Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Choral Collaboration: Be Inspired to Inspire

Today's post is by Jaime Namminga, Assistant Professor and Coordinator of the Collaborative Piano Area at Susquehanna University in Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania. A few weeks ago, Jaime contacted me about the possibility of writing a short article about choral collaboration. 

Jaime and I acknowledge the very difficult time that those in the choral community are facing. Whether you're in a green zone where the COVID-19 virus is not prevalent or one of the most hard-hit places in the United States, the short-term future of choral singing will be very challenging indeed. No matter where the solution lies, now is the perfect time to learn the pianistic skills that will enable you to become a valued collaborator with any choir once the situation improves and we can once again sing together in harmony.


In reference to collaborative piano assignments, I have heard students say things like “this one is JUST a choral piece…easy stuff.” If pianists consider musical collaborations as opportunities to both inspire and be inspired, as I do, a choral collaboration comprises a lot of people, which means a lot of inspiration and a large responsibility from all involved. How does a pianist approach the art of choral accompanying? Whether you are a veteran to choral accompanying and are looking for some new teaching tips or are a pianist new to the choral scene yourself, I invite you to consider my insight of the following choral accompanying components: working with a conductor, reading an open score, playing a choral score with piano writing, and playing an orchestral reduction.

Working with a Conductor
  • Establish a trusting relationship – you want them to know you are reliable to both be at rehearsal in a timely fashion and to be an asset at the piano.
  • Ask yourself, what logistical expectations does the conductor have of you? Will you play warm-ups? Lead sectionals? Is your vocal input welcomed? 
  • Be observant – get to know their conducting style very well and what they prioritize – high expectations? Immediate note and rhythm picker on the first couple read-throughs? Or are they going for a broad understanding according to the overall musical map? 
  • Become a mind-reader – predict and anticipate rehearsal spots by detecting errors. Then you are ready to give starting pitches before being told a page and measure number. It helps to be a step ahead whenever possible. 

Reading an Open Score 

  • Look at the overall map – what form is the piece? Is there repetition? 
  • You cannot play everything. “Fake it til you make it.” 
  • Know the bass!!! This is the harmonic foundation, and you playing out the bass line will encourage the basses to sing out, thus aiding the rest of the choir in their parts. 
  • Be a music theory nerd – according to the bass line, look at the chord progressions to see how vertically, the parts line up – even if you can’t play every note as written, you can at least help singers to hear how their note fits into the chord. 
  • Beyond the bass, recognize what parts need help. i.e. If sopranos are golden, no need to play every note of their part while the poor tenors are suffering (no offense to tenors, only an example 😉). 
  • Be prepared to play any combination of parts, but…recognize the relationship between parts. i.e. If there are sections where bass and alto are in unison and tenor and soprano are in unison, there is a high possibility the conductor will rehearse those parts together. 
  • The tenor part is in treble clef but down the octave. 
  • Give starting pitches mp – make sure you’re heard but no need to pound. 
  • Recognize who has the melody when. 
  • Use 2 hands to play parts, even if they are close in register – no need to come up with fancy fingerings when you have enough challenge before you playing the parts correctly. 
  • Play out – you are there to help singers learn their parts, so make sure everyone can hear you. Don’t be shy! 
  • Demonstrate the vocal phrasing that the conductor desires, in the way you play it. Singers look to both the conductor and the pianist for help with the musicality! 
  • Never stop – the singers will keep singing, so you must keep playing. There is no time to be a perfectionist in this situation. If you start to fumble, hold on to something and get back on. 

Playing a Choral Score With Piano Writing

  • Map out the music – what is the form? Strophic? Through-composed? 
  • Know the character of the piece. 
  • Focus practice time on the tricky spots – efficient practicing. 
  • Relationship between vocal and piano parts – may be motives to bring out. 
  • Breaths – how do these affect pacing of the phrases and how do you work with the conductor to set these up successfully? 
  • Intros, interludes, postludes, short piano solos within phrases – take every opportunity to be musical and inspiring! Singers should do what the conductor shows, but no amount of gesture will achieve the desired sound if the pianist is boring. 
  • When learning the score, sing the melody line while playing your own part to know the piece more intimately. 
  • Look for text painting opportunities. 
  • Have one eye in your music and the other eye on the conductor at all times – be ready for anything and assume nothing!! Ritardandos, Accelerandos, Decrescendos, Crescendos…..
  • Gauge your dynamics by an awareness of the choir’s size – may have to keep piano lid on half stick for sake of audience seeing the choir, so you adjust your volume accordingly. 
Playing an Orchestral Reduction 
  • This changes our physical approach to the keys, articulations, and pedaling. 
  • Where is your role more percussive and where is it more lyrical? 
  • Know what instruments you are imitating and do it to the best of your ability. 
  • You likely cannot play everything or do not want to, depending on how true the reduction is to the full score – what’s most important? 
    • Bass support and harmonic foundation are first and foremost – write in chord analysis.
    • Be very articulate so the pulse is clear and bring out the rhythms. 
    • Correct style according to the time period/composer, e.g. if you are playing a Mozart mass, you won’t be using blurry pedaling and rubato. The purpose of your pedal usage is to give depth of sound to the “double basses” and maybe some connectivity of line. 
    • If it causes the tempo to slow, leave it out! No one cares that you cleanly finished your Hanon exercise if you’re a mile behind. 
Have fun and show some pride – after all, you are one pianist representing an entire orchestra! 😊

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