Some Thoughts On Accompaniment
by John Morris FRCO, GRSM, ARCM
Revised edition, November 2012


My ideal is to have such a wonderful memory so as to only need to play a piece of music a few times and there it would be - for ever ingrained in the memory. The rest of the faculties would be left free to concentrate on controlling stops, pistons, pedals, as well as cope with the idiosyncrasies of the instrument and also to watch the conductor's every move, the conductor being clearly in view at all times.


Back down to earth! Most of us need to work on memory, strange organs, awkwardly written accompaniments, questionable arrangements of orchestral scores, inconveniently positioned organs, a time lag, and a conductor whose abilities are not up to scratch.

Do you have the right disposition to be an accompanist?

Somebody who is inflexible in their outlook will never become a good accompanist. Being open-minded and receptive to, and respectful of, others’ opinions is important and not the same as being a pushover.

Do you enjoy accompanying?

If you do, the chances are that you will find it easier. If you don’t, then don't do it! Do you get on well with the people with whom you work? In turn, are they fair and considerate towards you? It’s not about winners or losers but working side by side. You may well prefer some styles (eg baroque/romantic) over others - in this case there is a good chance that you will be more competent with the styles you prefer but that is no reason why you should not work at other styles.

Accompanying versus solo performing

The accompanist has a harder job. The soloist can get thoroughly absorbed in the music and be totally focussed whereas the accompanist not only needs to know his or her material inside out but also be aware of numerous peripheral factors. This is why…

Accompaniment is like reading the road

Drivers (especially if you get behind one) who are oblivious to their surroundings are frustrating. You need to read the road and anticipate. The better you know the road, the easier it is. So, also, an accompanist needs to know the music well and develop an instinct as to what is happening. This is not so far-fetched as it may seem. The more regularly you do it the easier it is.

Personal Organisation

Aptitude is always important, but organisation is a very close second. A lot of talent is wasted through poor planning.

It's not what you do but how you do it

Try to assess each piece and work out how many hours it will take to learn. Remember, slower expressive pieces may be no easier to accompany effectively than something that romps along like, say, Haydn’s “The Heavens are Telling”. Slow pieces may well be harder to acompany well as every note counts. Try to find out metronome marks from the conductor beforehand - these may be different to those in the score. Then produce a work sheet for yourself, divided into half or quarter hour slots.

Let's imagine that you are about to embark upon Plomford's "Hymn to St Ivel". It is reasonably within your capabilities, the odd awkward corner, a few stop changes and a final flourish which involves some dexterity. After a few minutes silent reading and then one or two rough try-throughs, noting particularly awkward corners you decide that this will take you three-and-a-half hours in all.

Question: By when do you need to learn it?
Answer: The end of next week.

Right, let’s say two-and-a-half hours this week and one hour next week. If you are able to practice in half-hour units, at the end of this week it could look something like this as you cross out each session:

Plomford: Hymn / St. Ivel 3.5 / 3 / 2.5 / 2 / 1.5 / 1 / 0.5

Be realistic in your planning and if in doubt, err on the side of more time required rather than less. You will start to refine your skills at predicting the amount of practice needed as time goes by. If you are accompanying on a regular basis, say once a week with five hours available per week for practice, you could create a four-weekly sheet looking something like this:

Plomford: Hymn / St. Ivel 3.5 / 3 / 2.5 / 2 / 1.5 / 1 / 0.5
3 new Psalms and Chants @ 1 hour each 3 / 2.5 / 2 / 1.5 / l / 0.5
That anthem that was almost right last time,
but could really do with a bit more work
on the middle section
2 / 1.5 / 1 / 0.5
New Communion Setting 11.5 / 11 / 10.5 / 10 / 9.5 / 9 / 8.5 / 8 / 7.5 / 7 / 6.5 /
6 / 5.5 / 5 / 4.5 / 4 / 3.5 / 3 / 2.5 / 2 / 1.5 / l / 0.5

Sometimes it will take less time, sometimes more, but it's always a nice feeling if you do happen to find the odd half-hour left over and can go onto something new or give some more time to something else. It's certainly much better that being in a panic-stricken fug and not knowing how much time you've got and, worse still, how much time you need.


Watching the conductor is important, but some places are more important than others.

Question: Where are they?
Answer: Speed changes.

Most pieces get slower at the end so the last few bars should be known as thoroughly as possible. However, many change midstream. Stanford’s Magnificat in C looks easy enough, but what about those pauses? The piece would be ten times easier without them. Some conductors will say “hold each pause for so many beats”, others will be less precise.

