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Expectations for an Accompanist

Date: Sat, 25 Jul 1998 14:50:03 +0000
From: Bob Griffith
Subject: Choral Accompanist Comp--long

Thanks to the 36 "listers" who responded with their excellent ideas
on "Qualities Expected in a Choral Accompanist".

Almost all respondents listed one or more of the following general,
fundamental requirements:
• technical competence on the keyboard instrument
• knowledge of both the accompaniment and choral parts
• knowledge of performance practice in all styles relevant to the
repertoire being rehearsed/performed
• ability to play all combinations of vocal parts together
• should be a good sight reader
• ability to follow the conductor... always deferring to the conductor's
• disagree with conductor only in private
• should anticipate ("mind reader") a conductor's instructions
• alert at all times to choristers' needs
• general flexibility

To conserve space in this compilation, however, those kinds of basic
comments (above) -- have been left out of most individual responses
noted below.

With that in mind, hopefully you will enjoy the following summary of
responses on the topic . . .


. . . "Qualities Expected in a Choral Accompanist"


Mark Tuning - conductor:
1) Flexibility. 2) Listens for ensemble with the choir.

Gary Weidenaar- conductor- choral singer - accompanist:
1) Breathe, phrase, and play like a singer.
2) Knowing when to come out and when to hold back.
3) Feeling of fusion with the singers, conductor to become a part of
the [ensemble].
4) Do not play notes or other parts without being asked.

Christine A. Hoffman - conductor - choral singer - accompanist
1) suppress own interpretation... follow conductor's wishes.
2) "breathe" (in the largest sense) with the chorus.

Kirin Nielsen - conductor - choral singer - student
1) Knowledge of the scoring of the original accompaniment, if it is not
for keyboard
2) Ability to reduce full instrumental accompaniment
3) Ability to transpose (within reason)
4) Skills in foreign languages and in vocal coaching, if necessary
5) Knowing how to lead a sectional rehearsal
6) Experience playing organ and harpsichord well

Stan Yoder - conductor:
1) Precise sight reading is first in importance
2) Left hand accuracy is extremely important
3) Patience and helpful attitude with choristers
4) An understanding of the vocal instrument
5) Dependability in prompt attendance

Tony Mowrer - conductor - singer - conducting teacher:
1) First, a good musician, not just a pianist
2) Ability to stay with the conductor
3) Be able to anticipate what the conductor will do... Listen to the
choir while playing to understand why the conductor stopped.

Bruce MacIntyre - conductor
1) Listen to what's being sung -- to adjust to changes in tempo,
balance, acoustics, etc.
2) Good taste ... knowledge of various styles. (For example, knowing how
much/little pedaling to use at the piano for accompaniments of various
style periods.

David McCormick - conductor and accompanist.
(a) Anticipating: (1) the likely trouble spots for the choir, (2)
how to help them in those places.

(b) Dealings with Conductor:
(1) Think as an "extension" of the conductor, knowing (in
rehearsal!) when to recede into the background and perhaps drop away
completely to leave the singers on their own, when to play in octaves so
the part can really be heard, when to drop the "easy" parts and
concentrate on the tenor and alto lines if they are having trouble.
(2) Knowing how much initiative in such matters the conductor
will allow, encourage, tolerate. (Discuss these and other
issues/differences privately.)

(c) In performance must know the difference between support for the
singers and an independent part for the piano which is equal to the

(d) In many instances the accompanist is a better musician than the
conductor, and ought to be paid well!

Lynette Johnson - choral singer
Effective choral accompanists must:
1) Understand the singers needs . . . including:
        a. reinforcement of individual vocal lines as needed
(IF the director wants this).
        b. give starting pitches slowly.
2) Understand that the DIRECTOR is running the rehearsal and his/her
authority or expertise should never be
questioned in front of the choir.

Susan Marrier
• Sensitivity to the choral line;
• Willingness to collaborate with the conductor but also to subordinate
his/her own interpretation when necessary!

Kevin Sutton - Conductor
1. Alertness in the rehearsal. I should seldom have to tell the pianist
where we are starting.
2. Punctuality, dependability, and a good sense of humor!

Mary Lycan - I'm a conductor.
My splendid accompanist is:
1) a fine musician whose interpretation lifts up the musical level of
the chorus.
2) solid on reading any combination of voices at any time.
3) apparently telepathic--she finds her place instantly. Even when I
say the wrong thing, she knows to do what I mean instead of what I say.
In short, she is not one more person to teach the music, but a real
musical partner, a peer.

