5 Shocking Truths About Director Accompanists

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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21 Replies to “5 Shocking Truths About Director Accompanists”

  1. Anita Hughes says:

    I like your article and agree with you. I think you sum it up when you say it “depends upon the group.” Speaking solely of my choir – they need a director. Other groups I am involved in I direct rehearsals only and perform with the group but do not direct.

  2. Vern Sanders says:

    I expect you mean a stand in front of them director Anita, and I know that there are groups that need that to thrive.

  3. Vern: I appreciate your article and “shocking truths” – Presently I’m an organist-pianist for a church choir, after feeling that being a director only had become too difficult. (mainly because it took more time to rehearse working through an accompanist – one important point of your article). Another truth is that some churches now, due to lack of funds are eliminating separate positions, and having only an organist/pianist-director. Also, churches losing members are even eliminating the traditional organists and/or organist-directors and moving toward the contemporary music vocal/band group. It’s a changing scene and requires versatility and flexibility. It really does depend on the situation and knowing your own strengths and comfort level. Thank you. Mary from Florida

  4. Vern Sanders says:

    Thanks for the comment Mary. The economic times have not been kind to church music ministry, that’s for sure. We’re seeing signs here in California that a corner has been turned. Blessings upon your ministry.

  5. Stanley H. Cox says:

    I enjoyed your article very much! I have always felt inadequate because I was not an Organist-Director or an Organist-Choirmaster like so many of my church music friends. Your article explains why I chose to be an Organist. Thank you very much!

  6. Vern Sanders says:

    Thanks for the comment Stanley. Trust me, the world needs good organists…I still think that two people in ministry are far more productive than one…

  7. I really enjoyed your article on the Director/ Accompanist … and the fact you are honest enough to share that your ideas have changed over the years. How often do we tend to hold on to our stance on some issue, convinced we are right and not allow God to nudge us gently to a higher plain. I have been blessed to serve as Director of Music Ministries for nearly 40 years. I can say that in all of those years NEVER have I had a problem communicating with my accompanist. She understands me so well, almost better than I know my … Yes, I am the D-A or the A-D … and I love both aspects of music ministry! I can’t iimagine doing one and not having the opportunity to do the other. I do enjoy the few times when my choir joins with another church choir and their director and/or accompanist and I share responsibilities … but even then I find it hard to decide which I’d prefer to do, so I simply leave it to my colleague’s preference. Thank you for sharing your insights!! May God continue to bless you as you make His praise glorious!! Sincerely, Susan L. Evans

  8. Vern Sanders says:

    Thanks Susan. I’ve learned a couple of new tricks recently. One of them I used today. The choir was placed in front of me, so they needed to get a clear cut off so that their final chord didn’t leak into the keyboard only coda. I had one of my trusted singers walk out in front at the end of the piece and give them the cut off. Worked like a charm…

  9. James Gilbert says:

    I’ve been primarily an accompanist since 1976 and told that I was good (not to sound conceited, but that’s what directors say). For the past 5 years I’ve had no choice but to play and direct. I wrote an e-book “In the spotlight but still in the shadows” that gives a lot of tips for accompanists and want to be accompanists, including being able to read the director’s mind. One option I’m soon going to be able to put in practice thanks to a new organ, if all goes to plan, is to play the accompaniment while the organ records what I play. I can then stand in front of the group and press play and since I played it, it’s just like what I did in rehearsal. Another option is to have your group sing without accompaniment.

  10. Vern Sanders says:

    Thanks for your comment, James. I would be interested in seeing your ebook. Can you contact me? As to recording and playing back the accompaniment…that sounds great, but as my choir will attest, for most things, I never play it the same way twice… sigh…

  11. Anonymous says:

    A great article with much truth to it. Having been a director-accompanist for most of my career, I attest to the fact that it is hard to give 100% to both positions, but that being both allows a lot of change “on the fly” as Vern puts it in worship. I consider myself a good accompanist and an adequate conductor, but have had better comments given as a director-accompanist than when I was one of the other. Thanks, Vern, for a thought-provoking article that enforces what the smaller church is dealing with in the 21st century.

  12. Anita Hughes says:

    Often we serve as director-accompanists out of necessity. We(believe we)have no choice, there is no one to accompany and so we are forced to do it ourselves. I have found over the years that while I would appreciate a like-minded accompanist, I accomplish a great deal of material in my rehearsals because we move (mostly) at my pace. However, I think the biggest drawback when you have to do it all is that you begin thinking that if it is going to be done right – you have to do it and pride sneaks in. Working with accompanists at every skill level teaches us patience, endurance and humility. Hopefully we are kind in our direction as we have been called to be servants of the living God. As a side note, let me add that I only accompany for rehearsals – I use accompaniment (track) music for performances. The choir needs the director up front.

