Accompanists: assessing your needs

Audiences seldom realize it, but a significant part of what they perceive as the quality of your solo ringing is the caliber of the accompanist and strength of the ensemble created by the two of you. I often think of the sailboat we owned, a very traditional boat with a lot of beautiful varnished wood (brightwork). When we bought the boat, part of it had a clumsy paint job in an awkward color. We had it professionally painted in brilliant white. Immediately, we started getting more compliments on the brightwork. The new paint provided a foil for the beauty of the wood to shine.

The difference an excellent accompanist makes is huge. Finding one, and cultivating a good working relationship, is well worth the effort. I’ve been blessed with an outstanding regular accompanist and have learned a great deal from working with her, as well as with others. Some worked quite well for an isolated performance, and I would gladly work with them again. Some were excellent musicians but not a good fit for me at that stage of my development. Others taught me, by their shortcomings, what qualities I require in a performance partner. Your mileage may vary.

It’s difficult to perform at a high level without an accompanist. Very little music is written for unaccompanied solo bells; another instrument is needed to flesh out the piece. It’s just too hard to create complete music with one person playing bells for an entire work, never mind a whole concert.

Some soloists perform with recorded accompaniment. I considered it a milestone in my development to leave behind recorded accompaniments more than 3 years ago. Even before that, I used them only in my lecture-demonstration, not in concert. I look at it this way: First, you don’t see other classical musicians perform to recordings. I feel it would diminish the quality of my performance and, in a way, dishonor people who made the effort to come see me perform live. If they wanted to hear a recording, they could have stayed home and watched YouTube.

Second, as a practical matter, a recording won’t interact with me on stage. If I get into difficulty and need help recovering, a recording is no help – it will play on relentlessly, and won’t hesitate to finish the piece while I scratch my head at the bell table. A human could play cue notes to help me get back on track, or vamp until I signal I’m ready to go on, or stretch the tempo in a tricky spot. If the recording itself is the problem (too loud, too soft, playback problems), it will detract from my performance and may even rattle me to the point of making mistakes. Even with cue notes, it can be difficult to coordinate entrances and exits with a machine, which won’t respond to my audible and visible cues. I do practice with recordings sometimes, but I balance that with live rehearsals to develop a habit of leading, instead of following.

What are your options? If there isn’t a piano, perhaps you could rent or borrow an electronic keyboard. If no accompanist is available, maybe you should look harder, or rethink the whole performance. If the music is too difficult for a typical accompanist, maybe the score needs to be rewritten with that human limitation in mind, or other music selected. Somehow it should be possible to overcome the obstacles. I’m inspired by a woman who belonged to my performance group. At her memorial service, someone told how she had once played piano while visiting a remote outpost in Greenland. The piano was in terrible condition, and the middle register was useless. She managed to play the thing well using only the outer edges of the keyboard. The obstacles we face seem trivial in comparison.

While you might choose other instruments, like organ, harp, or guitar, your principal accompanist will probably play piano. Most of the published solo handbell repertoire assumes a piano accompanist.

Not all pianists are piano accompanists. Just because someone can play piano doesn’t mean s/he can play your repertoire well. Some of it may be too difficult for that individual. Moreover, accompanying is a skill apart from instrumental mastery, and even accompanying instrumentalists is different than accompanying singers. Couple that with the challenge of playing two percussion instruments together with precision, with the louder of the two ostensibly supporting the quieter instrument, and you’re talking about a highly skilled individual.

If you’re playing bell solos at church, you probably won’t have a choice: you’re going to play with the designated church accompanist. In a church with rich musical offerings, this could be someone far better than you would find on your own. Bear in mind that this individual has a great deal of music to prepare every week and limited time to spend rehearsing with you. Meeting with you for two rehearsals and a warm-up would be generous of her. More likely, you’ll get one rehearsal and a warm-up. Make the most of it by coming fully prepared to the first rehearsal (ready to play at tempo from memory), so you’re working on ensemble and not learning notes. It isn’t the accompanist’s job to teach you the music. If you have questions, or need help understanding how the piece is supposed to sound, resolve that before you meet to rehearse.

If you’re performing outside your church, you’ll probably need to find someone on your own. Your church accompanist may be available sometimes, for a fee, but will obviously be unavailable on Sunday mornings to offer music at another church with you. It’s likely, of course, that the other church will offer you its own staff accompanist. You can get by this way for a while. When you start performing actively in the community, however, you’ll want to control your own destiny by having an accompanist you work with regularly. That’s the best way to achieve your full potential as a performing musician.

It’s tempting to settle for someone convenient, but laziness may be a mistake. Be strategic: Assess your needs and find someone who fits the bill. Now we need to talk turkey about money. There’s a saying about health care: quality, access, low cost – pick any two. The same applies here. Your accompanist isn’t likely to be free; you probably need to pay someone. If someone of the caliber you need is working for free in your community, word has gotten out and that person already has more work than s/he can handle.

You may luck into someone who recently retired, but, unless s/he has a burning desire to accompany you, your bell music will never be a high priority. Travel, hobbies, gardening, grandchildren: people retire from paying jobs because they want free time for their own pursuits. Maybe you’ll find a student, who may work for a below-market rate, or even for free, for the experience. If you’re inexperienced yourself, you two could waste a lot of time bumbling around. If you’re experienced, you may grow frustrated at having to mentor the person you expect to support you. Students graduate (one hopes) and move on to other things, then you need to start all over with someone else. If s/he does stick around, all that training you provided will qualify the former student to charge you market rates. A personal friend or family member might work very well, or the arrangement could prove disastrous both to the music and to the relationship. Just being related to someone doesn’t automatically make your work a high priority to her.

