The spirit of collaboration is an essential component in the art of keyboard accompaniment. This has never been a question for me, I suppose, which is why it always seemed a bit unnecessary when the term collaborative pianist started making an appearance in place of accompanist. To me, the collaborative aspect of the exercise was a given. It was hard to deny that the introduction of the new term came about through the need to balance egos, and to equalize power and decision-making in the relationship, as well as to state with more accuracy what the role entailed. In other words, the artist formerly known as accompanist was now given a status equal to that of the principal solo artist. Personally, I am always happy to be referred to as an accompanist, and I have always viewed myself as having more to offer as accompanist than keyboard soloist.
Here’s how the dictionary defines each word:
It’s interesting how neither definition really implies a subservient role.
Beyond the terminology, there has always been a very important aspect to choral accompaniment when a second musician – the conductor – is directing the choir. This has everything to do with collaboration, and in my experience can elevate a performance from being a less than successful musical experience to being a truly magnificent and musically intact presentation. This relies on a basic understanding and flexibility from both conductor and accompanist, where ego leaves the room, and each musician is able to double-down on their action and reaction in the moment. In plain terms, the conductor has to know when to bend in order to fit the choir over the top (or underneath) what the organist is playing. They then need to know when a clear and unfussy beat is required in order to hold the ensemble together. Similarly, the organist needs to know when to push forward with a musical moment, thereby driving the choir forward. They also need to be able to control and delay their momentum at times when the conductor has the freedom to shape a cadence.
If you are conducting the Duruflé Requiem, you will do well to simply allow the organist to play the piece (90% of the time) and lay the choral parts over the top with a precise beat. This is not the piece during which the conductor should get over directorial. Of course, a conversation or two beforehand about tempos and balances, as well as effective use of rehearsal time, will be a necessary part of this scenario.
Conversely, the ability for an organist to play a flexible supporting role whilst accompanying Anglican Chant, following the speech rhythms of recitative, or being sensitive in a solo singer’s passage is of paramount importance. A good example of this would be Mendelssohn’s Hear My Prayer.
In order for all of this to happen, both conductor and organist need to fully understand each other’s roles, in addition to having as much knowledge as possible about the choral art, and vocal technique. Equally important is that they trust and respect each other. Ideally, each person should be able to do the other’s job at the drop of a hat. I have been fortunate in working as accompanist to several fine conductors who trained and conducted fine choirs, and were willing to share that duty of training and conducting as they assumed the role of accompanist themselves. This was true collaboration, without the intrusion of power-play or ego, and with full understanding of the way in the which the ultimate goal should be met. When it was met, it was often a magic moment that required no prior discussion, post-mortem, or follow-up congratulation. It was on to the next one!
I picture just a few significant musical partnerships here, not to deliberately omit the many other shorter-term or “one-off” collaborators. This article also doesn’t mention the many fine accompanists who have supported my work as a choral conductor, with mutual understanding and collaboration. That’s for another blog entry!
And this wouldn’t be complete without a few words from Carole King…from the Tapestry album, of course!