Fostering the Student Accompanist
As choral teachers in the public school system, many of us have felt that four hands would be better than two: two hands to conduct and two to play piano. I teach middle school choir in a school district north of Chicago. Our student body is highly involved in the arts and eager to participate in one of the six choirs we offer. However, as with many districts, budgetary constrictions do not allow my choral program a full-time accompanist. As a result, each year I played for my daily choir classes, and held two or three full rehearsals with my accompanist in the days leading up to our performances. I can’t count the amount of times I thought to myself, “If only I had more time in front of my choirs instead of behind the piano! How much more musically they would sing! How we could connect!” A few years back, a gregarious sixth grade student helped make this happen.
Her name was Megan and she was a student in my sixth grade choir. She approached me one day after rehearsal, and said “Mrs. Lawless, I was wondering if I could accompany the choir on a piece at the Spring Concert this year? I’ve taken piano lessons for awhile now…” My school, while home to a large choir and band program, offered little opportunity at the time for student piano players. I had been looking for ways to get these talented musicians more involved in our fine arts program. Megan was a proficient and musical piano player, easily capable of playing the accompaniments for the repertoire I had picked out. I assigned her one of our sixth grade pieces to learn, she rehearsed with the choir three weeks later, and accompanied the choir at the Spring Concert. Since then, I have continued to use student accompanists regularly. Here are some ways I’ve found to find, train, and retain quality student accompanists.
Seek out student piano players in your district.
They are out there, eager to showcase their skills and learn from you. Inquire within your ensembles for interested students. Speak to the teachers at the feeder school(s) to get names of student pianists that will be coming up to you. Call local piano teachers and ask them if they teach any students in your district. If you have a paper newsletter, or online website or blog, make request for student piano players. The ideal student accompanist will also be a part of your choral program. The accompanists you train will become musical role models for the rest of the group, and will also be able to accompany the ensemble in daily class rehearsals.
Begin with musically accessible accompaniments.
When Megan first came to me in sixth grade, I started her with a piece that was slightly below her top ability level. This was not to doubt her skill level, but as you choral directors know, there is much that goes into accompanying a choir in addition to technical skill. By allowing Megan to master the fingerings, notes, and chords quickly, we were then able to work on the more expressive aspects of accompanying. This included training Megan to follow my conducting pattern and style, as well as following the choir’s ebb and flow. I trained her to listen acutely to their dynamic shifts and slight tempo changes and mirror them. We discussed what to do if a student skipped a verse in a solo, or if a choir missed an entrance. As she progressed through the middle school, she was able to take on more difficult repertoire and more pieces at a time. By the time she was in eighth grade, she was accompanying small group sectionals, swing choir rehearsals, as well as a variety of repertoire at our concerts and contests.
Here’s a short list of pieces that I have used or would use with 6th grade accompanists:
- Firefly by Andy Beck
- Shout It Out! By Jay Althouse
- Just a Single Voice by Sally K. Albrecht & Jay Althouse
- Children of the World by Berta Poorman & Sonja Poorman
- To Joy by Beethoven; arr. Sally K Albrecht & Jay Althouse
- She’ll Be Comin’ ‘Round the Mountain arr. Russell Robinson
- The Clouds by Cynthia Gray
- Tarantella by Sandra Howard
Cultivate the whole musician, and showcase your accompanists in additional ways.
Offer them solo opportunities at your concerts to perform their private lessons repertoire. Have them play in the lobby before and after school choral/band/orchestra performances. Encourage them to take a solo to your district’s solo/ensemble festival, and/or have them teach a lesson to the class about the piano. Demonstrate that you are supporting their overall interest and growth as a pianist. Their confidence level will soar and they will gain the added benefit of more performance experience.
Work with your student accompanist one on one, outside of the class rehearsal, just as you would a professional accompanist.
Any conductor-accompanist relationship takes trust, practice, and understanding. This dynamic needs to be cultivated with your student accompanists as well. Trust will be gained by taking time to work with these students on an individual basis. Especially at the middle school level, constructive criticism must be doled out carefully. Positive reinforcement goes a long way with this age group. Carve out time before or after school, or during the student’s lunch or recess time to rehearse and provide feedback. During Megan’s seventh grade year, I used a small bit of my budget to bring in my regular accompanist to coach Megan during a class rehearsal. He was able to offer her immediate feedback and advice as she played, while also allowing me to work directly with the choir.
Now in 9th grade, Megan came back to the middle school just the other day to visit. She told me that she is now accompanying the choirs at her high school, and that she was grateful for the experience and opportunities she was offered to accompany at McCracken. I am grateful to her as well; her leadership and eager attitude resulted in three new student accompanists for my program this year. I look forward to continuing the tradition of student accompanists for years to come!
(Bonus footage! Around 4:52, you can catch a glimpse of a student accompanist performing a duet with our adult accompanist.)
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