I love the piano. It’s my favorite instrument, and I love to play it. Over the years, I’ve gotten very good at improvising and playing by ear, but my sight-reading has always been a bit slow. As a future chorus teacher, I’m a bit nervous about this.
Now, over the course of my teacher prep program, we students were told that piano skills just weren’t very important anymore- at least, they didn’t make or break a choral director. Students often sang along to CD recordings, performed with nontraditional accompaniment like percussion, or sang a cappella. More advanced reading and accompanying skills were not necessary in a director.
But as I’m applying for jobs, I see that most schools specifically request piano skills or accompanying skills. This makes me wonder about the crossover between directing and accompanying and its pedagogical implications.
Choral directors must have a certain set of piano skills, no matter what kind of accompaniment they end up using. “Choral piano skills” include playing vocal lines (individually and simultaneously), singing a part while playing another, accompanying warm-ups in every major and minor key, and basic sight-reading skills acquired over the course of any college music program. Requiring choral directors to have these skills is is both reasonable and pedagogically sound.
But often I find that job descriptions list “accompanying skills” as desirable for chorus teachers. This is problematic for two reasons. One, it treats accompanying as a skill naturally acquired as a music or music education. In many undergrad programs, majors do take piano skills and accompanying classes. However, the level of proficiency achieved is generally functional at best. From what I’ve learned talking to other chorus teachers, rarely do they have the proficiency enough to even call themselves pianists. Second, there is a difference between “piano skills” and “accompanying.” The course of study for a piano performance major will be very different from that of a piano accompaniment major. The skills necessary for each are similar in some regard, but ultimately they are different arts. Too often, it seems that schools confuse these skill sets. On top of that, they expect chorus teachers to… direct choruses! Not to mention be a proficient vocal model. These four skill sets are often not present in equal amounts in a chorus teacher. When the number one responsibility is to teach students to sing and prepare them vocally for concerts, shouldn’t chorus teachers
It is my personal opinion that a choral conductor should not be held to additional responsibilities at the keyboard if it takes away from her role as a director. I was lucky enough to be able to move my choral rehearsals away from the piano when I was student teaching. This was beneficial for several reasons: my students developed better ears and critical listening skills, and I was able to utilize my absolute pitch, focus on score analysis, and improve my conducting gestures. If I had had to sit at a piano, none of that would have happened, and my students would have sounded mediocre at best.
If a director can also accompany, that is definitely some help. But even if this is the case, both the students and the teacher miss out on certain opportunities that should be part of a choral program.
Choral directors, by the nature of their job, need to get out from behind the piano. Why? Because it detracts from rehearsal time spent singing. If a choral director has to worry about playing, even is she is proficient, she sacrifices her choral leadership skills. As a conductor, I want to get up in front of groups and teach them about the important of musical leadership. I want to communicate with them in a way that cannot be reproduced sitting behind a piano. Learning to read a conductor’s gestures is an important skill for all musicians, and being able to communicate effectively is the mark of a great teacher. It is physically impossible to do so if a conductor is relegated to accompanist. This doesn’t mean that accompanists are below directors. It just means that choral directors are done a disservice when they are taken away from the podium.
You might think this is too academic for grade school. But I say that it is time we recognize the intense study and skills required to be a successful choral conductor. It is more than teaching by rote. It is more than beating a four-pattern. It is more than learning a piano part.
If a school wants the choral director to also be the accompanist, that is of course their prerogative. But it is important for everyone to realize that the piano can easily become, in the words of a teaching mentor of mine, a crutch.
The next big question is how to make this happen. Schools are hardly able to hire accompanists for each choral rehearsal. CDs are less than favorable, in my opinion, though they do solve the problems I’ve talked about above.
Get students involved. Ask if there an advanced piano student who could accompany for rehearsals or concerts. This would give her some experience and the opportunity to demonstrate arts leadership to her peers, plus take pressure off the director. Program pieces with instrumental accompaniment and team up with band or orchestra students. Have members of the chorus play drums and sing. Use pieces with body percussion or cacophony. (Check out the video below.)
I want to be a better piano player. But I also want to be a good musical leader. I want my students to become better listeners and singers. I want them to know there is more to choral music than singing with a piano all the time. I want them to participate in a more multi-faceted way while they perform.