Playing piano for choirs is a lot of fun and will help your musicianship in many ways, some obvious and some that will be slowly revealed to you after years of experience. You’ll also meet a lot of wonderful people along the way. I’ve been playing for vocal groups of all shapes and sizes for over 30 years and want to share some tips to help you set yourself apart as an above-average choral accompanist.
BTW, these tips work well in many situations where you’re accompanying vocalists. I’ve used them at Carnegie Hall, on the Broadway stage and in jazz clubs. They work when playing for solo singers, small vocal pop groups, community choirs, and in liturgical settings.
Now let’s get started!
The basic idea is to play in a way that makes it easy for the choir to sound wonderful. There are certain techniques you can use to help them without sounding like you’re helping them, if you know what I mean. Your goal is to play support them so well that they sound better than they would with another pianist. There are two reasons why you want to do this: 1. You have a lot to offer them musically, and 2. You want singers to love working with you so much that they’ll always call you the next time they need a pianist!
Here are some techniques and ideas that will make you a great choral accompanist:
- Use a wide variety of pianistic timbres
The piano is a fairly homogenous-sounding instrument, and so is a choir (at least as compared with the wide range of timbers in a symphonic orchestra or rock band.) To counteract this, play with a wide variety of pianistic timbre. Is the music mellow? Then make it very mellow. Did the composer write bell-like chords? Then play them brightly, darkly, or whatever else you have to do to make them “pop out.”
Don’t just play the notes, even “musically.” At every moment, hear a definite sound in your head and bring that out on your instrument.
- Emulate the sound of a full band or orchestra
Even though you’re playing piano, imagine the sound of a full band or orchestra in your head. If the group is singing a rock, pop, or gospel piece, then you aren’t “just” a pianist. You’re the drummer, bass player, guitarist, pianist, and maybe even string section! If there’s a rhythmic bass part, play it percussively and with a deep, rich sound like a bass/drum duo would. Double the bass line down an octave if that helps.
This goes for classical music, too. Piano accompaniment parts are often orchestral reductions and are written to be “readable.” So if you want a richer sound, then feel free to fill out the chords more and add octaves where appropriate. Mozart, Beethoven and Mahler would have done this, and you can too. Can you make a piano sound like a flute? Try it! Can you play like a timpanist? Yes you can! Do anything you can to make the piano sound like a band or orchestra. The singers will feel more comfortable and supported by your music. This is a good thing!
- Accent beat one in each measure
When I go to a concert and hear pianist accompany choirs, I often feel that although they play well, they’re not giving the choir enough rhythmic support. A lot of sound gets lost in the distance between the piano’s soundboard and the chorister’s ears, so one thing I frequently do is to emphasize the first beat in each measure. It doesn’t have to be a big accent or anything, but see what happens if you lean into beat 1 a little bit. Maybe it gives the music more of a dance-like quality. Or maybe it just makes it a little easier for that alto on the other end of the stage to hear where she needs to sing the next phrase. Used appropriately, this little trick can go a long way to helping both you and the choir sound better.
- Love their choral sound.
It’s hard to put this into wards in the way that I feel it when playing, but you have to embrace the singers’ voices. Project your sound to them as if you are literally hugging them. Project your warmth through the piano’s sound to the whole choir.
- Be better than a good colleague
It goes without saying that you should be a good colleague, but let’s take this a step forward; be a wonderful colleague. Remember that you and the singer’s both enjoy making music and that music is a collaboration. Always be nice, friendly, supportive, and encouraging. I don’t mean that you should be “soft,” or a “pushover,” but keep a positive attitude and make the singers feel good. Often, people want to work with people they enjoy hanging out with. Be a great colleague as well as a great pianist.
In summary, there’s nothing like a good deal of experience to help you learn and grow as a pianist. So get out there and put these ideas in action. Try them out and put them to the test.. See which ones work best for you and in what situations. Which ones match your current skills? What skills do you need to improve before you can put some of my tips into actual practice?
As I write this, I happen to be backstage at Carnegie Hall (for a David Bowie tribute concert) and I’m watching a pianist do every one of the things I’ve listed here. Do them yourself. They work!
If you accompany a choir and want to develop your piano improv skills, here are some free lessons to get you started. Have fun!