Teaching Your Piano Students How to Accompany

Jennifer participates as an author on the Music Teacher Helper’s Blog, and posts an article once a month.  This article was posted on May 1, 2009.

erika-april-2007Most piano students take lessons with the intention of being solo performers, without realizing that at some point in their years as a pianist, they will undoubtedly be asked to take on the roll as an accompanist. The piano is the most commonly used instrument to accompany both vocalists and instrumentalists, and all great accompanists you see today, at some point in their training, had to learn the art of accompanying.

You notice I used the word “art” when referring to accompanying skills. Just because you can play the piano well, does not mean that you can accompany well. It truly is an art form that takes much hands-on experience to learn and perfect. I love what the great American accompanist Irwin Cage said, “There are many great accompanists who are very good pianists, but there are not many pianists who are good accompanists.”

We as teachers can provide our students with opportunities to learn and practice this skill while in their early years during lessons.

I will list a few suggestions of ways that you can help your students learn to accompany:

  • Include simple vocal music as part of their practicum. These can be hymns, patriotic songs, Christmas tunes, or popular music from the radio (as most of my teenage students prefer). Even if you don’t have the best voice, you can sing along as they play the accompaniment part to train them how to keep up with a vocalist. Be sure that they know how to find and play an introduction, and know how to skip ahead to catch up with you if they make a mistake.
  • Invite students to accompany other students for recitals. This is a great way for young pianists to get a hands-on experience accompanying in a public setting. If your studio is piano-only, they can accomplish this task by either playing duets with another student (or you), or if they are advanced enough they can play orchestral reductions for large scale pieces such as concertos. For multi-instrumental studios, young pianists have a great chance to play for stringed instruments, brass, or woodwinds. You can also coordinate with other instrumental or vocal teachers in your area to have your students accompany at their recitals.
  • Encourage your students to volunteer to play at church or school. There is always a need for accompanists in these settings, whether it is for choir practice, or running through music for the school play. Typically a pianist need not to be an advanced level either, but just have the ability to play parts and fill-in where needed. This is a great opportunity for young accompanists to learn to play parts and follow an ensemble.
  • Have your students be included on a call list for festivals. For your more advanced piano students who perhaps enjoy the limelight a little more and dread the thought of accompanying, this is a perfect opportunity for them. Most high school aged students do festival competitions each year and are always looking for accompanists. In this situation, the accompanist is as much an equal partner in the performance as the soloist. This somewhat-high stress performance situation can refine the skills of any advanced player wanting to fine tune their ability to perform in an ensemble. Not to mention, accompanists are usually compensated generously for their time in these types of opportunities.

Perhaps the most difficult part of teaching your piano students to accompany, is helping them to realize that they are not the “star of the show” in these performances, but are no less important. The accompanist is a vital part of the performance. They can make a performance a huge success, or completely throw it off.

Lastly, I present to you my list of ten great attributes to obtain as an accompanist. My “10 Be-Attitudes of Accompanying”:

1. Be a great Sight reader.

2. Be able to play without always watching your hands

3. Be able to play while watching a conductor, or soloist.

4. Be an active listener, and watcher.

5. Be able to match the soloists style and phrasing.

6. Be a team player, instead of the “star”.

7. Be able to ad-lib if necessary.

8. Be able to voice properly (If the soloist is in a high range, bring out the lower range of the piano more).

9. Be able to skip ahead or vamp if a soloist gets nervous and jumps a few measures.

10. Be the best pianist you know how to be.

May you be able to turn your fine little pianists into fine little accompanists as well, and have fun in the journey.

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One response to “Teaching Your Piano Students How to Accompany

  1. Comments from the Music Teacher Helper’s Site:

    1.Thank you, Jennifer – for a most insightful article on preparing our students for a future as collaborative artists. I can honestly admit that with the piano students I have, only an eighth of them have any interest in accompanying. I can only hope to change that, especially with inspiration from your article! Thanks again, Jennifer – and all the best in your world!
    by Alex Thio — Sun May 3, 2009 @ 8:05 am

    2.I just recently saw a play called OLD WICKED SONGS in which a young pianist went to Vienna to study with a great master, but before he could work with him, he was required to learn the Schumann Dichterliebe and work with an old accompanist and vocal coach (and the subsequent plot twist was that he seemed anti-Semitic but turned out to be a holocaust survivor). The pianist fights it at first but becomes a better musician/collaborative pianist/solo pianist as a result.
    by Christine O’Meally — Mon May 4, 2009 @ 1:49 am

    3.Oh, and as a voice teacher, I just wanted to add that I went to a piano teacher to work on my technical chops and wanted to work specifically on pieces I would be accompanying in my studio and found that she just wanted to give me the same old same old rep with which she was familiar. That was all well and good but it wasn’t what I needed, and I didn’t have time to try to learn my accompaniments AND the assigned rep, so I wound up stopping.
    by Christine O’Meally — Mon May 4, 2009 @ 1:51 am

    4.I also try to have my voice studio learn how to work WITH a pianist so that they know what to do to make the accompanying part easier. How do you breathe so that the pianist knows when to come in? What kind of vowel placement will help the pianist know you want to speed up/slow the tempo? How do you work with a pianist you’ve never seen before & you’re auditioning?? This is OUR job as teachers of those who work with collaborative pianists.
    by Rachel Velarde — Tue May 5, 2009 @ 11:32 pm

    5.I remember my first accompanying class at the Royal college of Music in England (were talking almost three decades ago)! It really was and still is all about opening your ears and LISTENING.

    Thanks for your informative blog article.
    by Dan the Music Master — Thu May 7, 2009 @ 8:10 am

    6.Thank you for a very helpful article. One of my piano students is volunteering to accompany violinists at a summer music camp and I couldn’t be more thrilled.

    If a student is new at accompanying, I would encourage him or her to attend the lesson of the person they are accompanying. It is vital that vocal and instrumental teachers teach their students how to breathe, gives cues, and lead.

    Thank you again for your ideas.
    by Amber C. White — Mon Jun 1, 2009 @ 5:43 pm

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