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Choral Accompanying

I am a sophomore undergraduate looking to improve my piano skills particularly in regards to accompanying choruses and opera coaching and I was wondering what things I could do to better my accompanying? My plan (thus far) is to really work sight reading by using Bach chorales. I also plan to learn some Bach 2 & 3 part Inventions to work on playing several voices clearly at the same time. 
With that said, any other ideas of particular drills/literature I should play to improve? 
Many Thanks!
Replies (11): Threaded | Chronological
on May 11, 2012 2:01am
I suggest sight-reading/practicing playing the vocal parts in printed music that uses at least four separate staves for the vocal parts, either pieces that have accompaniment or a cappella pieces that do not have a piano reduction. Start with any two non-contiguous parts (e.g. Soprano/Tenor, Alto/Bass, or Soprano/Bass); then do three parts, then four. This is not only good training for you as an accompanist, but also as a potential conductor, because it helps you see all of the parts rather than focusing in on just one or two lines of the score. Eventually try working from full orchestral scores; Britten's War Requiem will blow your mind.
Russell Thorngate
on May 11, 2012 5:00am
I would also work on sight reading open score, and octave displacements.  Also pratice playing different combinations of voicings - SB, ST, ATB, TB, etc, both with and without accompaniment or an underlying chord structure.  Once you feel fairly comfortable, see if you can find a choir, church, opera or theatre company to volunteer your time.  Everything changes once you're with a group, following a conductor, jumping to different points within a piece.  Good luck!
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on May 11, 2012 8:21am
After your planned process and you follow Kate's advice re: open score and voice combinations then begin to look into transcriptions and reductions of orchestral accompaniment (acquire the piano-vocal scores for some large works like Messiah, Elijah) and go to work.  You'll find sufficient challenges to keep you busy for a long while and you'll start establishing a foundation of standard repertoire.
Have fun!
Scott Dean
on May 11, 2012 1:40pm
Matthew:  The absolute best thing you can do is stop self-teaching and GET PIANO LESSONS WITH A DEMANDING TEACHER, from now until you graduate.  And you dont' get to take the summer off!  And I don't mean the "Piano Class" courses that are in fact remedial for something you should have started when you were 7, and only prepare you to pass limited requirements.  BECOME A PIANIST!  It's way too late to become a GOOD pianist, but learn to play the instrument at whatever level you can manage to accomplish.  And a good teacher will know what you need to work on so you don't have to ask a bunch of choral conductors!
All the best,
on May 13, 2012 10:31am
It's rather rude to say "it's too late to become a GOOD pianist." Good pianists maybe don't have the most stellar technique and maybe can't sit and play everything Liszt wrote but good pianists are also Good Musicians, regardless of their ability. 
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on May 11, 2012 2:51pm
In order to become a good choral accompanist you have accompany choirs!  In addition to all the good advice folks have given you here, I would suggest you find a choir to accompany right now, with your beginning skills. Since you are just starting this, I would see if there was a church children's choir you could volunteer to play for around your university town or home town over the summer.  Everything changes when you have real people singing and kids are very forgiving. 
Incidently, I am giving you this advice but  have actually put it to practice with my own son.  As an 8 and 9 year old, he was a fine pianist already but I wanted him to be able to earn enough money to eat some day. He began accompanying his grade school chorus (with a phone call from Mom to smooth the way) and the children's chorus I was directing at time when he was about 10 or 11.  He has played for me for years, as well as others.  He has several degrees in piano performance and will have an artist's certifcate in piano in a few weeks but earned enough accompanying choirs (church and a high school) in grad school to buy a new car.  He has his own choir now but still accompanys around. He is the principal accompanist for my chamber choir and can sight read the spots off the wall--and it started with a kid's choir.
Kids are not threatening and usually there are only a few parts to worry about in treble clef.  It's a start and you will get your feet wet in a fun way!
Good luck!
on May 12, 2012 11:25am
Lots of good advice here, but it seems to be focusing solely on the piano skills aspect of accompanying.
To really be a good accompanist, you have to be a collaborator.
Yeah - having great 'chops' is important, but if you don't watch the conductor, breathe with your vocalist and listen well, it won't matter how great your technique is!
