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andrewm

Choral accompanying

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Last week I had the pleasure of accompanying a school choir for a thanksgiving service in one of Scotland’s cathedrals with a very fine organ. While I have more years experience than I care to remember as a parish organist playing hymns and voluntaries plus accompanying/conducting  my own church choirs this kind of accompanying, following a conductor on CCTV was new to me. I feel I did pretty well but got me thinking that I want to develop my skills here and wondered what advice forum members would give. What experience do people have following a conductor on CCTV? And how might I gain further experience given I’m probably a bit long in the tooth to go back and follow a typical organ scholar route?

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You could write to the schools within striking distance and offer your services, and if you live near a cathedral or 'place where they sing', see if you might be allowed some observation at the console to see what the resident organists get up to. You might also enjoy having a look at some cathedral websites at the section they sometimes have called 'visiting choirs.' Here you can read some advice from the resident organists - usually the assistant, I think - about the cathedral organ can best be used to accompany a choir. Quite informative this! Try, for example, Gloucester or York.

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There are people reading these pages who do this sort of thing for a living. I had expected more people to chip in, but since they haven’t I’ll hazard a few tips from personal experience. Apologies in advance if any of this sounds like teaching Granny to suck eggs.

Over the years I have done a fair amount of accompanying in large places, both here and abroad. Sometimes there have been electronic communications between choir and organ – audio only, or visual only, or both. In my youth most of the places in which I accompanied had neither. (That dates me!) I occasionally had a line of sight to the conductor – if I emulated an owl’s head – but there was one particular console where, if I was the only person in the loft, the only means of communication with the choir was by telepathy! At least this hones your responses!

It goes without saying that the first requisite of coping with CCTVs (or, rather, conductors generally) is to know the music inside out. The more your eyes are glued to the score the less time you will have to watch the conductor or, if flying solo, to concentrate on what you are hearing. In my opinion this is absolutely vital. Any technical distractions will decrease your attentiveness to what you are hearing, not to mention console management. This means getting the music for the service(s) you are accompanying well in advance in time to learn things thoroughly. This may sometimes be easier said than done.

Getting the balance right between choir and organ is always a problem. Visiting organists who are not used to accompanying on large organs in large buildings very commonly play far too loudly. Always ask the conductor whether your general sound level is too loud or too soft for the choir. My general rule of thumb is that the balance will usually be about right if my forte climaxes when the choir is singing use no more than the Great Open Diap no.2, perhaps with the Principal (but without flutes), plus Full Swell. For final chords you might risk a bit more: my teacher reckoned that it didn’t much matter if you drowned the choir a bit on the last chord - and of course you can take full advantage of any organ climaxes after the choir has stopped singing (as in Ireland's "Greater love"). For mezzo-forte/piano: Great 8’ flute + Swell. Piano: Choir + Swell, or just Swell. These are just rough examples. If I am up on a screen with the organ around me or nearby and don’t have any loudspeakers to amplify the choir at the console, I reckon that if I can barely hear the choir above the din the balance is probably about right. But obviously buildings and organs vary. There are some organs where you can’t really use the Great at all for accompanying and you have to use the Choir as the “Great” instead – I remember Ely Cathedral being one. Elsewhere, even Full Swell with the box closed might be too much.

One last point, and the most tricky to learn, is that if you are accompanying from up on a screen you may need to learn to play ahead of the choir. In these days of console loudspeakers this probably isn’t the problem that it once used to be, but if there aren’t any it’s a must. Some places are easier than others. Sometimes playing a mere acciacatura’s-worth in advance will be enough. At Canterbury Cathedral I needed to play a day or two ahead. My most challenging situation was at St Catherine, Honfleur where I found myself at a west-end organ, with only an inadequate rear-view mirror, accompanying a choir far away at the east end singing Magnificats by Vivaldi and Sammartini (and that ghastly Fauré Cantique) – the choir organ was too decrepit to use. That was fun – once the initial shock had worn off. If you do it often enough playing ahead becomes second nature, but you really need to keep doing it regularly because it’s easy to get out of practice. However, like cycling, once learnt the skill never entirely goes. But maybe one can worry about this too much. The bottom line is that, mostly, it probably won’t matter too much if you do drag a fraction, but obviously it’s better not to.

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VH gives you some excellent advice!

My experience has been as a conductor with an organist following my beat and I would, perhaps, upset quite a few here if I said that organists are not always very good at following a conductor. The simple reason is that most organists never, or rarely, do! Yes, there are Cathedrals/College Chapels and some Parish churches that have a DoM and an organist, where the organist follows the DoM's beat, but I would say that most, even on here, are 'lone players' deciding tempo themselves and/or conducting from the console. (I spent 10 years conducting from the console unless I could persuade either my late wife to play or get another player in!) I began my life as a 'cellist and so I am used to following conductors - good or bad (and I can tell stories that would turn your hair grey!).

VH is absolutely right - know the music inside out! That is the most important. In a strange situation you do not need to be struggling with notes - or even slightly unsure! Knowing the organ helps too - but that isn't always easy, especially if you are 'visiting'. After that it really does depend on where you are! Some would say "Use your ears" but I conducted in the Cathedral in Palestrina, we sang mostly unaccompanied (Palestrina, of course!) but we did sing a Credo I with organ - which was situated at the back of a very resonant cathedral whilst we were singing from the Sanctuary. In this case the organist, a very fine player, used his eyes, and a mirror (there were no monitors!), rather than his ears. Some places are easier. The 'Met' in Liverpool, for instance, the organist used to be (in the old arrangement of the choir stalls) immediately next to the conductor - but the acoustic was such as that it was easy to drown out the choir because the sound of the organ went over the top of them! In a case such as this you need a friend in the congregation for the rehearsal "Am I too loud?"

