I started out accompanying myself singing, so it was totally natural to me what I had to do when I was an accompanist for other singers. Here are the lessons I share with others:
1. Learn the Words to the Song
Even though you are not singing the song, knowing a decent proportion of the words can really help if the singer comes in with a different part of the song than you were expecting. In an ideal world, the singer will know exactly where you are in the song and come in the correct place; however, if you have extended instrumental sections, sometimes singers might get a little lost and come back in at a different point of the song than you were expecting. If you know the words, you will realise what has happened and be able to correct accordingly – and the audience will think it’s all just part of the arrangement! This has happened to me on multiple occasions when a singer has either deliberately or accidentally changed the rehearsed arrangement in the middle of the performance and, because I knew the words, I was able to adapt what I was playing accordingly.
2. Be Flexible with Keys and Tempos
singer says they can’t sing it in that key, be prepared to change it to a key they are happy with. If you find this difficult to work out (or playing your part in their suggested key), using the transpose button on a keyboard or a capo on a guitar can make this bit easier. Sometimes, even on the day of a gig – or in the middle of a gig, I will have a singer ask me last minute to lower the key a bit when I accompany them as their voice is tired from performing too much and they don’t feel they can hit the high notes they usually do. Also, when it comes to how fast you play the song, let them dictate the tempo so they can find a speed that allows them to phrase the lines how they want to and fit all the words in.
The singer is the primary focus, not you
3. Don’t Play Over the Singer
If you are playing counter-melodies lines, try to play them between the vocal phrases not over them. Leave space for them in what you play. This will make them feel more comfortable and also not distract the audiences focus away from their performance. Also, make sure you are not playing too loud and drowning them out – or forcing them to strain their voice to be heard over you. This is particularly important if you have several shows in a row as it can mess up your future performances. Straining the lead singer’s voice on the first show of the week because the other instruments were too loud, is something that I have seen happen before and is so easily avoided.
4. Let the Singer Lead the Song
Follow the singer, don’t force them to follow you. The most important thing to remember is that you are the accompanist, not the lead instrument. The performance is all about the singer and it is your job to make them sound their best. It shouldn’t be a competition between you and the singer, so it is often best to leave showing off to your solo sections. That said, it doesn’t mean you always have to keep your parts simple if it suits the song; but if what you are playing is getting in the way of the vocals, you’re not doing your job properly. When done correctly, the performances of the singer and accompanist should work together to enhance each other and get the best out of the song.
5. Practice Your Part as an Accompanist
When you accompany a singer you need to be confident playing your part. If you do not know what you are playing and are nervous or making mistakes, this will make the singer nervous and ruin their (and your) performance. Even if you are just trying out a song at a rehearsal for the first time, it will make things run a lot smoother if you have prepared the piece beforehand and know roughly what you are doing. If you know your part well, it will also allow you to listen to what the singer is doing and you can play together properly in a way that you will be unable to do if you are just focussing on playing your part right. I have heard countless horror stories from singers about unprepared accompanists who messed up their performance and who they’d never work with again. So, if you want to get plenty of work and create a good working relationship with singers, it is worth putting an hour or so aside in your day to make sure you that you 100% know what you are doing.