“Being an accompanist is very selfless
in many ways because you’re really just trying to elevate the singer and help
them shine, ultimately.” Simon Helberg
Last week, I shared stories from a few ChoralNetters about their holidays. This week, I have ChoralNetters chiming in about relationships between choral directors and their accompanists. If you noticed the title of today’s Blog, you may rightly assume things are not always congenial.
Gwen* likes her accompanist as a person but as an accompanist, HER accompanist, not so much. Why? Because Steve* is never prepared for rehearsals. Gwen directs a highly auditioned community chorus and chooses music at least a year in advance. No matter when she gives music to Steve, he is never ready to play.
They have three concerts a year, the first in December. Gwen gives Steve the music for all three concerts in June, right after their May concert. Rehearsals begin in late August or early September and she always tells him what will be worked on those first few rehearsals for each concert when she gives him the music. Eventually, things work out and he does a great job but getting to that point is becoming more and more frustrating for her.
This fall was especially rough; he was still stumbling through reading parts in late October. And it isn’t a question of Steve’s ability to do what Gwen expects of him, it just seems during the last few years he hasn’t been practicing and it’s getting worse and worse. Maybe he thinks he can sight-read through what needs to be done but it’s just not happening. And Steve doesn’t need to guess what to practice. She tells him and is very clear as to what she expects from him; part playing with the occasional accompaniment as the chorus gains fluency and confidence. While an auditioned chorus, this is still a group of amateurs who need help with parts. Gwen believes her chorus has been noticing his lack of preparation for rehearsals as well.
When Gwen contacted me, she wanted to know what to do, short of firing him, since it is her Board who would do that. I suggested she speak to him, in a non-threatening way, asking what she could do to help him be more prepared for rehearsals. In my opinion, she is doing everything and more to help him be prepared. I asked if she was short with him or if she appeared frustrated if he was not able to do what was requested. Gwen said she didn’t think so but as September became October and October headed toward November, it was possible she was curter than is her habit. Understandable; it is possible he too is frustrated with himself.
I told her all will depend on how he reacts when they talk. If he feels threatened, he will react one way. If he feels she is looking to help him, he will react another way. If he is defensive or doesn’t believe there is a problem, it’s time to go to her Board. Good luck, Gwen! Let us know what happens.
Teddy* is an accompanist for a large mainline Protestant church. He is not organist but accompanies regular choir rehearsals, preparing them for anthems with organ. He plays during worship services for anthems not having organ accompaniment or as part of larger instrumental ensemble. He is sorry he took this job a year ago because the choir director is (his words) “a nightmare” and the organist a “pompous jerk.” His predecessor left right after Christmas last year and now he knows why. He will finish out the choir year and count himself lucky he made it out alive. Everything feels off-balance and he can no longer take it.
He’s had music thrown at him by the director IN REHEARSAL in front of the choir. He’s been chased down a corridor from the choir room to the Fellowship Hall by the organist. He’s been screamed at, called awful names and expected to act as if nothing’s happened. He feels he is constantly being tested and yet, he plays well and there are no real, actual complaints about him.
He spoke with Senior Clergy just after Christmas and was told this is how highly talented and gifted people behave and he should just “suck it up.” That’s when he decided to write me and ask, “Is that true?” No, Teddy, this is not how talented and gifted GROWN-UPS behave AT ALL.
I think it is honorable of Teddy to try finish out the choir year. No one would blame him if he left before. I do have one bit of important advice for him; ALWAYS be pleasant and professional with these Yahoos. Never give them back-talk or any reason to say something negative about his tenure at the church. And don’t gossip about those two jerks after you leave. Take the high road ALWAYS.