In any case, the first few bars of any piece should be known as thoroughly as possible so that you can get off to a secure start at the correct speed. Page turns (especially the bar or two after the turn) are also good places to memorise. Before starting the piece, reach agreement with the conductor as to whether you will just get an upbeat or whether you will get a whole bar. If the beats are fairly quick, a whole bar is better.

I'm all right, Jack - or am I?

If you go to a good stage production you will appreciate that the actors not only know their own lines but have a working knowledge of those around them. It is clear to the discerning listener if there is an empathy between accompanist and singers. Perhaps you could decide that a proportion of your practice time could be spent learning the vocal parts and adjust your practice sheet accordingly. It is good score-reading exercise to try to read the other parts at the same time as your part, even if the whole thing does occasionally tie the fingers in knots! Another way is to record the accompaniment once you have learnt it and then play the vocal parts with it. Check also that speed and dynamic changes in the vocal parts are also written in your part.

Allowing for imperfections in the Singers

With the best will in the world, sometimes things go wrong. This could be a choir member coming in early and upsetting the others or the conductor missing an entry. The better you know the vocal parts the more chance you have of rescuing the performance. Slips on the singers’ part also gives you an opportunity to demonstrate the true value of the ability to improvise!

Which notes can be left out?

Many scores which are piano reductions of orchestral scores need to be tweaked when played on the organ. The pedals probably take over the lower left hand notes and the harmony often reinforced by the left land. A pick-up note (or anacrusis) can sometimes be omitted if it is the same as in the vocal part. A good arrangement should sound as though it were the original.

"We've been asked to sing Evensong at St. Polycarp's"

Wunderbar! Afternoon out for everyone, warm welcome and tasty nosh before the service.

Question: What could be more perfect?
Answer: Ask the organist.

It's all right for the singers, they only have to do what they always do but in different surroundings and get used to the acoustic. But what about Our Hero? Gone is the familiar friend he or she plays each week. The nightmare has arrived. Noisy tracker action, yellow keys with furrows and chips out of the edges, non-RCO pedalboard, combination pedals, but to Great only and spring-loaded swell pedal that will only lock in the open or closed position, and a highly menacing "doiynnng" every time you play bottom D flat. (This is not my imagination working overtime - it is an instrument within a few miles of Carlisle where I once found myself in this situation!)

What do I do with this strange organ?

If you can, visit and play the instrument before agreeing to the final choice of music. If you can't, get as detailed and complete a specification and description as possible, maybe even with a drawing/diagram of the console and make that the basis for deciding the programme.

There is much music that can - with a little imagination - be performed on instruments from the humblest to the most mighty. But it really does sound silly to hear someone struggling with Howells' Collegium Regale on a seven-stop worn-out tracker job. It is surprising the respect which you can often gain if you say "no" to over-ambitious proposals. Do not be bullied or manipulated with such comments as "Oh, you'll be all right".

Having agreed on the musical content, practice it on your own instrument, but 'faking' the conditions which will apply when the real thing happens. It is a good idea to try and predict the stops you will need beforehand, even if you have to modify them on the day. Remember, every rest in the organ part is worth its weight in gold!

Chief or Indian?

Is the organist to lead or to be led? If someone is conducting, the organist follows, but if not, the organist usually leads. Even where there is a conductor, hymns will often be left to the player. It is important to be as consistent as possible in gaps between verses and in using 'gathering notes' (which I generally dislike). But whatever you decide, be consistent and don't be afraid of the two or three beats silence between verses.

Plainsong Hymns

Plainsong hymns, strictly speaking, should be for voices alone, but can be rewarding to accompany if you have confident singers and you can vary the accompaniment and the registration - rather like psalms. Try to use light registrations and be sensitive to the flow of the words. If you wish to compose or improvise your own accompaniments, avoid strong chords like second inversions and dominant sevenths and go mainly for first inversions with a sprinkling of root positions. Pedals should not really be used but, if so, only a very light 16' at, say, the Amen.

Certain plainsong - if well known - can be accompanied with a higher profile: "O Come, O Come Emmanuel" sounds lovely if sung with a large body of singers and a fairly solid organ accompaniment. It falls down if the organ part is too lumpy, i.e. there are too many chords. Bad examples of this are in AMR (49), AMNS (26) or SOP (66) and good examples in EH (8) or NEH (11).

The plainsong accompaniment should support and (if no conductor) discreetly lead without getting in the way of the fluidity of the music. Consistency is important here so that the underlying rhythm of each verse is consistent without sounding too regimented. Sing it yourself during your practice sessions. The organist's and singers' genuine musicianship and subtle nuances really come into play here. The lovely "Missa de Angelis" (a good alternative to Merbecke) can also send shivers down the spine if handled positively but sensitively.

