at the presence of fellow musicians, keeping sight reading skills sharp will help pianists face the challenges accordingly.

Accompanists must be ready to transpose a piece to any key. This is also one of the vital skills that an accompanist must learn because there will be situations when the singer or the musician favors another key. As such, knowing your scales well with regular practicing in transposing a given part of the music to different keys will help to further your musical skills. Knowing how to change keys with ease is a powerful skill to add to your arsenal.

 3. Keep your tempo consistent

Keep your tempo consistent. While solo pianists can make changes in the music’s tempo at will without problems, accompanists must play at a consistent tempo continuously. Working with other musicians requires continuity to keep the ensemble harmoniously working as a whole. Having a steady beat sets a solid foundation for all the other musicians, keeping them at the right pace.

Katherine Bartol also emphasizes the importance of finishing through a piece of music instead of stopping to fix individual errors. Beginner accompanists should keep in mind that they must continue playing a piece all the way through, maintaining a steady beat always, regardless of mistakes they or anyone else make. It is up to the one directing the rehearsal to know when to stop to give specific directions.

These directions should not consist of fixing individual mistakes. Overall, each musician, including the accompanist, must learn his or her individual part flawlessly prior to attending the ensemble rehearsal. Being prepared is crucial for continuity within the ensemble, and for professional success. Any stopping during this rehearsal should be for blending voices or coordinating dynamics, articulation, and tempo changes. In other words, the rehearsal should focus on ensemble techniques and playing through the piece.

4. Know your role

Are you leading or following? Whether you’re collaborating with a small or a large group of musicians and singers, it’s important to know where you stand. For example, if you are working with a group of singers, it is more likely that the singers are looking to you for cues and direction. However, if you’re playing with a professional soloist, it’s reasonable for a pianist to assume the supporting role.

Accompanying is different from soloing, as you must work to blend with the instruments at the appropriate dynamic level.  Accompanists need to confirm whether they are leading or following to keep everybody on the same page when it comes to cues and musical interpretation.

  5. Keep breathing patterns in check

When collaborating with singers and wind instrumentalists, accompanists must be aware of their breathing patterns. As singers and wind players do need to take a quick breath in between certain parts in the music, being aware of when these pauses occur helps the accompanist keep the timing in place.

It is important to know these timings so that you are not on an offbeat when the breath takes place. Furthermore, it also helps the singers and wind players to keep up with the piano instead of struggling to catch up with fast beats. Attentiveness and communication between performers are required at this point.

 6. Be prepared and aware of all of the other musician’s parts

Preparedness and reaction time to changes during rehearsals and performances are two critical skills that beginner accompanists must develop over time. Aside from knowing your music down to the last note, it’s important to have a profound understanding of how the entire ensemble works. Show up consistently at rehearsals to tune in to the ensemble and connect with your fellow musicians.

Remember that you are working with other performers, so it is essential to know if any changes are happening on the spot. It is your responsibility to act on these changes accordingly. A soloist may skip an entire section of the song, singers may enter too early into the songs, and the conductor might decide to rearrange some parts during the performance. It requires instinct and attentiveness, but it is a skill that beginner accompanists must develop over time.

Whatever the case, knowing the music well and being alert allows you to seamlessly respond to any changes that might occur. Having a form of connectedness with the people you’re performing with greatly helps the entire ensemble to maintain harmony and musicality. Katherine Bartol concludes that becoming an accompanist is a well- respected and advanced musical position.

Accompanist skills require a high level of musicianship which can be extremely rewarding for enthusiastic and dedicated pianists to add to their careers. Accompanying provides a wide variety of opportunities for employment, experience, and success.

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