Susan Mueller – conductor - occasional accompanist
1. A good accompanist must be very alert: must hear the same things
the conductor does, even noticing where the conductors eyes turn at a
stop so she can be prepared with pitches for the next segment of
2. This same alertness to the small gestures of the conductor or the
slight changes in a singer's vocal production indicating a tempo change
makes the accompanist a good follower.
3. Understand that sometimes a choir (never the conductor!) has to be
4. Know and understand the weaknesses of the ensemble. The simple
matter of playing the tenor part just a little louder or accenting that
B flat the altos keep missing saves hours in rehearsal time nobody even
knows about.
5. Phrasing with the choir, or soloist, is a must. Therefore the
accompanist must mentally sing everything she plays.
6. But I think the #1 quality of a great accompanist is
selflessness... always putting the choir or soloist first, even to the
point of making it appear that the soloist's mistakes were actually

Terry Sanford - At one point or another... conductor, accompanist,
1. Sublimate your own musical ideas and follow someone else's.
Everything else follows from this.
2. Ability to keep a steady rhythm.
3. Ability to transpose up or down at least a third on sight.
4. Confident enough technique to play everything, yet knowing what to
leave out.
5. An agreeable confident personality even in the face of high -- even
unreasonable and conflicting-- expectations from conductors, singers.

Mark Nabholz - conductor
1. Think with me in rehearsal - arrive at a rehearsal point at the same
instant I do.
2. Play accurately - especially when "pounding parts".
One mistake while helping the tenors learn their part (for instance) can
take five or six accurate playings to undo.

Monica J. Hubbard"
I am grateful for a choral accompanist who:
1. is a superb "collaborative" keyboard artist
2. has the ability to hear problems with singers as they're occurring
and thus the ability to unobtrusively lend support from the keyboard
3. knows how and when to give pitches and/or lend keyboard support RE
the style of the music and in a manner that keeps the rehearsal moving
forward smoothly
4. And, of course, we're all blessed when we have a keyboard
collaborative artist who is also a coach and can assist with languages,
sectionals, etc.

BEN LEGETT - conductor/singer

Qualities should include:
1. Musicianship
2. Experience as a choral singer
3. Improvisation skills
4. Personal: • strong sense of responsibility for the success of the
performance; • sense of humor; • commitment to the organization

Bruce Phelps - conductor and accompanist
Assuming that technical abilities are in place, here are two important
1. Be able to think with the conductor to anticipate trouble spots,
starting spots, pitches to give, etc.
2. Be versatile -- handle a wide variety of styles.

Martha Springstead - choral director and accompanist
• ability to follow the conductor.
• I prefer my accompanists to be excellent sight-readers, as my teacher
highlighted that as the most important quality of any accompanist.

Charles E. Ruzicka
1. a solid sense of rhythm
2. should take direction well - both verbal and visual
3. must understand that accompanist does not imply "soloist"
1. NEVER take the accompanist for granted; a smile and a "thank you"
at the end of the rehearsal is always proper.
2. Allow ample time for the accompanist to prepare the music.
3. [Set up] conductor and accompanist rehearsals (prior to presenting
music to the choir) to help eliminate surprises.

Ruth Becker - conductor, accompanist
1. [Anticipate] the conductor for nuances, phrasing, etc. and be
extremely sensitive to the dynamics, energy, rhythm, etc. of the piece.
2. Always acquiesce to the conductor and know how to follow. Be
sensitive to the rehearsal techniques of the conductor so as to enhance,
rather than compete in the rehearsal process.

Bob Meyer - conductor, occasional accompanist
• watchfulness (of the conductor) - be able to look up!!
• attentiveness during rehearsal to follow what's going on; • BE THERE
when the director needs a notes punched, etc.

Ryc Williamson - conductor
• track rehearsal to predict where the conductor will start next & have
starting pitches ready.
• a soft touch for rehearsing "pianissimo".

Tony Funk
In my experience the best quality I'd look for (after being a superb
accompanist) is personality. If we don't jive, music making becomes a

Scott Campbell - conductor, professional singer
Most important qualities of an accompanist:
• musical sensitivity
• ability to adapt / improvise - when the score hits the floor, the
lights go out, and the singers skip two pages!
• reliability
• ability to play almost anything and to realize what helps singers
- see #1.
• having an amenable personality - not cantankerous- saint-like!
• ability to play "by ear" can be invaluable
Next you should compile a list of what conductors need for
accompanists!!! If we all were to realize good accompanists are more
important than good directors and treat them accordingly, there might
not be a shortage!!

