Accompanying is something I’m passionate about. Solo performance is not my strong suit; it is important and something I constantly seek to improve in, but it is not my passion. Going on 18 years of being a church pianist in various forms, I’ve come to realize how essential being a good accompanist is. I am no professional musician, so please remember that as you consider my tips 🙂 . However, I have been gleaning ideas and observations from truly professional musicians for years, and I know God has helped me incorporate much of what their examples teach me.
Being a good accompanist is imperative for a church pianist, because the only solo pieces you find yourself performing are usually offertories. Much more often you find yourself playing while others sing or play their instruments. In any given Sunday I accompany no less than 8 songs – and that number can easily jump to 15 or more if I am the pianist at night, too, or if it is cantata time!
My goal as an accompanist varies based on who and what I am playing for. Is it a vocalist? Is this a choir piece? Are we singing the first congregational hymn? What is the spirit of the church this evening? Is this song happy or somber? Does the vocalist need me to keep her on track or do I need to simply follow her? You see, some vocalists need the encouragement of bold playing for them to sing out. Others expect me to match the rise and fall of their own dynamics. When accompanying, it is not your time to shine. I enjoy coming up with variations for song playing, but only to the extent that it doesn’t take away from the vocalist.
Learn to sightread! Do you know how many times I’ve been asked to sight read music?! (Keep reading to find out what pushed me to learn to sightread!) Congregational music is half sight reading, too! My music director in college really pushed me in this area…and I am so grateful he did. He expected me to be able to play the choir music for rehearsal well enough that I was not throwing off the entire choir. Sight reading is something I’ve heard skilled musicians say they “can’t” do – but I beg to differ. We all can if we practice.
For the sake of background, I have a story for you! I remember one time when I was 15 or so, there was a music workshop at our church for young people. It challenged me in my vocal skills but also in my piano skills – because at that workshop, I realized how little learning I had put into my music…instead, mostly to that point I had relied on any natural ability I had. I’ll never forget how embarrassed I was when one of the teachers at that workshop asked me to play the piano accompaniment for the choir music we were learning together. I complied because I assumed I could – however, a few measures in to it I had botched it so badly that he asked me to stop. Yep, that was embarrassing, especially in front of your teen friends. That instance taught me a very valuable lesson, though – that I had better learn to sightread – and to this day I have that instance etched in my memory.
Remember that God says to make a joyful noise – and He also says to do things decently and in order. He desires for us to do our best in whatever we do. Practicing and improving musical abilities us a huge part of doing our best!