Get to Know the Music
Whenever possible, get the music ahead of time. Although sight-reading is an essential skill for the accompanist, it is far better to know the music well before you begin collaborating with an ensemble. Stumbling over notes and rhythms during a rehearsal will complicate and decelerate the choir’s learning process.
There are a myriad of ways to acquaint yourself with a new piece of music. In addition to ideas found in Preparing the Score, here are some areas for investigation:
Be prepared to play the accompaniment, vocal parts, and various combinations of each on the piano and the organ. The very nature of accompaniment is that it is not a solo activity. You are making one piece of music with multiple people. It is therefore your responsibility not only to know your part, but how your part fits in with the whole.
Perhaps you’ve seen this before: a choir member on the back row holding his music low, facing down, singing loudly, and continues singing after the conductor cuts off the choir. This singer is so focused on his part that he is unaware of the people and music around him. The same thing can happen with an accompanist. We can get tunnel vision and lose track of the sounds around us. Getting to know the vocal parts will help us know what to expect during rehearsal and can help bring our attention back to the bigger musical picture. One way to prepare for this is to practice watching the vocal parts when you are playing the accompaniment, and vice versa. Then occasionally look away from the score as if you are watching the conductor.
If you are new to accompaniment, or are easily distracted by interruptions, ask a friend or family member to distract you while you are practicing. Choir rehearsals are not sterile environments, acoustically or otherwise. People cough, sneeze, receive (and sometimes answer!) phone calls during rehearsals. They will get up to use the restroom, drop their music, and sharpen their pencils at inconvenient times. Since many choir rehearsals are in the evening, they will bring with them a host of smells from floral perfumes to l’odeur corporelle. Light bulbs will burn out and chairs will scrape the floor over the distant hum of a vacuum cleaner. The better you know the music, the less these and other distractions will inhibit the quality of your accompaniment.
Read the text. Know what the piece is about. If the text is in a language with which you are not fluent, find a translation and write it in your music. The meaning of specific texts likely influenced what the composer wrote, and should influence how you and the conductor interpret the corresponding music.
If the text has been set to music by multiple composers, familiarize yourself with how other composers, conductors, and accompanists interpret that text. A quick and free way to hear other interpretations of the same text is to search for recordings on YouTube. The more familiar the text, the more variety of composers you are likely to find. A search of “Jubilate Deo” brings up hundreds of performances and rehearsals in styles from Baroque to Taizé. Knowing how different people have approached the same text can broaden your understanding and help you sharpen your own interpretation.
Take note of the author and composer. As above, do a quick internet search if you don’t recognize someone. You may be surprised by the connections you make between various artists and your own musical experiences, which will only diversify your network of knowledge.
Accompanying Rehearsals at the Piano
“The piano style will affect the singers’ style.”1
The organ accompanist will inevitably need to play the piano during some rehearsals. Approach your music with sensitivity and musicality whether that is at the organ or the piano. Although the piano is a percussion instrument, it has vast dynamic and timbrel ranges. Unlike the organ, however, you control dynamics and timbre by how you play the keys rather than by how you operate various devices on the organ.
Playing organ accompaniments in a musically sensitive and stylistic manner on the piano does two things: it inspires better singing because the choir will grasp the true character of the piece and mirror that in their singing, and it improves one’s ability to form a polished command of the music which will only serve to strengthen the organ accompaniment. The alternative is to play the notes on the piano without finesse, inviting the opinion that the accompanist is either unable or unwilling to adapt the accompaniment art to the instrument at hand.2
Following are six points to keep in mind while at the piano:
- Follow the dynamics of the score. Since organists do not control volume with their touch, we sometimes forget to adjust the weight of our touch at the piano in order to create aural variety.
- Voice chords so that the melody is more prominent. Another thing we cannot do at the organ is to play a melody or interesting harmonic note louder just with our touch. If a melody is part of a chordal texture, add some aural interest by playing it louder than the surrounding harmonies.
- Use the damper (sustaining) pedal judiciously. It can easily be overused, especially by those of us for whom the piano is not our primary instrument. The risk is that one may blur changing harmonies or melodies, making them more difficult for the choir to discern. When preparing a piece for rehearsal, take note of where the harmonies will allow for the damper’s full effect and where you may want to avoid it or use it sparingly.
- Use your right hand to turn pages. Usually, it is more beneficial to play the bass than the treble because it helps keep the choral parts within their harmonic context.
- If the organ part is on three staves and you are unable to play all of the parts, do not automatically leave out the pedal part. That is the most important part, harmonically-speaking, for the choir to hear.
- If the score calls for a 16′ sound in the pedal and you are able, play the pedal part in octaves with the lower octave. This will imitate the sound of the organ better than just playing the unison pitch.
Meet with the Conductor
A host of problems can be averted or mitigated by meeting with the conductor prior to rehearsal, unless you will conduct from the console yourself. Early in your preparation, you should verify that you are using the same version or publication of a piece as the conductor and choir. Even when a piece has metronome indications, go over the initial tempo and any changes in tempi with the conductor. It is especially helpful to rehearse accompanying the conductor rather than simply talking through a piece. Pay attention to increases or decreases in tempo, including any desires for rubato, and areas where the conductor wants the choir to take a breath, pause, or apply a fermata that may not be indicated in the score. Include markings for the choir in your score as well, so you will be able to convey the same musical ideas during rehearsal as the conductor.
The example below shows how the score may not necessarily indicate how the conductor would like to interpret a particular phrase. Here, some conductors will prefer to take a brief pause between the phrase “all my sin” and “Wash me” in the penultimate and final measures of this system. This is not indicated in the score, but is within the scope of the conductor’s rights as the primary interpreter and is in keeping with the anthem’s Romantic style.
