My first experience as an accompanist came when my middle school choir director invited me to accompany for the choir. At the time I only had about five or six years of piano lessons under my belt, and so I really had a lot of growing to do in order to be equal to the task. It’s surprising how much harder it is to play with a group than it is to play solo!
I worked very hard on the pieces, and took both my performance and sight reading skills to a whole new level. Of course I felt honored to be asked to play the piano for my school choir, but it also opened my mind to the fact that playing the piano was a practical skill. It wasn’t just for my own enjoyment, but could serve a wider purpose and be a contribution to the community. I went on to accompany for my high school choir, for my college choir, and to support myself in college by being an accompanist for voice lessons. It paid better than a cafeteria job, and was a lot more fun!
You don’t have to wait until you’re an expert at the piano before you can accompany others. Start right now to develop this fun and important skill:
Step 1: Learn the piano part really well
An accompanist needs to be able to keep a steady tempo and not pause for mistakes. Even more than that, the accompanist should know their part well enough that they don’t have to focus all their attention on playing the right notes. That way, they can listen to and follow the performer.
Before you accompany someone, get really familiar with the piano piece. Know it so well you hardly ever make a mistake, and if you do make a mistake you can just keep on playing. Be able to start and stop anywhere in the song. Have the music memorized if you can.
Step 2: Sing along while you play
Once you can play a piece well, try singing along while you play. This will test you by dividing your attention between singing and playing. Could you still play while you sang along? That means you’ll probably be able to take the next step and play with someone else.
Step 3: Practice with a recording
Try playing along with a recording or backing track. If you don’t have a recording, try recording yourself either singing or playing the melody only, and then play along with the recording. If you’re playing a Hoffman Academy song, we’ve got professional quality backing tracks for you to practice with that come with our Lesson Materials or with Premium Membership.
Step 4: Practice playing while someone else sings
Now comes the real test. Can you play along while someone else sings? Find a volunteer and ask them to sing the song while you play the piano. Were you able to stay together? Did you have to stop or did you get lost anywhere? If so, just go back and try again.
Step 5: Super Challenge – Learn to follow another performer
Once you can play a song without pauses or mistakes while someone else is singing or playing, that’s when the real fun begins. A good accompanist listens carefully and tries to copy the other performer’s dynamics and tempo. You can practice this with these activities:
Ask someone to clap the beat while you play the song. Tell them to choose whether to clap fast or slow, and then see if you can play the song at their choice of tempo.
Now ask someone to clap the beat and gradually change speed, either going faster or slower throughout the song. See if you can stay with the beat even when it speeds up or slows down.
Ask someone to sing along as you play. Tell them to choose how loud to sing without telling you what they’ve chosen. Then, when they start singing, try to match your piano playing to the same volume. Try this a few different times at different dynamic levels.
Now ask someone to sing along and change how loud they are singing during the song. Can you listen and follow them?
Putting It All Together
Once you feel confident with these skills, ask someone to sing while you play, and tell them they can sing loud or soft, fast or slow, and you’ll try to match what they’re doing. Make it a game.
Learning to accompany others is such a valuable ability, it is a good idea to take some time to focus on it all on its own. Whether you want to play in a band, play for a choir, accompany congregational singing in a church, play professionally, or just play the piano while your friends sing along, start today to develop the skills you’ll need as an accompanist.