A closer look at the role of the director-accompanist
There's an old adage: Never say never. I'm here to report that what you are about to read represents a huge shift in my long-held beliefs and an accompanying (pun intended) change of perspective.
<aside: It seems to be the time and season for that for me, because in a recent article entitled Joyful Noise, I wrote about another shift of perspective, albeit one that took place many years ago: "My own Lutheran background meant that, growing up, the choir’s place was in the “choir loft” which was in the back of the church. At that time, and for many years thereafter, I believed that placing the choir in an unseen location meant that the congregation could concentrate upon listening to the beauty and majesty of the choir’s music without being distracted by the visuals. I have become convinced, however, that a choir’s place is with the rest of the worship leadership team, to serve as prompters in worship. Seeing the emotion of the choir members as they sing their message can be a powerful ministry...">
Back to our story...As someone who has studied conducting both academically and privately with orchestral and choral directors, and as someone who for many years taught conducting, and as someone who has done a fair share of accompanying, my standard line since at least the 1970s has been that director-accompanists simply can't do both the directing task and the accompanying task as well as two people doing one or the other of the two tasks.
Bottom line? I strongly discouraged my students from even thinking about being a director-accompanist, and, to a certain extent, dismissed the efforts of my colleagues who held such a role. Why? To repeat myself, because the demands of each half of the hyphen are such that if you are distracted from one by fulfilling the other, one, or both -- and, by extension the musical quality -- suffer(s).
The Shocking Truths
To paraphrase Pogo now I have met the enemy...and I'm a member of Director-Accompanists Are Us. Hence the huge change in perspective.
The first shocking truth I've learned is, surprisingly, I've been right all along. DON'T STOP READING YET. I'm a pretty fair accompanist, and (begin humble tone) a very good conductor (end humble tone). That having been said, there are pieces I can't do, because the level of concentration needed for me to be the "accompanist" means I can't devote my full attention to making sure the conducting imperatives are met. I am living proof of the truism that a deficiency in either side of the hyphen impairs the overall result.
The second shocking truth is, also surprisingly, as a director-accompanist, my rehearsals are much more efficient. There is a reason for this, and it has to do, in part, because accompanists are rarely paid what they are worth -- particularly the good ones. As a result, even with fairly hefty budgets, I can count on three fingers of one hand the number of great accompanists I've been fortunate to have worked with (preposition intended) over the course of my 45 year conducting career. My definition of a great accompanist is someone who knows why I'm stopping when I stop, and in at least one of the cases, consistently gave me the correct pitches for the parts that needed to be worked in the passage in question, BEFORE I ASKED.
Most accompanists, it turns out, have slowed my rehearsal down. In extreme cases, even the choir knew where we were but we had to wait for the (short-lived hires, all of them) accompanist to figure it out.
As a director-accompanist, I don't have to wait to explain to my accompanist why I'm stopping, and what I want to work on. This is no joke: I figure I save as much as 15 minutes in every 90 minute rehearsal as a result of this one fact.[Tweet "I discovered the 5 shocking truths about director accompanists"]
The third shocking truth is that director-accompanists never really know if the balance between the singers and the accompaniment is optimal. Until listening to a recording, that is. On the fly, in worship or rehearsal, balance is an instinctive moment-to-moment decision which presumes an intimate knowledge of the building in which you are working, the instrument of which you are playing, and the specific choir members, individually and collectively, which are singing. I know I get it wrong regularly (but not often), and it is this one thing that separates a good director-accompanist from someone who is taking up a seat at the keyboard (or holding a guitar, or standing with a violin in their hand).
The fourth shocking truth is that a director-accompanist can make up for the ensemble's problems. True confession: sometimes I play too loud, balance-wise, on purpose, because if I don't, the singers won't find their notes...or worse. Sometimes it is (gasp!) prudent for the whole to not hear the (choir) parts. As a director-accompanist, I can make that decision on the fly without having to prep an accompanist to look for the potential problem and go through a long checklist to figure out whether or not it is a "go" to cover that one chord.
The fifth shocking truth is that being a director-accompanist means I don't impose my conducting personality, and physical presence, between the singers and the listeners. I have always been a big advocate of all the work being done in rehearsals. I believe that a conductor's work during performance is to establish parameters, provide visual mnemonics, and repair breakdowns. I tell people, truthfully, that, as a conductor, during performance I just direct traffic.
Here's the surprising thing, though. As a director-accompanist, if I do my conducting work during rehearsal, the ensemble becomes a large chamber group. When I can trust the singers to do their job without my traffic direction, I can be a true collaborator at the keyboard. If I don't have to worry about them, I can worry about what I'm doing. If everyone does what we've all learned together, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts...and the singers communicate directly with the listeners, rather than singing to me as a conductor because they want to "do right" and please me.
As I've become more comfortable as a director-accompanist, my rehearsals are now more like chamber group rehearsals (a string quartet, for example). Everybody contributes musical input and suggestions (some more than others, of course, and me most of all because I'm being paid to be the leader). Common ground is reached on an understanding of interpretation, and everyone is better aware of when they are leading, following, supporting, or contrasting with their musical content.
What Would Vern Do?
Has my experience as a director-accompanist made me decide that conductors are superfluous? Absolutely not. Has my experience made me more sensitive to the value of a great accompanist? Absolutely. Has it stopped me from discounting the work of my director-accompanist colleagues? Yes, it has.
If all the right pieces were in place, I still believe that two people can do the job better than one. But until I find a great accompanist for my current situation, I'm convinced that a director-accompanist is the best of all current possible worlds.
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