Learning from Accompanists

You’ve decided to start incorporating some practical musicianship into your lessons – Great! Perhaps you want to begin with sight reading, or lead-sheet realization, or maybe transposition. Where do you look for pedagogical ideas related to these or other such important musical concepts? The location for this material perhaps shouldn’t shock us: accompanying treatises. Since accompanists use these skills more regularly than most other musicians, it should make sense to us to find in their writings a good starting place for our own exploration of pragmatic piano skills. After all, who better to help you learn to transpose than someone who transposes on a regular basis?

The number of books written by accompanists is slim, which makes the exploration of these works more concise than you might expect. Joking about the dearth of accompanying books, one of my grad school mentors said, “Most real accompanists are too busy playing to write books.” While there might be a grain of truth in this, the few available books by experienced, respected collaborators provide a lot of insight for those us looking for ideas about teaching improvisation, playing by ear, transposition, figured bass realization, chording, and sight reading. Here is a list of the most readily available books on accompanying that also cover these more general skills:

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Algernon Lindo, The Art of Accompanying (G. Schirmer, 1916)

Martin Katz, The Complete Collaborator: The Pianist as Partner (Oxford University Press, 2009)

Philip Cranmer, The Technique of Accompaniment (Dennis Dobson, 1970)

Gerald Moore, The Unashamed Accompanist (Metheun & Co., 1943)

Joyce Grill, Accompanying Basics (Kjos Music, 1987)

(There are more books on accompanying that this, but some (Conraad V. Bos’s The Well-Tempered Accompanist, for example) are more focused on storytelling and some (like Robert Spillman’s The Art of Accompanying) are more focused on repertoire).

Each of these books emphasizes a different set of practical skills. Lindo, for example, spends a lot of time on the more improvisatory aspects of playing: chording (what he calls vamping), playing by ear (what he calls playing by heart) and the like. Katz, by contrast, spends a lot of time dealing with orchestral reductions, something often overlooked by budding pianists. Regardless of which one of these texts you begin with, I encourage you to mine the wisdom of these great collaborators and start using their ideas in your teaching.

(p.s. if you’d like an annotated version of Lindo’s treatise, just email me – I’d be happy to send you the edited, critical edition that was part of my dissertation).