Marc Ferguson - conductor, accompanist, and choral singer.

1) Be a support for the conductor — verbally affirm him/her
privately and to the ensemble. Give input when requested.
2) Get to know the ensemble personnel. Often they can give input or
suggestions to the accompanist when they aren't comfortable doing so to
the conductor.
3) Be on the lookout for repertoire to assist director in finding
pieces that would suit the ensemble.

Tom Lumb - choral singer
You do not specify whether you want to hear the qualities required
of a rehearsal or performance accompanist. I will refer to both
(R or P):
• A high level of musicianship (R and P, but esp P);
• Knowing the strengths and weaknesses of both the director and the
choir (R);
• A good ear and the ability to pick the intonation and rhythm problems
even before the musical director does - and then emphasize the correct
versions, sometimes just for one part (R);
• Patience, and the willingness to repeat the same couple of bars, ad
infinitum (R);
• To be available to help with sectionals outside the scheduled
rehearsals - especially for us tenors! (R);
• An ability to walk on water might help, too. - I'm sure ours can!

Robert Fullerton
Three qualities come to mind almost instantly.
1) excellent sight-reading skills, particularly open scores.
2) willingness to suffer boredom. Some rehearsals are tedious,
repetitive. Boring, but essential.
3) sacrifice his/her artistic interpretation to that of the director.

Susan Noble
• First... I was a choral singer for more than 40 years, starting with
my first church choir at about age 7. Nothing infuriates me more than
an accompanist who doesn't "track" the conductor. The accompanist must
know where the conductor is likely to go after a stop and also the
ability to "anticipate" and be ready to start anew promptly.
• Second after that, a sensitivity to the music. Rehearsal accompanying
is not merely a matter of providing the notes (although of course
sometimes that is a component), nor of creating a "generalized" version
of what may well be an organ or orchestral accompaniment -- it must be
music with its own merits.

Jean Smith
1. I think the single most important quality in a choral accompanist
is the ability to follow the director regardless of what the director
2. The second most important quality in a choral accompanist is the
ability to learn new music accurately and quickly.  It is much easier to
teach a choir new music when the accompaniment is played correctly. 

Andrea Bird - student, choral singer
Our [college choir] accompanist is like a mother to the choir. If
anyone goofs off, she gives this look, and that is the end of the
goofing off. I don't know if being a disciplinarian is part of being a
good accompanist- that's just part of her charming personality.

Craig Hawkins - conductor, accompanist
I think THE most important qualities in an accompanist are:
1) the ability to take direction/constructive criticism
2) the ability to follow the director. Some qualities I assume are
already there, such as musicianship, technique, etc.

Sarah Meredith - accompanist and conductor
• an open mind--especially if your personal interpretation differs from
the conductor
• a quick mind--being able to think with and even ahead of the conductor
for rehearsals
• flexibility--especially with nonprofessionals, concerts can be very
different from rehearsals, and accompanists sometimes have to "cover"
for the choir and its soloists
• true love for choral music--it's not just a job, it's an adventure,
and you gotta love it or it can be painful!

Robert Miller - conductor
1. The accompanist should not attempt to overshadow the director. If
he/she has conflicting ideas these should be discussed before the
2. Come prepared to play each piece as written.
3. Be attentive to the directors instructions. Stop promptly when
directed by the director etc..

Diane Loomer - conductor
• keyboard fluency: (a) all keys (b) play by ear in all keys (c) be
able to read anything
• understand style and interpretation of historical periods
• Helpful hints: 1. when in doubt - leave it out 2. be at the
keyboard early 3. grow two more eyes and two more ears 4. develop
some basic conducting skills 5. be prepared to run a rehearsal - even
from the keyboard

Terre Johnson
Hi, Bob,
You might wish to check my Dissertation from Florida State
University, 1993, on Competencies of the College Choral Accompanist. It
was a survey driven project which sought responses from the groups you
identify, then combines their responses in a hierarchical list of
competencies. Check under my full name, Terrence Alan Johnson.

If you would like to receive an unabridged hard copy of the entire
text (several pages) of the responses, please send me a self-addressed,
envelope and $1.00 (US) to cover the postage and paper. Or, upon
request, I'll e-mail it to you privately.

Bob Griffith
Dept of Music
The University of Memphis
Memphis, TN 38152

901-684-6660 fax
on November 4, 2002 10:00pm
In this section, many skills and requirements are listed, and I think all of them have their place and reason. Thus, I won't attempt to name any more. What I would like to do is give some advice to those advanced accompanists.

