Being an accompanist – a view from the piano

Well!  Where to start?  Being an accompanist can be the most exciting and thrilling experience – and it can also be very occasionally scary!  I’ve had the pleasure of accompanying many different groups, from cathedral choirs to solo singers, choral societies to school productions.  There are so many nuances that come with the territory, working with musical directors and their differing methods, different instruments and venues to name a few.

My earliest experience of having to accompany anything was when I was 14.  I had been having organ lessons for around 6 months, and our local parish church needed someone to play for midnight mass (as the incumbent organist was not keen on being out at night).  This was to be my first ever accompanying engagement – only a church full of 150 people, a choir and extra hymns and carols to play for!  I was terrified – having to actually play hymns with people singing and keep in time, listen for consonants to work out which verse we were all on, play the fun last verses from the various Carols for Choirs books – and improvise when required.  This really was being thrown in at the deep end!  I came out elated, unscathed, but exhausted.

This led to several years of playing at various churches on Sunday mornings in and around Peterborough every week – practising my trade, as it were, learning new music, meeting different people.  Most of this was me alone at the console, just getting on with it, no choir.  I was lucky to be taught by one of the Peterborough Cathedral organists, Mark Duthie.  A master of accompanying (and word painting in particular) I picked up some brilliant (if slightly naughty) tricks and habits from him.  The hymn ‘He who would valiant be’ has a super line of ‘though he with giants fight’ – this, for me, meant bringing out all the low, trembly, thunderous stops – I distinctly remember being partly ‘told off’ for doing this at one church!

Accompanying isn’t all about playing the right notes all the time (as I’m sure many of you have noticed...), but supporting the music going on elsewhere in the room.  Sight reading is one of my favourite things to do, reading lots of lines of music and making sense of where the music is going, and what it is doing.  For me, it is about supporting everything that is happening in a rehearsal or concert, predicting what might happen next and then acting on it! Working with different conductors is exciting as well, getting to know mannerisms and movements, and taking the rehearsal, in some sort of ghosted parallel with them.  Lots of ‘if this were me, we’d go back to page 5 now, probably with the basses, I better play an F# for them just before he tells them...’.  The partnership between conductor and accompanist, I have often thought, can make or break a rehearsal.  You must be on the same page/stave and in the same key/note!  Sometimes this can take a bit of getting used to, but often becomes a well-oiled machine over time.

The most exhilarating moments of accompanying have been those last-minute changes of plan – perhaps the conductor is ill, and there is no other option than to go it alone.  A few years ago, I was lucky enough to be working with the King’s Lynn Festival Chorus.  One evening, the conductor was delayed (puncture in the car tyre, I think?).  We were working on the Mahler’s epic Symphony 8.  For those who don’t know, it is a monstrously large work – double-double choir, hundreds in the orchestra, all sorts of peculiar extras like brass bands, mandolins, organ etc.  Well...I’m at the piano, surrounded by 130 singers, and I have to rehearse the music with them.  8 different vocal lines on the score, with the solo lines also included, the piano part is a ‘reduction’(?!) of the orchestra, and there are page turns seemingly every 2 seconds!  And to make matters worse, I couldn’t sit down, as my vertically challenged nature meant no one would be able to see me!  I definitely earned my money that evening.  As a side note, my first rehearsal with the choir was with the same piece, and a cat managed to get into the school and within seconds came and sat on the piano and told me which notes weren’t quite purr-fect....I did wonder what I had let myself in for!!

Things don’t always go to plan.  My most frustrating and embarrassing moment took place when I was organ scholar at Wakefield Cathedral.  There are two organ consoles, with one being in the nave.  When this one was used, there was a button which HAD to be pressed on the main console, otherwise you would be unable to reduce the number of stops used.  At one of my first carol services playing for the choir, we had completed the opening carol – cathedral full, lots of loud singing, full organ at the end.  The next piece was a very quiet, gentle piece for the choristers to sing, which started unaccompanied, before me joining in a bit later.  I had to give a quiet chord.  I chose a suitable stop on the nave organ, and when indicated I played the simple D major chord.  Disaster – I had forgotten the special button.  The chord I actually played was a thunderously loud full organ sound – the congregation almost jumped out of their seats, the choir were a mix of shocked, annoyance, and stifled laughter, and the conductor was...well...to put it mildly ‘unimpressed’.  Anyway, the choir did start the piece – and I then ran to the other console (quite some distance away), pressed the correct button – but then had no choice but to stay there and accompany, blind, for the remainder of the piece, as I didn’t have time to get back before my next entry.  I was not in the good books that day!

There have been lots of funny moments at the piano.  One of the most bizarre I can recall was at a school concert back in Norfolk around 10 years ago.  All the department buildings had their own alarms, rather than one centralised one.  We were halfway through a solo performance evening when we heard the distinct sound of the burglar alarm in the technology block.  Jokingly, my boss suggested out loud to the audience ‘It’s OK, Mr Brown will just improvise something that fits’.  Challenge accepted!  For several minutes the audience were entertained’ with various tunes, including (but not limited to)  Thomas the Tank Engine, Beethoven 5th, EastEnders, Postman Pat, some of the pieces already played that evening (but in a lounge piano style), O come all ye faithful...it was very, very silly! 

I’m sure there are many other anecdotes I could include, but maybe they can wait for another day. 

Stay safe everyone, take care, and hope to see you soon.

‘The chap at the keys’

Chris