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The Young Conductor V - rehearsing and the piano

One of the critical areas for a young conductor--and this applies to both the undergraduate planning for a career in music education and the graduate conducting  student with a fair amount of experience already—is to develop and then improve rehearsal skills.
I’ve written before about rehearsal, here and here, and even more on my own blog (which can be searched by topic), but today I’ll look at the use of a keyboard instrument in rehearsal.
There’s the issue of whether you have a rehearsal accompanist (and how skilled that accompanist is) or, if you don’t, the level of your own keyboard skills. But the question today, no matter whether you have or are your own accompanist, is how do you use the keyboard most effectively in rehearsal? Having excellent keyboard skills (or having an expert accompanist) can be a temptation as well as an aid—a temptation to play too much or too often.
In the beginning conducting book by Eric Ericson and two of his colleagues, Eric writes a chapter on rehearsing and compares the use of the piano in the rehearsal of a cappella music with helping a baby to learn to walk: first you give lots of support; then as the baby becomes more confident you use less and less support; and finally take away your hands and let the baby walk on its own.
I often see young conductors continue to play or let the accompanist play when it's no longer necessary. The basic rule should be to take away the keyboard as quickly as possible. When teaching or observing young conductors I often have to remind them: take the piano away! There are several reasons for this. One is exactly as in Ericson's example: use only the minimal amount of support so the choir becomes independent. But there is an equally important reason--when the piano is playing you simply can't hear as much of what the choir is doing. You as the conductor need to know . . . does the choir really know it? Can they find the pitches for the next section on their own? Is that chord really in tune? The sound of the piano can blur what's happening and your ability to hear it.
If the choir doesn't need the piano to sing the correct notes, but I'm worried about them staying in tune--so the choir doesn't begin to hear, feel (muscle memory), and learn the piece either flat or sharp--I want the piano to do the bare minimum to help the choir stay at the correct pitch, meaning using a bass line alone or perhaps a series of pedal notes that establish the correct pitch. Additionally, if I'm striving for "just" intonation and purer thirds (see my earlier intonation series for more information) I want to avoid playing the piano's tempered thirds, so will play roots or fifths.
I mentioned a cappella singing above, but even with accompanied music (whether with piano, organ or orchestra), it's valuable to take the piano away and let the choir sing alone. Not only can you hear them better, but if they're secure without the accompaniment it'll be ever so much easier when singing with the piano or orchestra. You can play the interludes, but drop out whenever the choir comes in.
Another thing for me if I use an accompanist--I don't want the piano between me and the choir. I will set up with the choir in an arc with me in the center of the arc (relatively). The the piano (a grand--this can't work easily with an upright) is to my right and slightly behind me. It's to my right (not left) so that the accompanist can easily see my right hand. It's behind me and further to the right because I don't want the bulk of the piano and its sound coming directly in front of me and more directly than the sound of the choir. It also allows me to move closer to the choir freely as well--either to hear/encourage a particular section or to temporarily get further away from the sound of the piano. But it's most important so the sound of the piano doesn't dominate over the sound of the choir.
And here are more observations from Eric Ericson's practice from an earlier post that's part of the intonation series:
First, Eric was a superb pianist with a marvelous, light and "vocal" touch. He almost always played with the una corda ("soft") pedal down and created a transparent, non-percussive sound. Too often I hear either conductors or accompanists pound notes in a way which invites harsh attacks and sound. Never from Eric or his accompanists.
He almost never simply played along with the choir, doubling what they did. Here's what was typical:
  • sometimes without the choir singing, he'd simply play (normally from memory) the music (Bach's Der Geisthilft, for example, demonstrating all important parts), saying, "I think it might go like this," giving a very complete idea of rhythm, phrasing, and shape -- the piano can demonstrate beautifully--with the right player!
  • as mentioned above, he would often play a pedal (usually in the treble, above the soprano, but also bass lines) to help keep pitch (but without implying tempered intonation)--often "rocking" an octave back and forth to keep the sound going
  • in very slow-moving music, he might improvise a melody above the choir in shorter notes, so the choir could hear and feel the pulse
  • if the music was harmonically complicated, he would play (as in the first example) something for the choir, but almost never exactly what the choir sang--but a reduction of the harmonic content and shifts so the choir could hear it more easily
  • he would also help the choir hear the harmony when it was complicated by playing while they were singing below and above  the choir (I remember that in Debussy, for example), but never in the choir's pitch area
  • and, of course, much of the time the choir sang a cappella -- he played only when it was necessary to help stay in tune, or to help with one of the musical issues listed above
The piano is a notably "unvocal" instrument and my comments above about Eric's beautiful and non-percussive approach to the instrument is incredibly imporant. So often I've heard a conductor or accompanist give pitches to the choir with a hard, loud, and percussive sound . . . and then the conductor wonders why the choir doesn't sing beautifully! How you or your accompanist plays is incredibly important in creating a beautiful sound or a poor one.
The keyboard in rehearsal is an incredibly helpful tool, but like all tools, has its place. Make sure you find ways to use it (and even more importantly, remember when not to use it!) that help the choir, but neither work against the sound you want nor become a crutch for the choir that isn't necessary.
Please add your thoughts and suggestions in the comments!
on February 13, 2014 3:34am
Thank you so much for this article.  I worked very hard on my piano skills in high school and college, but I am simply not that good.  A rehearsal accompanist?  I've taught public school for 22 years in three states, and I've never had one.  I am shocked and just a little bit jealous when I hear about others who have them.  :) 
In hindsight, I think that my limited piano skills have helped make me a better teacher.  I teach over 300 middle school students daily, and at least 75% of my rehearsals are acapella.  The piano, in my view, more often than not, serves as an energy block between my students and me.  I want them to hear me, and I want to hear them.  
I even do my warm ups acapella.  It helps them learn to listen and focus.  It increases our connection and ability to work together as a team.  A few months ago, I created the ideas below to help teachers consider doing more with acapella vocal warm ups:
When we increase our acapella work, we help our students become better musicians!
Dale Duncan-Music in the Middle with Mr D
My Sight Singing Course for Middle School Teachers-
My blog for middle school teachers:
My YouTube Channel with lots of ideas for middle school teachers-
Applauded by an audience of 1
on February 13, 2014 8:21pm
Thanks for your post!

I've done rehearsals with and without accompanists. If you've got a good one (and I've been blessed to work with several really wonderful ones) s/he can help and expand what you can do. A less than good one and s/he will slow down your rehearsal.
I think choirs need to do lots of a cappella singing and they benefit greatly from it.
I also believe you have to think and learn scores in a different way when you can't easily just play through it. If you work hard at this, over time it helps your aural imagination greatlly. It forced me to learn harmony much better in order to comprehend what's happening in a score. I think about what the chord is at any given time and this is a kind of harmonic thinking that complements the work I'll do singing through all the parts, when I think linearly. You have to understand and hear both to make sense of a score.
Many thanks for your links as well!
on February 13, 2014 4:42am
Dear Richard Sparks.
Thank you for this.  Most useful.
Best wishes.
Michael Roberts
on February 15, 2014 12:17pm
Ah, this is very helpful.  I am a pianist first, choral director second.  I just love to play.  So... it's easy for me to not only keep playing longer than they need it, but to play the accompaniment too early in our process.  Thank you for the insight into Eric's teaching, it's inspiration I will review repeatedly this Spring as for me as I'm looking to improve as a conductor, and give my Student Teacher (who is not a pianist) a good model for teaching choir.