At some point before the performance, meet with the conductor in the performance or worship space. Make sure there is a clear sight-line between you and the conductor that can be maintained once the choir is in place. Solicit feedback about how well your playing coincides with their conducting, what they think about your registration, and anything else they wish to share. In turn, communicate if there is something they can do to make your accompaniment more successful. A respectful collaboration will only serve to increase the quality of the performance.
Note that there are several ways you can have the organ “breathe” with the choir. First, you can release everything at once and have a complete break between phrases. When doing this, release the notes just prior to the choir’s final consonant. This is particularly helpful when the organ is loud, so as to avoid muddling the choir’s diction. Second, you can hold all of the notes down while the choir breathes. In this case, make sure the choir has enough time to breathe before you continue with the next phrase. Choirs rarely breathe in a metronomic way, so you should physically breathe with them and expect to hold the chord down for slightly longer than you would otherwise. Third, release some of the notes but not all. If the acoustics in the room are very dry, you may want to release only one note to help indicate a breath in the organ. Or you may want to highlight an inner melodic voice by holding it through while you release the surrounding notes.
An example of how you might phrase differently is shown below. This shows mm. 8–9 in Draw Us In the Spirit’s Tether by Harold Friedell. The first slide shows the music exactly as it is written. The second slide shows an example of where a conductor will often indicate a breath between phrases, marked by a quarter rest in the vocal part. The third slide shows how the organ might breathe by lifting all of the notes of the accompaniment. The exception in this case is the pedal line, which does not release because it has its own note during the vocal breath. The fourth and fifth slides show how you might choose to lift one or two voices during the vocal breath. These would be effective in a dry acoustic at indicating a gentle breath without sounding abrupt.
Identify people whose musical judgment you trust and ask if they would be willing to listen critically to you and the choir. Is the organ too loud? Too soft? If you want a special effect such as a solo melody, ask if it is the volume that you intend for it to be. Do the crescendos and decrescendos sound smooth? Does the registration sound appropriate for the text and style of the anthem? Ask someone in the choir if your accompaniments are helpful and inspiring, and if they have suggestions for improvement.
Tips for Playing Pitches
When giving pitches on the organ during worship services, performances, and rehearsals, use one clear stop such as an 8′ string on the Swell. Do not give pitches on loud or complicated registrations, especially on a celeste. The celeste registration is created by combining two close but different pitches (e.g. 8′ Viole de gambe 8′ Voix céleste) that create an undulating effect. Giving pitches on this sound would therefore present two different pitches to the choir.
Unless requested otherwise by the conductor, help wayward singers during rehearsals by playing a few of their notes to get them back on track. Be aware, however, that the more you play singers’ pitches for them, the more reliant they will become on that assistance. If the purpose of the choir is to teach children to sing, for instance, do not automatically correct wrong pitches. Give them a chance to correct the errors on their own. They will learn to sing more accurately and independently without the crutch of a piano or organ.
The most common way to deliver vocal lines on the piano is to play one note at a time at the same pitch as the singer. There are other valid options, however. If you notice the singers are slightly below the pitch, consider playing their part in parallel octaves above the written pitch. Avoid potential confusion by doubling two octaves above rather than one octave above, so that singers are less likely to mistakenly sing the upper octave. If the vocal line is unusually high or if the upper register of the piano is weak, add a parallel octave below the written pitch. If the vocal line has some challenging non-diatonic notes, play the bass line and the written pitch together in order to provide some harmonic framework.
Finally, consider how you might add variety to how you give pitches, especially during worship services or concerts. In some cases, you may want to hold the opening chord until the choir begins to sing, or play the first phrase of an unaccompanied motet. Some other options are given in the History tab:
…in nineteenth-century England, organists would extemporise a stylistically similar introduction to a choral anthem.3 Organists were taught to elaborate on a specific musical idea from the subsequent anthem, keeping the same meter of the anthem, and ending on either the tonic or dominant keys.4
A rehearsal accompanist will likely be required to play the piano or organ during choral warm-ups. How much you play with the choir should be discussed with the conductor prior to rehearsal. Take time to develop the following skills so that they are available to you during warm-up sessions, whether you are leading them yourself or following a conductor:
- Choral warm-ups often move up or down by half-step or whole-step. Be prepared to play a major or minor chord in every key, and follow along with the choir so that you know what key they are in at all times.
- Be able to play every major scale ascending and descending.
- Be able to play a dominant-to-tonic chord progression in every major key.
- Allow for an adequate amount of breathing time between exercises.
- When accompanying warm-ups on the organ, use a simple registration such as an 8′ string and flute together on the Swell. Using loud organ registrations may encourage singers to sing too loudly, or with tension.
- When accompanying a specific exercise, do not play every note in every key. Once the choir knows their task, add variety to your accompaniments by leaving out the melody sometimes, only playing harmonies while they sing the melody, or playing a counter melody such as parallel thirds or sixths.
Litten, Nancy. Choral and Vocal Warm-Ups for Pianists. Essex, UK: 2015.
- Joyce Grill, Accompanying Basics (San Diego: Kjos West, 1987), 32.
- Janette Fishell, email message to author, January 7, 2019.
- J. Frederick Bridge, Organ Accompaniment of the Choral Service (London: Novello and Co., 1885), 17.
- H.W. Richards, The Organ Accompaniment of the Church Services (Boston: G. Schirmer, 1911), 108–112.