Know your music inside out. Be prepared to use your eyes as well as your ears. Be aware of the acoustics and of the position of the organ and its relationship in the building and, if necessary, find a friend to tell you what it sounds like! 

 

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Bear in mind a matter that has been aired on this forum before, which concerns the differences between analogue and digital CCTV systems.  With old fashioned analogue systems (which are presumably still found only as legacy installations nowadays) there is no appreciable delay introduced between the camera and the screen, and none between the audio and video streams.  This is seldom true of digital systems, with which there will often be a highly noticeable absolute delay in the video, and sometimes appreciable lack of sync between audio and video because the delays are different in the two channels.  Most consumer applications, such as security systems to protect premises, are not affected by this so little or no attempt is made to minimise it.  Even in the professional-grade systems used for broadcasting the delay will often be measured in seconds.  In these cases the only parameter which is adjusted is the differential delay between audio and video so that speech is approximately synced to the picture by delaying the faster channel to match that of the slower one.  Even so, it is obvious when watching TV that this is not always done or it doesn't work properly.

CEP

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I’d also suggest incorporating playing while looking at an imaginary monitor or mirror into your preparation, especially at tricky junctions in the music. However well you know the music, it can be disconcerting to assimilate this aspect on an unfamiliar organ and sometimes you have to look at a picture which isn’t even in your peripheral vision. Arrive in time to familiarise yourself with any vagaries of camera and screen set up, to ensure that the camera is correctly set and focussed (ask before changing the settings), and to get used to the controls for the system - in a big building this can be a complex business. And be aware that some digital systems have a slight delay in the relay of the picture to the monitor - small, but sometimes enough to cause arguments between player and conductor. Worth checking this before the rehearsal. 

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A word about psalms. How you accompany these, and particularly the amount of organ you use, will depend on the competence and experience of the choir, but, assuming a choir that can sing psalms confidently and competently while staying in tune, they will require less organ than anthems and canticles. The job of the organ in Anglican chant is to provide a background by supporting the choir, enhancing and colouring the words; do not be tempted to turn the psalms into an organ concerto with choral accompaniment! Do not use the Great Organ, the tone of which will be too heavy and suffocating, especially if the choir is singing antiphonally: thick, loud tone will risk swamping the choir's consonants (if not drowning the choir completely). Generally uncoupled Sw and Ch will suffice, with both manuals coupled for louder bits - and of course liberal use of the Solo if you feel brave enough to venture descants. Starting a confident or joyful psalm on something like Ch 8' flute (+4'?) coupled to Sw 8', 4' diaps (+ 2' + Oboe?) should be enough to get the singers off to a good start (especially if they sing the first couple of verses full), after which you can reduce. If using Full Swell, be very circumspect about opening the box. However, as I said, it all depends on the choir. As with all accompaniment, the conductor will - or should - tell you if more (or less) organ is required.

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Like VH I learnt to accompany before the era of televisions and speakers. It does teach you the importance of listening very carefully as well as the importance of a good musical rapport with the conductor. I played in a distant, very high, organ loft where the only sight of the conductor was over the left shoulder - a narrow gap between two banners.

It's different now, and the expectation is that the organist will follow the conductor's beat in a way which was then impossible. That can be a mixed blessing, mind you. Especially when the conductor feels it necessary to conduct all the organ only sections - I remember having to turn the monitor off for the first page of Blest Pair of Sirens so I couldn't see the flailing around. I also find it difficult if there is no television as the glasses I have to use to see the music don't allow me to see a conductor clearly at any distance.

Nowadays, with access to Youtube, streaming, downloads etc.,  if I'm playing something that don't know I often play along with a recording when I'm practising it so I hear exactly what the choir parts sound like. I find it very helpful if the rhythms are tricky the choir and organ parts don't coincide closely.

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One reason that some organists and pianists are not good at watching conductors is that it does not form a natural part of their development and training. Piano is essentially a solitary instrument that you practice alone and unconducted. By contrast if you learn an orchestral instrument from quite an early stage you are likely to be in some form of ensemble if not a full blown orchestra where watching and following the conductor's beat is an essential skill and discipline. You can not get by with staring rigidly at your music and playing the right notes, you quickly learn to constantly switch your vision from the music on the stand to the conductor in much the same way that you flick your focus to and from the rear-view mirror when learning to drive.

For anyone wishing to gain more experience of accompanying a choir I would suggest contacting your local organists association asking them to notify their members of your availability. I would jump at the chance if a reasonably competent person willing to learn and improve made themself available in my local area.

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Thank you all for your excellent advice and apologies for leaving it so long to reply. Since I originally posted I've had a chance to listen to recordings of the service and it would certainly seem that, with the exception of one hymn, everything seemed pretty tight rhythmically as I do often think I have a string player/singers approach to following a conductor's beat (or it could be the conductor/singers/orchestra were following the organ!). I'm currently looking into options for getting more experience locally, we do suffer a bit up here in Scotland where we have a lot of very good instruments but mostly in the Church of Scotland churches which generally don't have the choral tradition to get this accompanying experience. Great for playing repertoire on, especially of the earlier North German type but less suited to choral accompanying.

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