A Piece on Piano Accompaniment




A sharing by Mr Wong Chee Yean, MMus

SMART & RISE Master Trainer


When I started playing together with people, one of the first things I had to learn is starting together with the person whom I am playing with, getting the first note to sound absolutely together.


Understanding of the mechanism of sound production of other instruments or voice is surprisingly neglected in the study of piano playing, I think it’s because we are so occupied with the technical aspects of playing, very often it’s about how to play fast, and faster and louder.


The closest thing you come sounding together when you are playing alone is playing a chord, with ONE sound, all the notes sounded together, no delayed or missing notes.


So in order that you start together with the musicians you are playing with, you need to develop this feeling for how a sound is produced by other instruments. Each family of instruments starts a sound differently. For example, let’s compare an oboe with a violin. The oboe makes sound by blowing into two pieces of reed. Hence a sound is produced when the resistance of the cane is overcome and starting to vibrate. The process, in a beginner, often results in a clear attack, hence a very clear entrance. However, with an experienced player, he is able to somehow softens this attack by getting the air flowing before the sound is made. Violin or any other string instruments on the other hand, have more flexibility. They can either glide to soften the initial attack of the sound, or make a very clear attack if the note is accented.


My worst nightmare was playing the harpsichord at the MPO chamber music series. You probably know that harpsichord makes sound by plucking the strings. You can’t play it like piano, because there is a very clear point when a sound is made, if you attack the keys too slowly thinking that you want to soften the entry, there simply won’t be a sound. The only way to make sound is in fact having a very clear attack. Hence there is no way you can soften the initial attack of the sound. When I played with the strings, they kept gliding in at their entrances, and I easily sounded too early even though I am actually right on time. 


So how do you develop a feel for the timing so you can all start together? That boils down to rhythm. When you count three, four, one, it’s very important that each beat has energy and that the invisible dots are clearly felt. You need to feel where the points of the beats are so you can all start together.  In fact, rhythm is everything. Without inner rhythm you can’t make music.  You need rhythm to have technique – your coordination, your speed; you need rhythm to create dynamics and colour – the timing of your tonal inflection, your sound, your tone, your articulations. Rhythm in the end is the root cause of all musical problems. So it is very important to develop your inner rhythm.


Having a solid inner rhythm as an accompanist gives you the stability needed to support your partner. A solid inner rhythm doesn’t mean that you are rigid, but rather because you are secure, you can adjust your pulse to the pulse of others, and be on your toes for tempo changes, and therefore making you a flexible accompanist. But the story doesn’t just end there, at times, you mustn’t be too adaptable and you both are constantly slowing down, you need to know when to give your partner a push, or being consistent with your pulse so that the other person doesn’t slow down. So it’s a contradictory role that we play as an accompanist. You mustn’t drag or push, yet you must adjust and support. All in all, staying together is much more important than being correct with your pulse - you are there but not there.


In order to be flexible and constantly on your toes to be adjustable, you also need to develop the ability to listen to yourself and the person you are playing with simultaneously but independently. A very good way of developing this is to sing the other part while playing the piano part. That forces you to be aware of what others are doing while you are busy playing your own part, and forces you to know how other parts are related to your part WHILE you are playing.


And of course, it’s also very important that you know your role within the musical context. Sometimes we are providing an atmospheric environment, sometimes a rhythmic drive, sometimes harmonic progression, sometimes thematic materials, sometimes a conversation with the person; so when to remain musically inactive or being a driving force underneath will depend on your understanding of the music. Sometimes we need to be sensitive to what difficulties others might be having in their part, high notes in voice or wind instruments for example, that might require us to give them a bit more time to reach there, or a long phrase that needs a lot of breath and we need to keep going with our piano part.


However, in real life situation, things are a bit more complicated. Playing together with musicians who are your colleagues very often involves a set of social complications. You must learn to comment without sounding offensive. Instead of saying can you play softer here, try something like shall we all try to get the mood calmer? And there is also this question of who is the boss. Democracy doesn’t really work here. Imagine everybody gives an opinion, then you try out different options, then you resolve the interpretation issues or not. All this is very time consuming and does not necessarily solve the interpretation problems. I personally find that the most ideal situation is to have someone as a leader. Mostly you don’t need to verbally appoint someone. But that someone with more experience, or more musical, or simply has more interpretive ideas will prevail. Once that process of leading the group starts, the rest should follow and only occasionally voice out their different thoughts.


Then you also have the practical problems of how to rehearse a piece constructively. Basically, when you get together to play, you should already be able to play your individual parts properly, and have a basic understanding of how your part fits into the whole piece. Therefore you need to study the full score, to get to know the music as a whole, not only your part. So that getting together to rehearse becomes a process where you learn to put together the puzzle of the piece. And that helps to save everyone’s time, and it’s so much more productive compared to if you come to the rehearsal without knowing the music and your part. 






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