I've worked with my vocal group, The Prince Consort, for over a decade and I've learned a few things about the secret world of the piano accompanist.Tom Service wrote an excellent piece in the Guardian on this topic a few weeks ago, and as a piano accompanist myself - or collaborative pianist as they are known in the US - it was great to read an article from our perspective.
Not because we feel unloved or anything, but because much of what an accompanist does in a performance is not immediately obvious to the naked ear.
Who's following who?
One common pre-conception is that the accompanist "follows" the singer. Thinking away from the realms of music, if you were to "accompany" someone to an event, you would walk alongside them, not follow them around like they are mother duck. It's the same with accompanying a soloist; if you are following them, it means you are going to be behind all the time, which is the first step to making the music drag like a sack of potatoes.
Most of the time you are actually predicting what is about to happen; it's a bit of a guessing game, but when you get used to it, it becomes quite intuitive. Of course, you will inevitably find yourself reacting to what they do, but in a great performance there is much more of a sense that both musicians are aiming for the same points in the music, even if sometimes their routes don't entirely match up, note-for-note.
It can be quite exciting if the two aren't precisely together at times, and you can play on this musically: when the words demand it, it's effective to have the piano holding back whilst the voice is trying push forwards or vice versa, creating a tension between the performers.
Not too much tension though; we don't want any fights ensuing in the green room afterwards. Even worse would be a fight on stage Kathleen Battle has been known to stop accompanists on stage during a performance because she didn't like how fast they played the introduction to a song. Yikes, no pressure!
A victory for the left
I've always played both solo concerts and chamber music concerts within the same concert season, and one significant thing I've noticed is that accompanying doesn't physically feel the same as performing a piano solo.
One of my teachers at the Royal College of Music, the fantastic Roger Vignoles, once pointed out to me that when one plays a solo piano piece the tune is often projected in the right hand as the most important part. Next important is the bass in the left hand and finally the harmonic filling that goes in between the two (like the jam in your treble and bass sandwich).
So, in a solo piano recital you are usually right-hand biased. In fact not only right-hand biased, but right-hand-pinkie biased, because you're often voicing up the top note of a chord (i.e. making it louder) above the other notes. When you accompany, the tune is now often taken over by the soloist. This means your right hand no longer occupies pole position and the left hand does, since it plays the bass part (the next most prominent part of the texture), with the right hand providing the harmonic filling. All lefties should be accompanists!
Am I too loud?
As collaborative pianists (- I like this term very much!) the eternal question we ask ourselves is 'Am I too loud?' (also the title of an excellent book on the role of the accompanist by Gerald Moore). Singers are understandably worried about this too, often more so than we are.
Much to the alarm of several soloists and audience members, I'm keen on having the grand piano lid up on its full stick for a full range of colour - on grand pianos you can have the option of the lid fully closed or on half stick too.
But it's a common misconception that shutting the lid means that the piano will be quieter. Playing quieter is down to the player, and in fact, if the lid is on half-stick it can overpower the soloist more than if the lid is wide open because you are funneling the sound out of a very narrow gap; it cuts through to the audience like a laser beam.
Texture not volume
Aside from the technicalities of whether the piano lid is open or closed, balance in performance is less about volume, and more about texture. By "texture" I mean the complexity of a musical composition, something built up by adding different layers or elements - including melodies, chords and voices - to form a "tapestry".
When you're playing in a massive auditorium like Bridgewater Hall with a capacity of almost 2500 seats, you need to create a sound that flies to the back of the hall, but one which doesn't drown out your partner.
You do this by picking out the most important bit of the piano texture and projecting it strongly, whilst keeping the rest of the texture down in volume. If you don't project on stage, people at the back of the hall have to strain to listen.
In the key of the beholder
At vocal recitals in high-profile venues like Wigmore Hall, often the accompanists will be transposing the piano part too - putting it into a different key so the pitch suits the singer's voice. This is certainly an area in which no-one in the audience should be aware that transposition is taking place; if an audience member comes up to you after and says with a beaming smile - "nice transposition of the Brahms!" - you've probably done a bad job.
One of my colleagues used to rehearse with a singer who would always stop him halfway through the first bar of every new song and request that it be transposed down a tone. So he began to realize that if he started each song a tone higher, when he was inevitably asked to transpose it down, it would actually end up being in the original key add a bit of squinting and frowning at the music, and it looked like he was transposing. Brilliant!
There is something about chamber music that forces you to listen deeper as a performer, not only to the other musicians but also to yourself in reaction to them. And there are so many instances in concertos that involve the soloist interacting with a small sub-section of the orchestra, just like chamber music; think of the solo at the start of the slow movement of Rachmaniov's Piano Concerto No.2.
When I consider who some of my favourite solo performers are, it's interesting to note that many of them have a strong background in chamber music too - Jeremy Denk has a long-standing partnership with American mega-star violinist Joshua Bell; Susan Tomes was pianist in the Florestan Trio etc
As my friend and colleague, the pianist Christopher Weston, said to me, "As musicians we need to be able to play music with others, in order to be able to play music well ourselves".