Accompanists: rehearsal

If you work with an accompanist only occasionally, you don’t need advice about how to conduct your rehearsal: you scheduled the appointment for a reason, so there you are. But if you’re considering a set schedule, like a weekly or biweekly rehearsal, you may wonder how best to use the time. Though this depends on your own priorities, here’s some insight into my experience. When performing regularly with the same accompanist, there’s always something to work on. Pieces are in various stages of development: selection, learning, interpreting, polishing, rehearsing for performance, and reviewing after performance for needed improvement. Like any interesting “job,” no two days are exactly the same, but I’ll recap this week’s rehearsal to give you an idea of how my accompanist and I work together.

We meet every week on a set day from 8:30-11:00 am. I decide what I want to work on a few days beforehand, and focus my practice time on preparing those pieces to the point where my accompanist’s input will help me move to the next stage. I usually email her my plan so she can prepare the same pieces, though she can sightread most of my repertoire. If we have a lot to work on (e.g. if we’re preparing multiple programs simultaneously), I’ll make a chart showing each week’s plan, and give her a copy. That allows us to pace our preparation before a concert and reduce the likelihood of running out of time. Our session includes a piano lesson, which lasts from 0-60 minutes depending on how much time bell music requires that week. This lesson is another opportunity to discuss music interpretation, history, theory, etc., and sometimes my piano assignments relate directly to musical skills needed for bell pieces.

Besides practicing piano and bell music, I usually have administrative items to prepare before rehearsal. Examples: putting together a binder of sheet music, preparing and printing a piece of music in Sibelius notation software, printing a draft website article for review, drafting a concert program, writing a tuition check, preparing documentation for a venue (like a W-9 form or a contract), etc. I list everything I want to accomplish and the topics we need to discuss, like scheduling questions or special help needed. I try to have as much as possible prepared the day before rehearsal, so I don’t have to rush around in the morning getting ready. My morning preparations include shoveling out the living room, moving the bell tree stand (into rehearsal position, and clearing sightlines to the bell table), setting up the bells for the first piece, setting up any equipment needed (like the audio recorder, the video camera, or the computer for video playback), and preparing small snacks.

This week we worked on four bell pieces; 3-4 pieces is fairly typical. We might spend 15 minutes to a full hour on a piece; we tend to devote the most time to a piece when I’ve almost learned it by memory and want to work on the interpretation before the mechanics solidify. However, it needs to be solid enough to stand up to the distraction of another instrument. This week, the first two pieces were from our program last Christmas, but we hadn’t rehearsed them together since. The first one went quickly; I needed to refresh my memory on our interpretation and check my entrances. We worked longer on a more complex piece, breaking it into small sections. I would play a section, get feedback, play it again to incorporate the feedback, then make notes on areas of focus in individual practice. Remember that my accompanist is also my coach, so we spend a lot of time improving my individual performance, not just working on ensemble. I keep my coaching notes with each piece, rather than filed by date, for easy reference when I practice alone.

After working on the two new-but-old pieces, we reviewed video of two other pieces we had performed a few days before. One was a new piece for this Christmas, and the other was a new-but-old piece that has been challenging in past years. I normally don’t perform Christmas music outside the Christmas season. In this case, I needed the performance experience, it was a studio recital rather than a public concert, and both the pieces are uncommon ones, not pieces that scream: Christmas!!!

Our preparation for the new piece had been substantial, and it was very solid for a first performance. We looked at some details: rendering of a particularly unreliable triplet, matching the beat at the top of rolled chords, a lengthy decrescendo/ritard that might be shaped differently. I noticed things about my movement that I wanted to improve, and made a note to double-check the frequent accents and tenutos (hard to check while ringing but easy when listening to a recording of myself). Janet listened for balance and talked about some adjustments she wanted to make. The second piece was also good overall, but the whole point of this process is continuous improvement. I noted some awkward movement and an opportunity for more dynamic contrast between the verses. There’s a recurring phrase where we need to take a breath and didn’t consistently take it together. These observations formed the basis for our rehearsal of those two pieces, drilling the problem spots until they became more reliable, then playing through each piece from beginning to end.

