This series of three articles will present some ideas and suggestions for conductors working with accompanists, both keyboard players and instrumental ensembles in parish settings. The preparation of sacred choral music is a labor of love, and a gift to the church. This labor is perceptible to and deeply appreciated by the congregation, and the quality of commitment is as important as the quality of performance in building up the Body. It deserves the cantor’s and choir’s best attention and musicianship.
The Lutheran cantor has often been expected to lead the choir as well as the assembly in worship from the keyboard, and is most often the best keyboard performer in the parish. Many other denominations, and some Lutheran churches, divide the keyboard and choral directing responsibilities regularly. Those of us who lead rehearsals and choral service singing from the keyboard realize that our attention to our own playing can compromise our hearing of choral detail such as accuracy, intelligibility, intonation, and expression. Issues of balance and coordination with other instrumentalists also suffer, often in rough proportion to the difficulty of the keyboard part. Recruiting, and even training keyboardists and other instrumentalists from the congregation expands the range of repertoire available, and allows the cantor to focus on the choir and actual sound of its offering to the spiritual life of the parish. It also provides a place in the family of God for those of us with instrumental musical gifts.
Ignoring for now the “who’s in charge?” variables for the cantor/organist who oversees a choral director, these comments are for church choral conductors when leading accompanists.
Keyboard and solo instruments with choir
- Accompanists are not born, they are recruited and cultivated. The prevalence of karaoke systems in public school choral programs and churches is reducing the opportunity for young keyboard players to learn the art of collaborating. Just as the choir serves as a “small group,” building a connection to the congregation for its members, the invitation to accompany is a call into the holy order of church music leadership.
In the August 2012 issue of the ACDA Choral Journal, Kayla Leichty Paulk gives a thoughtful and well-written discussion of cultivating “the accompanist as collaborating musician and co-trainer.”
- The playing of a pianist as choral and assembly accompanist requires different balance within the piano part itself than the pianist is used to in solo playing. In accompanying, whether choir or assembly, strength of melody depends on need and familiarity, but most critical is a confident and prominent bass line.
A practical note: When teaching parts, doubling at the same octave tends to be hard for the singers to distinguish. Play parts an octave higher or lower, or even doubled at the octave while the choir is singing.
- The accompaniment sets the style for the piece. When it doubles parts, the accompaniment provides important cues for breathing and accentuation. Accompaniments also signal and reinforce change of dynamics, tempo, and tonality. Be clear with the accompanist where you expect breaths and other changes, in advance of the rehearsal if possible. Enforce them from the beginning; they are not added easily in later rehearsals.
The piano is a percussion instrument; however, it does not support or model choral sound. Though the organ sustains, and therefore blends with voices more naturally, all notes are equally loud. Subtle dynamic changes and sensitive choral releases are hard to emulate. These points are exactly where the conductor, unencumbered by playing responsibility, can lead the music from prosaic to truly communicative.
- When accompaniments are particularly difficult, less conducting is more. Correct dynamics or articulation verbally after stopping. Once the music starts, the instrumentalist will play best when allowed to concentrate on what s/he has prepared.
- Reductions of cantata and oratorio scores are often horrendously hard, and demoralizing (not to mention taxing) to play. Learning what to leave out is a sophisticated skill that must be understood by the conductor and taught if necessary.
- Solo instruments playing obbligato lines add a beautiful color to the choir’s offering, and make a place for accomplished adult or teenage instrumentalists to share their gifts. Taking an half hour before the choir rehearsal to conduct and rehearse the obbligato with the keyboard accompanist will get the soloist comfortable, give the two of you a chance to develop the part’s expressive potential, and remind you to cue them when the singers arrive! Cuing entrances is essential especially in performance, but except for changes of tempo, you can’t help them play quite in the same way a sensitive conductor encourages a choir. In florid passagework particularly, it’s best to stay out of the way. Scheduling the piece first after warmups uses their time most respectfully.
- Working with single-line instruments as the only accompaniment requires tremendous virtuosity and stability from the instrumentalist, and pitch consistency from the choir. Works like John Ferguson’s “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” with solo viola can be very striking when accompanied by an accomplished soloist.
Thanks to my colleague Lorraine Brugh for her modeling, and editorial suggestions.