Leader as Accompanist

Morgen (Voice and Piano)
Morgen, We Two

I’ve known many pianists, but very few excellent accompanists. It’s a rare and beautiful talent that not only requires skill, but also outstanding sensitivity and a willingness to put someone ahead of oneself. It’s not fair, but that’s the way it works.  As I thought about it I realized that good accompanists demonstrate servant leadership.

The topic came up for me as I stumbled upon a Youtube video in which a famous conductor was playing piano accompaniment for an equally famous singer. It was a great performance including several of my favourite lieder by Brahms (and became even better when another famous conductor made a brief appearance as page turner.) When I listened a second time to the song, Von Ewiger Liebe (Of Eternal Love), I could hear the accompanist’s ego asserting itself as he kind of dragged the singer along during a display of passionate virtuoso playing. Brahms is not easy to play, and if I could do it I would probably take off with the music too, but as a singer I remember what it feels like to be in competition with an accompanist who is bounding for the finish line ahead of me.

The worst accompanist I ever had will remain nameless. The event planners hired him and assured me he was a competent musician who played professionally. I sent the music on weeks in advance. Travel delays and bad directions meant we only had half an hour to rehearse.

“So how does it go?” he asked, sitting at a piano with no music in sight.
“You did get the music, didn’t you?” I said with a sense of panic about to introduce itself. “I sent it to you weeks ago.”
“I don’t read music,” he stated, seemingly without concern. “Just sing a few bars and I can pick it up.”
Now I appreciate jazz and most other forms of music, but with classical music one simply does not “pick it up.”

OK. Change of plan.
“Um…. how about a spiritual?” I was grabbing at whatever came to mind. “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child?” I did feel rather like crying for my mommy at that point. “It is slow and sad …it has a kind of blues feel,” I added just trying to be helpful, which it turns out was not.

We worked it out and added some more well-known music and rushed to the venue. I admit I was nervous and could have handled it with more aplomb had I any inkling that this guy’s professional piano experience was playing blues in a bar. I sang three verses of a two verse song and he kept playing, improvising…and improvising…and improvising. If this had been in his bar I could have enjoyed the two drink minimum while he did his thing without me, but instead I just stood around trying not to look surprised or fifth-wheelish and waited for an opportunity to jump back in. Eventually I rushed in and sang a big ta-da ending to a song which is meant to fade into a pianissimo -just to let the guy know that I, at least, was done.

At the end of the evening I took my compliments and my check and checked out.

Apparently the group invited him back for another gig. They didn’t invite me. (Although I did sing in a sold-out concert hall in that city later, with an orchestra which was too cumbersome to just “pick it up.”)

Once, when I was only about fourteen and singing in a large church I accidentally aspirated some saliva and choked right at my entry of the second verse -in front of God and everybody. The woman at the piano acted as though she heard nothing amiss as I coughed and cleared. She skilfully raced to the finish line without me. I slunk sheepishly off the stage swearing I would never do that again. (Thank God for an older gentlemen who encouraged me later when everyone else was too embarrassed to say anything.)

Here’s the thing. I did not feel honoured by either of those pianists because neither of them were listening. The only part that mattered was theirs.

Years later, to my horror, the same choking thing happened -and in front of folks who actually paid real money. This time my accompanist (who I freely admit was a superior musician) circled around, adding an improvised passage in a style consistent with the song to give me time to recover, and then modulated back into the introduction again. He swooped by like a hero on horseback to scoop me up and we rode off together, most of the audience none the wiser.

Once when he and I were looking at potential pieces for a concert I showed him the music for a song I liked but explained it was too low for me. He sight-read and transposed the unfamiliar piece of music at the same time. My jaw dropped. Later, when this guy gave musical advice, I listened. He was not a singer, but he was full of great advice.

Accompanists are often better musicians than the “soloist” (loathe as we singers are to admit that.) Sometimes they are also coaches or conductors. They know all the parts, not just their own. Making music is a collaboration and rehearsals are the place for discussion and compromise, but in performance a good accompanist lets the singer take the lead and will cover for things like rhythm errors and memory glitches. In private they are not afraid to call them out and work through a problem area, though.

When I hired professional accompanists for students the inexperienced often complained privately that the accompanist had played the piano too slowly in a performance.
“That’s because he’s much better than I am,” I explained. “You’re used to a teacher making heavy suggestions from the keyboard. Not only does this guy play all the notes -and accurately- he is listening and breathing with you. He’s just a hair behind you because onstage you are the one who sets the tempo. If he’s playing too slowly it’s because you slowed down waiting for him to do everything.”

When I thought about this singer/accompanist relationship I made a connection with leadership in the church. Ministry is not about doing it right, or drawing attention to oneself. It is not without honour or respect and actually requires superior understanding, skill and sensitivity -even nice clothes- but the job of a minister (whether apostle, prophet, teacher, evangelist or pastor) is to raise other people up to their potential in their own service to the Great Composer. It’s not to draw attention to themselves, nor even to do everything “right” by constantly taking control because others are not up to their standards.

Gerald Moore was a well-known accompanist. His love of music was greater than his love of recognition, although he was not a shy person. He teamed up with some of the greatest artists in the past century. In some videos only his hands were in the frame. He deserved more respect. The singer or instrumentalist received (and still receives) top-billing. He made them sound good, but anyone who has ever worked with an accompanist knew this man was a giant among musicians.

May those who desire to lead in the church raise others up with the same spirit of excellence and confident humility.

This is an example of his work. Morgen is a setting of a poem by the German poet John Henry Mackay (a story in itself by Richard Strauss with Janet Baker before she was a Dame. Somehow Moore makes us forget that the piano is a percussion instrument. The song is about the hope of seeing a loved one again in the morning.

6 thoughts on “Leader as Accompanist

  1. You made your point in a most excellent manner. I will admit I laughed out loud, thoroughly enjoying your depiction of your previous experiences. I’m glad you can kindly share them now, I’m sure they were hardly amusing at that particular time.

    I’m no “musician” by any means but I’ve never heard anyone dare to say he could just “pick it up” any classical music I listen to or ever played as a student. Thanks for sharing and again it was a great post.


    1. Thank you, Lilka. Somebody told me once that if something happens that you know you can laugh at someday, you might as well start now. I’m working on it.
      Some people, amazingly, can pick up classical music -although not usually in half an hour, unless they have some savant thing going. My mother, and her father, could pick up almost anything apparently. I remember Mom playing Liszt by ear -not the really tough stuff, but some impressive stuff. My grandfather spoke seven languages and played any instrument he could lay his hands on. I wish I could have met him. If he’s anything like his musician grandsons that I have met, he must have been quite the center of attention at parties.


  2. Elizabeth

    Love the description and analogies. It is a wonderful gift, as a singer, to have a pianist who desires and loves to be an accompanist.


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