Pianists probably do the greatest amount of work ALONE. Learning to 'play well with others' is something that most other musicians have to learn early on, while pianists work on solo repertoire most of the time (PS I have a M.Mus in piano performance...).
Listening to great recordings (and live performances) of piano collaborations (not just with vocalists - chamber music works too) is an important part of training too. Watch how the musicians communicate non-verbally with each other and see how the piano supports the other musicans.
on May 13, 2012 5:46am
I would like to piggyback on Leah's comment here.  All of the recommendations that have been posted are excellent in terms of getting the "chops" you need to be able to play. But in the end, there is a big difference between a pianist and an accompanist.  The term "collaborative pianist" is recently coming into vogue. Whether you think this term may be over the top or not, for me, it really describes the role of the person at the keyboard.  That individual can make an average choir sound great or poor, depending on what they do. 
So what does that mean for you as aspiring accompanist?  It means you listen, listen, and listen some more. Yes, learn the techniques that have all been suggested, but then, listen to conductors, watch what they do, listen to the choirs. Are you hearing what the conductor is hearing?  Can you anticipate what they are going to say when they stop and be ready even before they tell you what they are doing next? 
It also means looking closely at accompaniments and figuring out how to best use what is on the page to support the group in front of you.  Every group is different, and with all due respect to composers, sometimes adjustments need to be made in the accompaniment to support the choir.  Well intentioned lush, thick chords might cover up the voices of a small or young ensemble if the pitches overlap too densely, requiring you to thin out the piano part, for example.  
the best part of accompanying, though, as Leah said, you get to work with others!
Best of luck!
on May 12, 2012 7:19pm
I would like to add to the excellent advice you have already garnered. Here are some of the things I look for in a fine accompanist for choral or music theatre/opera situations:
-Tempo: You need to be able to do all of these things as required: 1. Keep a steady tempo, 2. Follow tempo changes from a conducting gesture (which will be clear if you are lucky, but may be less so with some conductors); 3. Follow tempo changes from a sololist; 4. Recognize the difference (this mainly applies to theatre/pop music) between "backphrasing" and an actual tempo change by a soloist.
-Score reading: Be able to see everything and play as much or as little as required. This may mean emphasizing each entrance of a six-part vocal fugue in early rehearsals, or it may mean accompanying a singer from a piano/vocal score and leaving out the melody, or supporting singers working on a rhythmically diverse a cappella arrangement by providing a useful harmonic basis. It ALWAYS means awareness of all markings and directions in the score. Be sensitive to the danger of "pianistic" singing by the choir members, where, because they are basically echoing what they hear from the keyboard, they sing in an overly accented, "note-to-note" way instead of connecting the notes into an appropriate phrase.
-Technique: Use the pedal appropriately. A heavy foot can cause any number of problems, especially where the piano is providing important rhythmic support. Also, be aware that some accompaniments are written carelessly and may need to be altered; for example, a piano part in a piece for male chorus may be distracting if it is written too high.
-Score study: Try to anticipate what the conductor will need from you based on your own understanding of the music. Allowing the conductor to make final decisions with regard to phrase structure, etc. does not mean that you need to arrive with a completely blank slate. If your playing is informed by prior attention to the musical architecture of the piece, you will be more helpful to the ensemble and the conductor.
I could go on and on, but I hope these tidbits will be of use to you.
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on May 14, 2012 8:34am
After 30+ years of singing in choirs, playing in small orchestras (I play violin), and serving as a conductor for almost 20 years, my strongest suggestion for one who is aspiring to be an accompanist or improve their skills as one is to never forget who the director is. Choir can never be "by committee." And while I have worked with accompanists with a broad spectrum of abilities (which is very important), the best accompanists I have worked with are the ones who can almost "read your mind" in terms of where the director is taking the music and the choir. I frankly would also prefer an accompanist of very acceptable ability who understands their role as an accompanist over the prima donna who believes they are better than the director (regardless of the correctness of their assumptions)and let's the director know it on occasion. And technically, good rhythm is paramount in teching a new piece to a choir (especially volunteer choirs  - church choirs, etc). While also being adept at following the dynamic markings/tempos in a piece is critical; the director is still the master of the presentation regardless of what might be marked in the score. And lastly, being prepared to play in advance and also being able to sight read something that the director might toss at you at the last minute (not my favorite thing to do to an accompanist except in unusual situations).  Good luck!
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