Accompanists: finding a regular accompanist

This article assumes you’ve progressed to a point where you need someone to work with you on a regular basis, and that you’ve achieved a certain level of proficiency. A beginner, or someone looking for an accompanist for casual, low-paying gigs, isn’t in a position to make many demands on a potential performing partner.

There are probably twenty or more accompanists in your community who would be a good fit, so it’s not so much a matter of finding the perfect person as finding someone who meets your criteria who’s interested in working with you. That may not be someone you already know. It’s likely to be a friend of a friend, so cast a wide net. Make a list of everyone you know who plays the piano, and all the church musicians and music teachers you know. Look on websites of amateur choral groups in your area, and note the accompanist’s name. Then start calling and asking for referrals. Start with someone you know who has a wide musical network in your community. If others in your community play solo handbells, ask who accompanies them and learn about their working arrangement. Then follow up on leads and talk to prospects until you have a list of 3 to 5 likely people to meet and interview.

There will probably be no charge for a consultation, assuming it’s an interview and not an actual rehearsal, but use the time well. Try to meet in person. If possible, hold the interview where you plan to rehearse, with your bells set up, so your prospective accompanist can see and hear the instruments. Ask questions about the candidate’s availability, fees, and experience (as a pianist, accompanist, and, if relevant, coach to other instrumentalists). Go through your list of what you’re looking for, and ask for actual examples of work they’ve done in the past, not hypotheticals of how they might approach a certain situation. Past experience is the best predictor of future behavior. Show the candidates examples of sheet music you plan to play, including more difficult music you hope to play in the future.

Don’t be offended if, based on your needs, a candidate declines to work with you. It isn’t personal. An experienced accompanist will know her limitations and accept only assignments she can fulfill. She doesn’t do you any favors by agreeing to work with you and then leaving you in the lurch later, when predictable problems occur. Ask her to spell out her concerns, so you can either resolve the issue or be aware of it as you talk to others. If more than one accompanist tells you one of your expectations is unreasonable, you may need to rethink what you want. Ask the candidate what would make the situation work for her, and decide whether you can accept those terms.

Check the qualifications of your final candidate. Ask to attend a scheduled performance and hear her play. Take advantage of the opportunity to observe the accompanist’s working relationship with the other performer(s), and talk to them. You may want to ask the candidate for references and/or a resume, then call the institutions they attended and confirm they did indeed attend (or that the institutions even exist). Call the organizations they claimed to lead and confirm they did indeed lead them. Call the people they give as references, then call people you know in common whom they don’t list as references, who may paint a very different picture of them. This might seem like overkill, but I had the sad experience of being cultivated by an accompanist who seemed too good to be true, and I ignored one red flag after another. Finally a day spent doing research (online and in the local university music library) confirmed my fears that I had been an absolute fool to believe someone who claimed such a prestigious background would be eager to work with me – for free. Caveat ringer.

When your candidate’s credentials check out, it’s time for a trial run. Start very small, maybe with a plan to offer a couple of pieces together at a church service several months in the future. Ask the church for an ordinary Sunday, not Christmas or Easter. I’ll talk more in a future article about how my accompanist and I work together. Also have a backup plan, in case the first accompanist doesn’t work out. Thank your other candidates for their time, let them know that you’ve found someone, but that you’d like to leave the door open to work together in the future. Even if your first pick turns out to be fabulous, things happen: people move away, they change careers, they land in the hospital, they get very busy. Your dream accompanist may even decide she doesn’t want to work with you.

How some handbell soloists I know met their regular accompanists:

• Two soloists perform with their wives
• Another performs with a close friend
• One soloist found a pianist who shared her dream of offering concerts in small churches as a ministry
• Another works with a church musician who also coaches her and provides a place to test her new pieces

How I met my accompanist: Janet and I attended the same church and sat in the same pew for several years. We were only nodding acquaintances and moved in different circles in the church. I changed churches to ring with a more advanced bell choir, and we lost touch. When I started solo ringing, I worked with a number of accompanists, none of whom was a good fit at that point in my development. At Nancy Hascall’s suggestion, I decided to study piano to fill in the music fundamentals lacking in my background. I called around looking for a piano teacher for this specific purpose, with limited success.

Meanwhile, I had joined a local music organization, and noticed Janet’s name on the member roster. I sought her out at a meeting to explore the idea of studying with her. She quickly understood what I was looking for, because she had taught other instrumentalists in similar situations. I had always liked and admired her, and her year of ringing handbells in college showed some independent interest in the instrument. From the beginning, I hoped we would develop a larger working relationship, but it seemed better to ease into it. Can you imagine if someone you don’t know well and haven’t seen for several years suddenly approached you to say, let’s rehearse together every week and perform together frequently? How likely is that to work out well? And if it doesn’t, how do you end it gracefully?

Plan to start small. Early in your solo career, you may not know how long it takes to prepare music adequately for performance, and your best performance opportunities will be where you can offer only one or two pieces at a time (think “church service,” not “concert”). When I started working with Janet, we met once a week for piano lessons. An opportunity arose for us to perform together. I had prepared a Christmas concert with someone else, who was available only for two concerts, when I received an invitation too good to pass up, for two additional concerts. Janet and I scheduled enough rehearsals to prepare those concerts together, while I completed the others with the first accompanist.

The following year, I needed more rehearsal time than the other accompanist could give me. Janet and I started rehearsing once a month, for 2 hours, in addition to weekly piano lessons. We increased that to every other week, and started performing together regularly, at least once a month. When the opportunity arose, we increased rehearsals to once a week, with coaching, and integrated the piano lesson. We now meet every week, year-round, for 2 1/2 hours, including about 30-60 minutes of piano (flexible, depending on how much of each session we need to spend on bell pieces). We reached this arrangement 3 years after my initial piano lesson, and have worked this way for a year. I pay a fixed rate per session and commit financially to a minimum of 3 sessions a month, leaving one or two weeks free each month for vacations, illness, travel, or whatever. It works out that we don’t miss more than one session a quarter, on average, but you have to allow some slack. It can be hard to reschedule such a long session when you already meet frequently; it would be overwhelming to schedule two sessions in a week after one of us returns from vacation or is recovering from the flu.

Janet also composes and arranges for me. Again, we started small. You don’t want someone to compose a lot of music for you that you can’t stand, or can’t play. The composer doesn’t want to put a lot of time into writing for you and have her efforts ignored. Take it one step at a time, and collaborate as you both explore the instrument.

I’ll talk more about expectations and collaboration in another post.

Copyright © 2012 Nancy Kirkner,