Sometimes I play a section (or the whole piece) by myself so Janet can listen. It’s hard for a pianist to play her part well while hearing every nuance and remembering every problem at the solo table. She might play my line at the piano to demonstrate a point, draw the arc of a phrase with a gesture, say the lyrics with a preferred inflection, suggest dynamic contrasts, discuss the theoretical underpinnings of an interpretation, explain a stylistic decision in historical context, or offer an image (“play the passage like you’re humming to yourself”). She might suggest research on a specific issue, either immediately (if it’s something we can quickly resolve) or after rehearsal. We tend to talk at the piano, because talking over the bells gives them the measles (spit spots).

We never just play a piece over and over, hoping it will miraculously improve. We repeat each section with at least one specific purpose: correct a rhythm problem, smooth out the line, adjust dynamics, add a breath, get a chord together, etc. Each time we finish the section, we’ll confer on what still needs improvement. Once a section is correct, we’ll solidify it with a few repetitions, then go on to the next section. At the end, we play through the whole piece. When I’m first learning a piece, we use a similar process. However, I might be able to play only part of it, at a slow tempo, and/or while still relying on sheet music.

We have a very focused rehearsal with little chit-chat. To use time efficiently, I tell Janet if a table reset will take long enough for her to have a short break, so she can stretch or practice something else or whatever. We also take a tea break halfway through rehearsal, a chance for me to sit down and rest, and for the two of us to discuss administrative matters. For example, this week I wanted to:

• Return something belonging to Janet
• Have her review a website article
• Clarify some information on one of her compositions
• Discuss a possible gig
• Get advice about music I’m interested in developing

Other weeks, the list has included items like:

• Ask Janet to sign a W-9 form or venue contract
• Have her OK a video or photos to post online
• Arrange concert venue access, transportation, parking, and/or call times
• Consider the pros and cons of training opportunities I’m considering
• Discuss work I’m doing with others, like my percussion teacher, or advice on classes I’m teaching
• Exchange sheet music
• Explore something I want to do at a concert that’s outside our normal routine
• Review something that happened at a concert, either ours or someone else’s, to see what I might learn from it
• Agree that one of us will email some information to the other
• Scheduling (it’s a good idea to have your calendar at rehearsal)

Sometimes the list is more musical and less administrative:

• Explain the structure of a piece
• Discuss a concert program plan
• Play through the printout of a piece I’ve input to Sibelius and comment on changes needed
• Record an accompaniment track – see below

Janet sometimes has her own list, perhaps to talk about plans for piano solos in our programs.

Recording: Since I have a digital piano, recording is logistically quite easy. We connect a recorder (mine is the Roland CD-2e) to the piano using cables, press a few buttons, and Janet plays the accompaniment. We usually do this after we’ve rehearsed the piece for a while, so she can incorporate the interpretation and tempo we’ve settled on. I can play the accompaniment back using the recorder itself, or remove the memory chip, import the file into iTunes, create a playlist with other pieces, and burn a CD with a whole concert’s worth of accompaniments on it. (The recorder will also burn a CD directly, if all the pieces you need on the CD are on the memory.)

More thoughts on recording accompaniment tracks:

• Sometimes Janet will record a difficult part separately, so I can drill it. This is especially helpful when I have trouble hearing the cue for my entrance.
• You can record an acoustic piano using a microphone, but it might take a bit of work to get the acoustics right.
• If someone records an accompaniment for you on a piece where the bells and piano start together, ask for cue notes at the start of the recording, or anywhere you may need to coordinate an entrance.
• A reminder that recording any copyrighted music requires permission of the copyright holder or payment of a mechanical license fee for audio (synchronization fee for video). Many publishers will waive this for a single rehearsal track.

I don’t generally record our whole rehearsal, because we wouldn’t have time to review the audio or video. We don’t always have time to review every piece in our performance videos. If you have infrequent rehearsals or performances, you might want to record and review them, especially if you have limited access to bells and can’t easily record your individual practice.

We find this overall approach very effective. I feel the keys to a productive rehearsal are:

• Preparation
• Focus
• Free exchange of ideas
• A ‘learning’ rather than a ‘justification’ mentality
• Performance goals to work toward

It’s immensely satisfying to work together developing this instrument and my musicianship. We enjoy each other’s company, so we look for opportunities outside rehearsal to spend unstructured time together: taking a walk, having lunch, or carpooling to an event. As a bonus, this rapport carries over into our music, and the trust and comfort that develop from a long list of positive shared experiences makes performing together that much more rewarding.

Copyright © 2012 Nancy Kirkner,