Was it always like this?

Historically, the performance was often directed from the harpsichord rather than a dedicated conductor. The idea of an assistant organist in a cathedral is relatively recent - before that, the man in charge would both accompany and direct the choral music, often with members of the choir providing cues. The mysterious hand on the organ case of Ripon Cathedral is an early example of long-distance communication!

Anglican Chant

Much of what has been said about plainsong also applies to psalm accompaniment. Again, the blurring of the edges between leader and follower can be a problem if the psalm is sung congregationally. In this case, a no-nonsense approach needs to be taken unless it is sung so often that the congregation instinctively knows what to do.

Accompanying an accomplished choir in psalm singing can be immensely rewarding. There are opportunities for a wide palette of registrations to reflect the moods of different verses. These should always be worked out beforehand and written in pencil beside the text. There are also opportunities for playing single-note descants above the choir in some verses. I find the best way to do this is to write the actual letter-names of the notes to be used above the words. If the chant can be memorised, this really is a great help.


Your art of accompaniment should consolidate and mature, but still evolve. Don't confuse imagination with inconsistency. Try to keep your mind open with regards to interpretation - you may hear a new performance which alters your whole perception of a piece. Be receptive and study background material as much as possible. In the case of instrumental accompaniments arranged for organ, try to listen to the original version wherever possible. Try to get on well with the people you work with. Try to instigate a “Care and Maintenance” programme where you spend some of your practice time on repertoire not necessarily on the forthcoming list.  Keep list of awkward corners in a notebook. Remember no two pieces are the same. An organist's job can - at times - be lonely, but a meeting of minds through discussion, social or otherwise, will often make the difference between average and convincing performances. Good luck! is an excellent source of free, public domain music for you to download.

Appendix - Dos and Don'ts for Accompanists

I asked some famous musicians for their thoughts on this matter. Mr Jeremy Suter, Mr Jamie Brand, Mr Anthony Gowing, and Mr John Robinson all very kindly responded. If there is repetition it is because more than one person made the comment and I have reproduced them with a minimum of editing and in no particular order save for grouping similar comments together. Here they are:

Do memorise the music (if there is time)
Do know your accompaniment backwards - if accompanying on organ, this means you can watch and follow the choir parts and not get behind!
Do get to know the choir parts
Do cultivate the ability to score read in rehearsal and possibly even in performance!
Do follow what the conductor is saying to the choir in rehearsal so that you will be ready to give the notes and pick up the piece from any particular point promptly
Do have dialogue with the conductor - this is essential as is planning
Do listen to whomever you are accompanying in the case of a piano accompaniment; it is vital for rendering a sensitive accompaniment
Do listen
Do watch
Do always watch the conductor at least once a bar (especially if the singers are a long way away).
Do watch the conductor (if they are clear)
Do communicate as to whether you will get just a beat or a whole bar in
Do play rhythmically
Do be confident. The conductor should never spring sight reading on you
Do follow the flow and outline in a confident manner rather than trying to play every single note (especially if it is an orchestral arrangement)
Do cultivate the ability to judiciously and musically edit the accompaniment so that it is playable in a musical style
Do play fractionally ahead (if that’s how the conductor likes it)
Do anticipate slightly if choir is any distance from the console
Do play the words if accompanying Lieder/song. You have to colour the text with the sound you make
Do “breathe” with the instrument/voice you are accompanying. Even hymns on the organ in a church setting need this - it is vital!
Do breathe with the choir (assuming they breathe)
Do as you’re told (if you have to)
Do (to conductors) appreciate and recognise the extreme amount of preparation which the accompanist makes
Do go into accompanying with your eyes open before committing yourself

Don’t panic
Don’t (organ) listen to the choir and adjust if the instrument is a long way from the choir - everything will get slower and slower. Just watch, play rhythmically and close your ears! 9 times out of 10 most reasonable conductors will go with you anyway
Don’t play like a machine (unless it’s by Mathias)
Don’t play unrhythmically
Don’t let the pedals be late (they usually are)
Don’t take matters into your own hands (unless it’s for the good of the music)
Don’t try to ‘drive’ a performance - if you don’t agree with a tempo that has been set by whomever you are accompanying, tough. It’s not your job
Don’t play too loudly. As in the previous point, it isn’t about you. Being an accompanist is often a thankless task, but it is the very best exponents who one doesn’t notice
Don’t play too loudly
Don’t rely on luck (any more than the lottery)
Don’t kick up a fuss (unless you’re sufficiently senior)

Back to Training Page