1. Consider yourself the right-hand man (or woman) to the conductor. His wish is your command. You may have your ideas and understandings of the way things ought to be, but he's the boss. Follow him like a hawk, and attempt to bring out HIS meaningfulness in the phrases.

2. Get to know the weaknesses of the different parts. You will then know, when playing parts, which voice to play stronger. Also, become familiar with their musical tendencies, and attempt to complement that in your playing.

3. Along the lines of playing parts: When playing a single part, it is many times difficult to hear the voice line on the piano, especially if there are many on that part. Play the voice line in two octaves--the true octave and the one above it. Naturally, you must always respect phrasing and rhythms...OBEY THE RESTS!!!

4. You are the orchestra that accompanies the choir. Play as such. Don't fiddle-faddle with the piano. It is a marvelous instrument when used properly. Let the trumpets ring out, let the violins be expressive, the contrabass steady, and the reeds flowing (no pun intended).

5. I am a semiprofessional singer and choir/orchestra director, and have studied accompaniment and sacred piano since I was 6. The one thing that I have learned through the years is that the difference between a good choir and a great choir is the accompanist. Don't take your position lightly. I don't say you CAN make a difference; I say you ARE the difference.

Christian Lindsey

Musical Director of La Agrupaci
on May 7, 2004 10:00pm
I think it is very important that an accompanist has a very good relationship and understanding of the conductor.

They both need to become one in a way.

on July 26, 2005 10:00pm
The characteristics of a superior accompanist:
- Be able to sight-read your pants off! =)
- Know the choral score and how it fits together theoritically and be able to read atleast a 4-part open vocal score.
- Be able to transpose down a minor third at sight.
- Be able to adapt orchestral and organ accompaniments for piano supported rehearsals.
- Posses atleast some basic organ skills.
- Be able to play by rote.
- Exhibit the style of the piece being performed.
- Be able to look up at the conductor!
- Be able to phrase and breathe with the choir.
- Have a great working relationship with the conductor!
on June 4, 2006 10:00pm
The Perfect Accompanist is one that:
-Is able to sightread at least 4 vocal parts at once
-Phrase, breath and even sing while playing.
-Knows and sings each and every vocal part.
-Has an excellent ear for intonation.
-Is able to conduct and carry-on when the conductor is absent.
-Is able to think like and anticipate the condutor's actions.
-Is able to serve as a coach for indiviual voices.
-Is able to improvise during unexpected circumstances.
-Is able to prepare a score to the conductor's exact specifications.
-Has at least a small amount of knowledge about the voice.
-Has a great sense of melodic line, legato, and expression.
on October 21, 2006 10:00pm
A fine choral accompanist needs to be sensitive to the conductor and what he/she is trying to communicate first in a rehearsal setting and then in a concert venue. A fine accompanist will also know what their role is and is not. It is never the accompanists role to act or make decisions as if they were the conductor or to promote their own agendas masked as their role as accompanist. Too often when I hear conductors speak of accompanists there is an attitude of fear that if we treat them as the professionals they are they will become offended and to avoid this we as conductors must give them special consideration. An accompanist is paid just as a conductor is paid, they are therefore expected to perform in a professional/artistic/sensitive/musical role. All the qualities listed in the other responses above are of course required and not every fine accompanists is going to posses all those qualities and some of the above mentioned will be stronger in some then others. My bottom line is that if a pianist is going to call them self a professional accompanist they need to know what that role is just as a conductor must know what their role is before they attach the name of accompanist or conductor to their resume. A conductor should never feel that they are to be grateful to an accompanist for doing the job that they were contracted to do and any accompanist who does not understand that no matter how strong their keyboard skills is going to frustrate and derail a choir program. Professionalism is a two way street and an accompanist is only as good as the conductor he/she supports and the choir is only as strong as the team (conductor/accompanist) that leads them.
on March 14, 2008 10:00pm
I feel that there are many good things listed here...but in my mind...

My accompanist has always been my partner in creating the sound...the accompanist should know who's in charge, but never afraid to share an opinion. I am a young conductor, and my accompanist has been around the music world for years, and there are times when she says something or plays something that helps me come up with a new picture that i have not thought about before.

I feel that the accompanist should know the conductor so well that he/she would be able to take over a rehearsal in an instant, knowing the expectations of the conductor. I meet with my accompanist every week, we discuss ideas, thoughts on the sound...sometimes we even attend other concerts together, trying to become a team that can do the best for my 50 voice choir!