disambiguation: This article is about giving pitches. For perfect pitch, see another blog I haven't written yet. Or you can go here for a brief discussion of same.
Choral accompanists: hello. Good morning/afternoon/evening and welcome to my first entry on how to improve your craft. If you've been to Pianonoise before you are probably aware that I can be relied upon to fixate on what appear to be some pretty strange things. Today we are going to focus entirely on the art of giving pitches to choirs.
This is usually the first thing you do after the choir is warmed up, and, if the piece being performed is without accompaniment, it may be the only thing you do. Most people may be under the impression that any reasonably talented baboon can give pitches, but there are, in fact, several subtle things to be considered that can actually make you a much better accompanist if you take them into account.
it's all about the pacing.
Keeping the pace of the director is important. I would guess I can save my choral organizations a couple of hours of rehearsal every year by giving pitches as soon as they are needed: usually the director does not need to say the word. As soon as the piece is announced, the choir seems reasonably quiet, and the director is finished giving instructions, that opening chord sounds. Whenever the director stops, gives instructions, and then says, "start at the pickup to measure 59," the chord sounds. This happens not only because I am focused on the proceedings, but also, as soon was we stop, I am also diagnosing the problem, listening to the director, and guessing where we are going to be asked to start up again, based on where the last reasonable place to start might be. In other words, I have already
read the director's mind
so that by the time he/she gets the words out of his/her mouth, I am probably already looking at the chord I will have to play. If I have guessed wrong, I will have to find the correct one pronto, but I am a pretty good guesser. Ten to one, if I have a well-developed sense of where each musical unit begins, and my director does too, I can guess where a good spot to begin again will be. If I am listening to the choir, I probably already know what the director is going to fix (although there may be multiple issues, and my first plan of attack may not be theirs). If I am listening to what comes out of the director's mouth regarding what he/she didn't like about what she heard, that is an even better indication of where we are going to start!
Of course, all of this depends on one important thing, which is that, whether I am actually playing anything or not, I have to be a part of the music making. So, let's back up a bit and say
no reading magazines during rehearsal!
Musicians can often be disengaged during what appears to be downtime--times when they aren't doing anything active, like actually playing notes. My theory is that this isn't downtime at all, in fact, by listening to the choir during unaccompanied pieces, I can actually become another coach--sometimes quietly playing a few notes to remind the tenors they are flat, or that they missed an interval, and even subtly making a suggestion to the director (who has good ears) of something that ought to be fixed. It has gotten so that my director, confident that I am following along, may sometimes cue me back in if she has asked me not to play a passage with the choir. After several pages, suddenly, on measure 109, I get the cue, and join the choir in progress without a hitch. Or, she'll ask me to help the basses, and if I am silently following their part I can usually pop right back in within a beat or two.
Primarily, then, the point in all of this is not to in any way disrupt the flow of the rehearsal. In fact, you should be able to give pitches so that the director says what they want to say and is able to count off with no waiting at all. If you are canny, you can get the pitches in during the narrow space between the final word and the start of the count-off, so that there is no waiting at all. Be engaged, and be quick!