At the time, I was a director/accompanist at a small church with a choir of about 20 people. I found I could direct most things from the piano just fine and I think it helped the choir take more responsibility for their music-making. But, I realize this was a unique situation. There are always rewards and challenges with the job - that goes without saying. And in a larger church with a larger choir doing more difficult music, I can see how the role of director/accompanist would be more challenging and could in fact limit what the choir is able to do.
Recently, I received an email from a reader - Tami Thompson of Grace United Methodist Church in Hamilton, Ohio. She recently stepped into the role of director/accompanist for the first time and shared some of the joys and challenges so far. It got me thinking:
As a director/accompanist, what are the practical challenges of running a rehearsal, directing on Sunday mornings, logistics, etc.? Are there any creative solutions? What are the rewards or benefits of directing from the keyboard?
Tami was kind enough to reply with a few of her thoughts (see her thoughts woven throughout) and together with my experience and the experiences of people I know, and another look at Vern Sanders' article, I wrote out a few of the rewards and challenges of the job.
Let's start with the challenges (and a few creative solutions!):
By now, we all know that multitasking isn't all it's made out to be. "When we attempt to multitask, we don’t actually do more than one activity at once, but quickly switch between them." (source) Unless you know the music really, really well, it's very difficult to listen critically to the choir (breath, vowels, dynamics, phrasing, balance, notes/rhythms) and focus on a more challenging piano accompaniment (source). Often, your attention will be divided between the two - sometimes, more focused on the choir, their parts and their sound; other times, more focused on your part, fingering, tempo, etc.
Pro Tip: Rehearse the piece a variety of different ways in rehearsal: each part alone (with piano), parts in combination (with and without piano), all parts (with and without piano), singing on neutral vowel with accompaniment (focusing on breath and phrasing), singing with text with accompaniment.
Related post: My Step-By-Step Process for Rehearsing a New Anthem
Depending on your setup, it may be challenging to hear if the sound is balanced - in terms of the choir’s sound (balance between voice parts) and the choir and the piano or organ (source).
Pro Tip: Try recording part of your rehearsal and listening to it later or appointing someone you can trust to stand in different places throughout the sanctuary as you rehearse and give you (and the group) feedback.
Sometimes, the organ is behind the altar. Or in the balcony. Or way off to the side. Sometimes, the piano is far away from where the choir stands (or behind them). Yes, logistics can be a big challenge. What's a director/accompanist to do?
Pro Tip: Short of singing everything a cappella, one option is to record your accompaniments ahead of time (try apps like GarageBand or Music Studio) and then stand in front of the choir to direct on Sunday morning (it's as close as you can get to cloning yourself). I have a friend who does this every week for a choir of about 15. The nice thing is, in the moment, you get to focus solely on the choir and their sound.
Another idea is to ask someone to guest conduct. Like I said, most of the time, I found I was able to direct from the piano just fine, but, there were a few anthems each year that really were better when someone was standing in front conducting. Fortunately, my husband, Steve (also a musician) was able to step in and conduct a few times a year when the choir really needed it. Maybe you have someone at your church or in the choir that would be willing to help out a few times a year?
Teaching choir to sing without a conductor
Depending on how accustomed your choir is to have a director in front of them, this can be a big adjustment. Suddenly, they have to count those long notes at the ends of phrases to know exactly where to put the "t" and think about when to start breathing before the first phrase.
Pro Tip: Spend some time teaching your choir about breathing and cut-offs and explain why and how you made these decisions. "We discuss how to know when to come in and when to cut off at the end. I encourage them to mark their music in pencil so they'll know what to do," Tami shared. This helps them learn and become better musicians and hopefully, transfer that knowledge to new music.
More efficient rehearsals
When there are two people in leadership positions - a director and an accompanist - there’s always a certain amount of time spent giving directions (e.g. “please play our parts here” or “can you give us two measures of introduction?”). When you’re the director/accompanist, you won't need to wait for your accompanist to find where you are or where you want to go back to (source). You also save time before or after rehearsal going over the schedule, reviewing upcoming anthems, or discussing other music in worship.
Related post: 10 Secrets for Running a Successful Choir Rehearsal
As the director/accompanist, you can make split-second decisions based on things you see or hear. Drop out, play softer, play louder, add support for one part, switch to parts, switch to accompaniment, etc. In any other situation, these kinds of decisions would require you to stop, communicate with your accompanist, regain control of the choir, and restart.
This kind of flexibility and quick thinking does, however, require good accompanying skills. As Tami noted, "I have had to make adjustments in my accompaniment . . . . At times, I really have to play their voice parts, so I'm jumping back and forth between accompaniment and voice parts. That's where my accompaniment skills help me. I can hear if they're struggling and switch."
Direct connection between choir and congregation
As the director/accompanist you are probably seated behind the piano or organ, often to the side instead of directly in front of the choir. The benefit of this is that you’re not standing in between the choir and the congregation every time they sing (source). The choir can look up and make eye contact with people in the congregation, and the congregation can focus on the choir and the words they’re singing.
"The choir members really don't miss that out front director," Tami said. "I always remind them to 'Make a joyful noise . . . it doesn't have to be perfect, but should be joyful.'"
Singers take more responsibility
When there's a director and an accompanist, the choir is often instructed to “watch the director” at all critical points in the music (or, let's face it - all the time). I’ve even heard comments like, “That’s a fermata. It means ‘watch the director’” or "See that rubato marking? That means 'watch the director.'" Besides being educationally and musically inaccurate, these kinds of comments perpetuate a choir's dependency on having a conductor up front. They stop thinking for themselves and taking responsibility for their music-making.
In contrast, when led by a director/accompanist, the choir often feels more like a chamber ensemble, with every member taking responsibility for their part. The director/accompanist becomes more of a co-collaborator. There's mutual respect and a level of dedication to the music-making that is both rewarding and fulfilling. Plus, when singers take more responsibility, it can mean more focused work in rehearsals and a higher level of commitment.
Tami summarized: "My reward is realizing that I really can do it."
Are you an all-in-one director/accompanist? If so, I’d love to hear: What do you consider the greatest rewards and challenges?