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The art of exam accompaniment

5 years ago

 

Exam accompaniment is an art in itself. Here, Nigel Scaife, ABRSM’s Syllabus Director, discusses some of the challenges and how to address them.

 

Most piano students set out with the aim of mastering pieces drawn from the rich repertoire of solo piano music.

However, as they advance in their studies the day may come when they are asked to accompany another musician, possibly in an exam. When that day arrives, a whole new world of musical experience opens up. They will now have to follow a score which combines their harmonic textures with a solo line. They will have to listen to another part and respond to it in the moment. A new set of ensemble skills will be needed, such as learning when to lead and when to follow, and how to balance their sound with that of the soloist. It will be the start of a new journey of musical discovery!

The role

Exam accompanimentAccompanists need to have a completely different mindset from that of solo pianists. They are not in charge, but are there as a musical collaborator and supporter. Nevertheless, their role is still as important as the soloist’s and should not be considered in any way secondary – an accompanist can make or break a performance.

Exam accompanists should be amiable, confident, and positive. They need to establish a good rapport with the candidate, while being careful with any remarks about musical issues which could undermine the candidate’s confidence or add to nerves on the day. Often there is a balance to be made between contradicting what a young soloist has been taught and correcting any obvious errors which might negatively affect their performance.

Putting candidates at ease so that they can give their best and maintaining a serene calm before going into the exam are important aspects of the role. Instilling confidence is vital - the accompanist acts as an emotional support as much as a musical one!

Practicalities

Before the exam it’s a good idea to spend time rehearsing as if in the exam itself, allowing accompanist and candidate to get used to playing together in an exam situation. This kind of rehearsal gives you and your soloist a chance to find the best position in terms of sight-lines and to practise tuning and other aspects of stage craft. Also, remember that less experienced candidates are not always used to giving cues, so don’t be afraid to ask for clearer ones: there should be no guesswork involved.

On the day, a smile and plenty of eye contact will give confidence when tuning up – which is not a moment to cut corners! Always make sure you know which pitch or pitches candidates tune to and that they are comfortable with their tuning before the exam starts.

Active listening

The essential skill for any accompanist, indeed for any musician, is active listening. The accompanist must listen to themselves but also be aware of what the soloist is doing and adjust accordingly. Adapting and reacting quickly are crucial: you have to expect the unexpected! It’s not uncommon for a nervous candidate to come in early, or late, or to miss a few bars, but if you can skip a beat or bar and ‘cover’ their mistake you will avoid a break in continuity. Predicting and anticipating ‘danger spots’ and solving some of these challenges should be part of an accompanist’s supportive role.

Tempo

One of the challenges of accompanying is to remember the tempi agreed in rehearsal and reproduce that in the exam. The candidate’s preferred tempo must be your tempo and if the tempo changes on the day you must be sensitive and follow suit.

Balance

Sometimes accompanists become so engrossed in their own challenges that they seem to stop listening to the soloist altogether – at which point balance can become a problem. There are usually understandable reasons for this: perhaps they’ve been called upon at short notice and are virtually sight-reading their part; or perhaps they’re playing an orchestral reduction which doesn’t lie well under the fingers.

These issues can often be avoided if the accompanist accepts that it’s not necessary to be note perfect. As long as you play with confidence, meticulous inclusion of every note is not essential: after all, the examiner is not marking the accompaniment.

Less can be more

Knowing what to leave out and being able to make a suitable reduction when necessary is part of the art of exam accompaniment. The inclination to follow exactly what is written on the page can be a serious hindrance here. Usually it’s best to focus on the bass line and make sure it co-ordinates well with the soloist, and then leave out some of the inner texture if necessary. When playing orchestral reductions, it can be useful to compare different editions – some are more pianistic than others.

Much depends on projecting the rhythmic aspects of the part with confidence. The rhythmic outline must always be in place, even though the texture may be adapted. The ability to give an impression while leaving certain parts out, or redistributing parts between the hands, is a real asset founded on having a good harmonic sense. Less can be more!

Finding the right level

Exam accompanimentAt lower grades the accompanist can be a little more assertive in terms of leading, as young candidates often need extra support. This is fine as long as the solo part comes through positively and is not submerged beneath a well-intentioned but obtrusive piano texture. It’s also worth checking that candidates know when the piano takes the melodic line. If they haven’t listened to a performance they may be unaware that the solo part is secondary at that point and needs to be played accordingly.

Modern grand pianos can cause difficulties, as the heavy bass sounds can dominate. This is especially true in music written before the advent of the modern piano and can be an issue when accompanying tenor or bass-register instruments or inherently quieter instruments, such as the recorder. Also, when the music stand on the piano is raised it blocks out a surprising amount of the sound, so the volume level heard by the accompanist is less than that heard by the soloist. Often you’ll need to adjust the piano dynamic downwards. Playing at an appropriate dynamic level is absolutely fundamental: an accompanist’s forte is not the same as a soloist’s forte.

Having the lid down on a grand piano is a good idea when accompanying many instruments in the early grades, but at higher grades it can reduce the clarity of sound and mute the tone colours. Try experimenting with using the half-stick, or perhaps just a book to lift the lid a little.

Pedalling and articulation

Use of the sustaining pedal needs to be judicious, with clear intentions and awareness of the resulting texture. Generally, you need less pedal in accompaniment parts than in solo repertoire, and you can use the una corda more freely.

It’s easy to obscure the solo part when using the pedal, especially if it lies in the lower register, so always take care to ensure that the solo line is not ‘over-supported’. The una corda can be used to vary colour and imitate orchestral sonorities, as well as to reduce volume, but over-use of a muted effect can negatively impact on the overall impression of the piano part.

The good accompanist listens carefully to tonguing, breathing, and bowing patterns and knows how the slurs and other marks of articulation are interpreted by the soloist. It can be a good idea to practise breathing in tandem with singers or wind and brass players. In this way there can be a real synergy and unity of approach in which the soloist’s articulation and phrasing is mirrored by the accompaniment.

Singers

In some ways accompanying a singer is easier than an instrumentalist, as the words provide a guide. But often, singers have different needs – the drama of the song and the story-telling need to be colourfully represented, perhaps with changes of tempo giving additional emphasis to the meaning of the words. So before accompanying a song, you should get to know the words and the emotional context. If the song is in an unfamiliar language, ask the singer to explain the meaning of each verse. If the lyric is not understood, the accompaniment will sound meaningless.

Singers can occasionally forget their words. If that happens you can help by giving a vocal prompt. However, avoid dueting with the candidate or mouthing the words, as this is unfair when memory is part of the exam requirements. At the early grades some accompaniments will have the vocal melody in the right-hand part. Where this is the case, take extra care to ensure that the piano part subtly shadows the singer without being overpowering.

Learning the art

A famous accompanist of singers, Irwin Gage, said that ‘There are many great accompanists who are very good pianists, but there are not many pianists who are good accompanists.’ Learning the art of supporting a soloist without overshadowing them, while also providing a safety net when things go awry, is certainly a skill that takes time to develop.

So if you have a piano student who has established a good technical foundation and who can sight-read well, you might consider giving them opportunities to accompany, whether in a school concert or an exam. There is no substitute for handson experience and who knows, perhaps they will become the next Gerald Moore, one of the world’s most famous accompanists and author of The Unashamed Accompanist who wryly titled his memoirs Am I too loud?


This article was originally featured in the October 2013 edition of Libretto, ABRSM's magazine.

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