  13. Vern Sanders says:

    Anita- I was tracking (and agreeing) with you all the way until your last sentence. While I agree that many choirs need a director up front (particularly very large groups and ensembles who are in the early stages of musical development, or for pieces that are complex enough that someone needs to direct traffic), I tried to point out in the article that I don’t believe every choir needs a director during “performance” (please allow that word in my context…I do not suggest that a choir leading worship is necessarily presenting a “performance”). Many professional choirs (Chanticleer, for instance) do not have a conductor during their appearances in public. What I was trying to say is that, in my opinion, as a director (or a director-accompanist) my directorial responsibilities are most critical in the rehearsal process. If you develop your singers as musicians, a rehearsal (and a “performance” for that matter) can be more like a string quartet rehearsal, in which everyone in the group has a common understanding of what is being attempted in musical interpretation, and takes individual responsibility to make that common understanding a reality. There is a “leader” for the rehearsal process, but, in public, as long as everyone is on the same page, and there is enough rehearsal, the ensemble can function very well without someone waving their arms. Now before you call me an idiot, let me say that it depends upon the group, and the director, for this to happen. If you and your group are more comfortable with trax, I completely understand. I prefer being the live accompaniment myself, but your results may differ.

  14. Eyrline Morgan says:

    Since we use both the piano and organ on Sunday morning, both play for the choir rehearsal. Having been an accompanist for sixty years, and a Director-Accompanist for 5 of those years, it makes my job as an accompanist easier to “think like a director.” Through the years, I’ve learned to anticipate what the director wants – to go over a passage one of the parts isn’t getting, etc. I need to always be on the same page as the director, both with the music and how he/she is directing. Being a good sight reader is an asset, as the director can give me (us) a new piece of music during the rehearsal. With two of us accompanying, one can play the parts and one the accompaniment until the choir learns the parts. The accompanist should also play the music as the composer/arranger intended, i.e. rhythm, dynamics, tempo, and, again, anticipate what the director requires of each anthem. In my sixty years, I’ve had to be flexible, going with the music of the period. The hardest part was learning rock rhythms. Accomplishing this helped me sight read most rhythms, as they have changed through the years. I love accompanying, and the added blessing of still being in that position is that I am the organist of my home church, where I learned to play many years ago.

  15. Vern Sanders says:

    Eyrline- I think the hardest part for many (most?) musicians is rhythms. I know that it is what I spend a lot of time on in rehearsal. Congratulations on your many years of service in music ministry, and I can tell you have been a blessing wherever you have served. vs

  16. Vicki Carr says:

    from the accompanist’s perspective, I appreciate reading your appreciation of good acc. skills. A good acc. Thinks like a director in order to sense when it is time to stop and fix something, or when the tenors need help with their part. If we were on the hiring end, we would desire a director who pays attention to those rough patches. One who looks at the acc. to see if he/she is ready before beginning a downbeat. One who doesn’t get defensive at the suggestion that we might want to go over a section. Four ears are better than two.

  17. Vern Sanders says:

    Thanks, Vicki. Best accompanist I ever worked with also taught me a considerable amount about baroque performance practice (and I have a degree in musicology), and introduced me to Howells, especially the Requiem, which is an extraordinary work. And having an accompanist that thinks like a director means that I felt very comfortable letting him take half the choir in a sectional while I was working with the other half.

  18. Sharon Starling says:

    Well Vern you have us searching our heart! I have been a director for school choirs and my church,and assume the role as accompanist for my Worship Leader who leads congregational singing. It is important that we be sensitive in both situations. Our goal should be to glorify our Lord and prepare the audience for worship through the Pastor’s sermon. Remember when I suggested to you that PRAYER is so very important….I still believe we should pray to our Lord for wisdom/discernment….then HE will be in control! We could write a book HOW to accomplish the perfect accompanist, choir director…no need to do this when we allow God to direct us in this ministry.

  19. Vern Sanders says:

    Well said, Sharon. You echo what Tom Kraeuter wrote here: http://cmag.ws/2u and it is something we need to keep in mind all the time.

  20. Randall Reeves says:

    Having been a full-time worship leader for 35+ years, as well as an accomplished pianist and accompanist, I agree 100%, especially with your 2nd, 3rd, and 4th “shocking truths.” When my pianist has absent from rehearsals, I would fill both roles, and found that I got more done in a shorter amount of time, for the very reasons you indicated. For me, however, the advantages of having two people (director and accompanists) outweigh the dual role. (Or is it (duel? Just kidding. I now have a very good accompanist.)

  21. Vern Sanders says:

    I agree, Randall…my “ideal” is two very accomplished people. I choose to serve in a small church now, however, and that ideal is difficult to reach. For now, I’ve chosen the director-accompanist route rather than “settle” for an accompanist that doesn’t add value. It doesn’t mean I’ve stopped looked for that person, though… vs

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