The advantage of working with a paid professional accompanist is that it’s very efficient, and you usually get a higher caliber musician. She will honor her commitments, learn your music on her own, come to rehearsals prepared to work, and take pride in supporting you and displaying you at your best. That is her job, and she’ll carefully guard the good reputation that helps her earn a living. If the arrangement doesn’t work out, you’ll face that reality and deal with it more promptly than if you’re related to the accompanist, and/or you talked her into working for nothing.

Expect to pay approximately the rate charged for piano lessons in your community. Generally you pay only for face time, at an hourly rate. For concerts, plan to pay for warm-up time and “hanging around” time, and (of course) rehearsals, in addition to the concert itself. Bear in mind that this fee is the accompanist’s only compensation for time spent on preparation, travel, and administration. It has to cover the cost of sick leave, vacation time, continuing education, self-employment benefits, business taxes, wardrobe, and owning and maintaining her own piano – not to mention the years of lessons and practice that went into developing the skills needed to accompany you. When viewed that way, the hourly rate looks very reasonable.

Make a list of what you hope to find in an accompanist. Know what matters most to you, and where you’re willing to compromise.

• What is your geographic radius? Someone who lives and works within a half hour of you will be more available than someone living an hour away.
• How often do you want to rehearse together, both short-term and long-term? You may start out once a month, then increase that to twice a month, or even weekly.
• Do you have a preference for a man or a woman? That will matter if you plan to travel together and share a room.
• Are you more comfortable working with someone who shares your religious beliefs, especially if you plan to do most of your work in churches?
• What is your career trajectory, and how likely is that person to be around for the duration? An older, experienced accompanist may be a Godsend, or she may develop arthritis and retire just as you’re hitting your stride.
• Do you want the accompanist to mentor you? My arrangement includes musicianship coaching, which I find extremely valuable. However, this has to be an explicit agreement. An accompanist usually expects you to learn your part on your own.
• What kind of personality fits well with yours? Don’t underestimate the importance of compatibility in musical tastes, work ethic, desired performance frequency, and how you communicate and resolve problems. There will be problems, both musical and logistical, and you need someone who will approach them candidly but diplomatically.
• Do you want an accompanist familiar with bells? It helps to have someone intrigued by the instrument who wants to explore it with you. If you plan to perform at many handbell events, it can be helpful to work with someone who also attends. But insisting on a bronze level ringer as an accompanist is unduly limiting.
• What difficulty level of music do you hope to play in the future? Buy some of the sheet music and show it to the people you’re considering. Piano accompaniments for handbell solos often contain octave spans and may include big chords. Balance is always an issue; a sensitive touch and ability to play quietly are essential.
• How many pieces do you plan to learn each year, and how quickly? How important is sight-reading ability, given the likely amount of rehearsal time on each piece?
• What other services do you want from an accompanist? Teaching you music theory? Composing bell solos? Accompanying you on other instruments, like organ? Helping you with transport, setup, and teardown? Covering for resets between pieces by talking or playing piano solos?

Consider what kind of gigs you hope to get, and how often. Unless you’re a professional performer who can pay top dollar to a full-time accompanist, you won’t have someone on call 24/7/365. Your accompanist will have other clients, and needs to honor her commitments to them, as she does for you. My accompanist has an established piano studio, so she isn’t available after school on weekdays – she teaches. If she cancels too many lessons on my account, she’ll lose students. There’s no upside for anyone in that. So we usually perform on weekends or weekdays before 3:00, which produces plenty of gigs, but we do occasionally turn down a request that conflicts with her teaching schedule.

Piano teachers generally have a schedule that meshes well with your likely gigs. You’re more likely to have performance opportunities on, say, Sunday morning or afternoon than on a weekday evening. Someone who performs with a symphony orchestra will have inflexible rehearsal and performance commitments, generally at prime performing times like weekends. A full-time accompanist with many other clients will have a full schedule, and the lead time you get from venues may not allow you to count on her availability. A church staff musician isn’t likely to go with you on Sunday mornings to other church services, if that’s where you see opportunities. If you plan to perform out of town, you need someone free to travel. If you plan to rehearse year-round, a snowbird probably won’t work.

Something that really surprised me when I started performing was how often people would put me on a pedestal and ignore my accompanist, frankly to the point of rudeness. The novelty of solo bells is so exciting that concert hosts have neglected to introduce my accompanist, perhaps expecting the piano to play itself. (I take a moment to introduce her myself, when that happens.) You can’t re-indoctrinate the whole planet, so your accompanist has to be secure enough in her own talents to handle this graciously. (I feel extremely fortunate mine does. If the shoe were on the other foot, I wouldn’t be such a good sport.) It helps that we belong to an auditioned performance group with people who realize she’s the far superior musician, so they compliment both of us at our concerts. Make sure your accompanist knows that you appreciate the extent of her contribution.

A good accompanist offers moral support, which is invaluable to an inexperienced performer. I once read that a golf caddy’s most important duty is calming the player during tournaments. An accompanist with a soothing presence and forgiving attitude will support you as you gain performance experience and help you keep the inevitable mistakes in perspective. If your accompanist is also your coach, strive for a balance between recognizing the good in your current (or most recent) concert, and candidly assessing what you need to improve, as well as helpful suggestions for how to achieve that.

Next time, I’ll write about how to find the accompanist you want.

Copyright © 2012 Nancy Kirkner,