March 31, 2022
As an instrumentalist, the role you play in a given situation isn’t always the same, and the skills you need vary depending on that role. Studio musicians require a different skillset than live players and likewise, accompanists need a different skillset than ensemble players.
Here we’ll go over a few key differences to consider when shifting between accompaniment and playing in a band.
The big, obvious difference between accompanying a singer and playing in a band is with a band, you’re not the only instrument. Seems like common sense, but it could change your playing significantly. Let’s say you’re accompanying a singer on the piano. It’s your job to establish rhythm, a low-end foundation, fill in the mids while staying out of the singer’s way, and perhaps provide counterpoint melody or instrumental filler during breaks.
If you take this same mentality to the full band version of the song, you’ll find yourself stepping on the other band members. You may even find that drums, bass, rhythm guitar, and lead guitar are playing every role you would otherwise play, leaving you to find a way to augment and fit. This could be as simple as playing in a higher octave, but it may require a completely different part.
The same goes if you accompany yourself when writing or performing and go to the studio to produce full band versions of those songs. If you use the same part you play solo and layer multiple band parts on top, you’re liable to create a muddy, messy mix.
In a band, you may be one of several instrumentalists who get their time in the limelight. Especially in genres like jazz, you’ll be called upon to solo multiple times in a set. You may get that opportunity in an accompaniment scenario, but in general your job is to help the singer (or other type of soloist) look good.
This means that rather than pulling the performance in a particular direction, your main job is to underpin the soloist. You may still be called upon to fill multiple instrumental roles and establish tempo, but you should also be listening to the soloist and taking their lead.
This could mean adjusting tempo or intensity – it could even mean changing keys to match a singer who’s gotten a little too excited. It’s been known to happen!
There’s one way accompaniment is no different than playing in a band: communication. In order to get it right, communicate during rehearsal and on stage. It’s especially important to communicate with a soloist ahead of time about strategies to manage changes and shifts. Do they want you to match their tempo changes or stay solid? If they go off key, should you follow or not? How will you communicate on stage?
In a band, that job is the same, although a singer is less likely to lead changes on the fly. Drummers keep the rhythm, for example, and whole bands rarely change key if the singer goes astray. An accompaniment situation can be more fluid. Since there are only two of you, you have room to feed off each other and flow, as long as you know how to listen and communicate.
At the end of the day playing is playing but knowing the subtle difference between these two situations can help you succeed in both.
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