For church pianists, accompanying small groups or soloists is a ultra-important skill that is sometimes a bit neglected. So today, I thought I would give a few tips that are especially geared toward situations where the pianist is not given a written piano accompaniment.
First, understand that this kind of accompanying requires a significantly different treatment than the heavy “stride” style most pianists use when accompanying congregational singing. Very often, I hear pianists try to adjust to small group accompanying by just lightening up on their congregational accompaniment style. That is a mistake; in those settings, the heavy stuff should just be ditched completely.
Here are three specific things I encourage:
1) Think in chords. Make sure you know and understand the chords that are being used in the song and then play patterns based on those chords. It could be as simple as playing block chords on each beat like this or it could be something a little more elaborate like the following examples. Notice these are all just simple patterns based on the chords (notated above each line).
Notice that the melody is nowhere to be found. In general, you don’t want to play the melody in these situations.
2) Keep it simple. As I am very fond of saying, one of the biggest problems pianists have is that they play too many notes. In accompanying especially, less is more. Professional musicians hear that maxim constantly in the studio and the good ones listen to it.
One of the biggest reasons to play less is to give the musicians you are accompanying the room to interpret. The more you play, the more stifled they will be. You can open it up a little but only after you feel very comfortable with what the musicians are trying to do.
3) Think Bach invention. Most pianists have played Bach inventions and you know how they work. Two or more lines are played against each other. Sometimes, one is dominant and sometimes the other is. In a few rare occasions, both are dominant.
In general, you should think the same way when accompanying. When the other musicians are busy, lay off. When they are not (such as when they are holding out a long note), that is your time to get busier.
Note that in this example, the busyness of the accompaniment complements the busyness of the solo, intentionally filling in gaps without stepping on the soloist. This is absolutely intentional though over time, playing this way becomes instinctive.
I am not saying there should not be times when both you and the other musicians can be busy at the same time. However, that should be the exception rather than the rule (most of the time).
I will leave it at that for the time being. Happy accompanying; it is one of my favorite things to do on the piano.