Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Teaching Basic Accompaniment Skills

What skills are needed to become a proficient accompanist?  While the majority of accompanists are pianists, not all pianists have the ability to jump easily into an accompanist role.
I learned this the hard way when I was asked to substitute for our church choir practice and the director handed me an entirely new piece of music on the spot and asked me to play parts that were spread out across multiple staffs with multiple key changes!  My adept "chunking skills" of seeing chord patterns and intervals to learn music quickly were not as useful as normal with the notes so spread out!
At our studio group students participated in some of these activities to sharpen these six essential skills that prepare them to become more successful at accompanying.

Coming on cue is vital skill for accompanists that isn't often formally taught in piano lessons. One precursor of being able to come in with the cue of a conductor is a having a solid understanding of time signatures.
Hand Clapping to different Time Signatures helps students to intrinsically feel the down beat on 1 and the Strong and weak beat patterns of varying time signatures while reinforcing counting aloud by measure.
For this activity students face a partner and listen to pieces with varying time signatures while clapping patterns to the beat.
First start by chanting the motions (Down-Up) and then transition to the strong/weak patterns and counts when you can see they are grasping the concept.
1. 2/4 Time: Face a partner and chant "Down-Up" while doing the following motions. Hands tap down on your legs, Up to clap your partner's hands.
2. 2/4 Time: Repeat but chant "Strong-weak"
3. 2/4 Time: Repeat again but Count aloud by measure "1-2"
4.  Repeat steps 1-3 using 3/4 and 4/4 time signature with the following words.
3/4 "Down, Out, Up" " "STRONG - weak - weak" "1-2-3"
4/4 "Down, In, Out, Up" "STRONG- weak-STRONG-weak" "1-2-3-4"
Once students have mastered basic hand clapping, challenge them to change it up by adding a different action for the Strong or weak beats (finger snap? crazy face? muscle flex? head turn, etc.).

Once students understand the fundamental difference between the most common time signatures, I teach them basic conducting patterns using this Basic Conducting Patterns Handout starting with songs that start on beat 1 and later explaining upbeats for songs beginning with incomplete measures.   

Then I teach them how to follow the preparatory "upbeat" cues from a chorister.  Songs beginning on beat 1 are cued with an upward motion of the arm.  But songs with an upbeat may start immediately after the "outward arm" of beat 3.
I recently learned while being my daughter's cello accompanist that an alternative cue from an instrumentalist is a subtle "sniff" of the nose that is not likely heard by an audience but can provide a non-obvious cue from the instrumentalist to let you know they are ready to begin immediately after the sniff. I use this signal to cue students when I am ready to begin videotaping them in lessons.
Monthly group lesson performances provide an ideal setting for students to take turns conducting while the performers follow their cue.

Play with distractions or contrasting parts
Often students lament that when I add the duet part to a piece they have learned it is much harder!  It does take more skill to play a piece with the distraction of a sometimes contrasting part being played simultaneously. Once a student has learned a piece I typically play the teacher duet with them to give them recurring duet practice, but the Piano Maestro app is also a useful tool for students to get accustomed to playing along with contrasting parts from the start.  I like how many of the songs do not include the melody line so students get accustomed to playing parts other than the melody line which they tend to play partially by ear.  Group lessons provide an ideal setting for ensemble work practice.  Some of the Play it Again Practice Cards from Colourful Keys can provide great ideas to help students see how well they can play amidst their own distractions such as foot stomping or singing opera style!

Continuity - Keep Going Despite Mistakes
While a metronome or backing track like the MusicClock app can help students on a weekly basis become more aware of a steady beat or pulse that will helpfully hope them to continue driving forward, my favorite tool is the Piano Maestro app.  Students receive instant feedback about whether or not they are rushing or dragging the tempo and they are driven to keep going to earn 3 stars to pass off the song.

Scan Score and Simplify 
With my more classical focused training and childhood precise preparation of following the score exactly for festival, leaving out notes was a bit foreign to me, but learning which note to omit for easier preparation can be a time and stress saver when you are learning multiple pieces as an accompanist within a short time frame.  Omitting the middle line (often alto/tenor parts) or omitting repetitive octave notes  or stride chords can ease playing.
I also recommend marking chords, patterns, and accidentals. I use this color-coded system for chord analysis.  Anticipating the chords to play in music by seeing their colors makes it easier to simplify and quickly sightread music.

During private lesson time I periodically pull out my sightreading binder for students to compete against themselves and try to beat their previous score of consecutive measures sightread without errors.  This helps cure students who have a habit of pausing to fix mistakes continually in the middle of their songs instead of just moving forward as is required in accompanying.  Finding the form, making a music map and handing over the pencil to students so they can color pattern, chords, scales, etc. are also helpful in facilitating speedy sightreading.

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