The Accompanist and The Singer

Elizabeth Dockrell-Tyler – photo kindly supplied by Rob Stevenson.

mp3 audio only – full programme

Part 1

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There comes a point in every singer’s life when they need the services of an accompanist. But a good accompanist is as rare as a waterhole in a desert. Their effect on a singer’s life, however – good or bad – can be enormous. And therefore, I count myself extremely lucky to have stumbled upon one such an exotic creature, by the name of Elizabeth Dockrell-Tyler. We have worked together for around eight years or so, and every single one of those have been, if not entirely enjoyable, certainly illuminating, educational, and a journey into the truth of the music we perform together.

So, a short introduction to Elizabeth – she is a violinist and professor of piano and was born and educated in Northern Ireland. Her education continued also in Reading Berkshire, and Jersey in the Channel Islands. She came from a musical background and also plays the organ, harpsichord and recorder.

Elizabeth gained her performance diploma at The Royal College of Music and studied with both John Barstow and Andrew Ball.

Currently, a professor at Reading University, Elizabeth prepares Associated Board Diploma candidates for performance examinations. She is also a co-founder and artistic director of the North London Performance Academy. She teaches to all levels and runs a busy private teaching practise in North London.

Elizabeth regularly performs both as a soloist and accompanist in the UK and Europe.

So we can hear, first of all, what she sounds like as a soloist, from her recordings of Mendelssohn’s “Songs Without Words,” I have chosen her rendition of Opus 67 No. 2 in F Sharp Minor. (Please refer to either the YouTube videos or listen to the full radio programme – click on the little icon above.)

Hello Elizabeth. Today I’d like very much to talk to you about accompanying for singers, as I know it is something you do quite a lot of. It’s not something people talk about really – they never seem to think about the accompanist, usually preferring to focus on the singer. So first of all, how did you become an accompanist?

Elizabeth: It’s an interesting question because I didn’t set out to become an accompanist. I thought I’d grow up and be a soloist. And then I realized that the piano already has its own accompaniment: the soloist in the right hand and the accompanist in the left. The demand for accompanists is there, it’s often difficult to find them. And although I was a soloist and also a teacher, I kept being asked to accompany or to support people and that’s when I realized there was a whole other side to playing which might turn out to be quite enjoyable if I got into it, thinking that it would be easy. But it was not easy at all. It’s not easy to accompany. It’s a different skill entirely and I learnt that over the years what it takes to be a good accompanist.

Angelina: Now, of course, there are special courses for accompanists? What advice would you give someone who might be thinking of becoming an accompanist?

Elizabeth: Well, when I started, there weren’t really courses where you could go for several years to learn how to become an accompanist, so my advice now would be: train yourself first – find people who will work with you and tell them that you’re a trainee and be patient with them and yourself. If you’re a soloist, you’re responsible for yourself, but if you’re an accompanist, you’re also responsible for the other player, and think that’s a bit daunting as well. You may find you have to spend around a year or so getting used to the idea that you’ll be carrying someone else, at least some of the time when you’re performing. Also, if you can go into accompanying, don’t think you’ll be abandoning being a soloist completely, because that will often be required in the middle of a duo. So you have different hats at different times. So accompanist is a bit of a misnomer, because you’ll frequently be required to be a soloist as well. But the good thing about it is that you will be passing the baton on to the other person some of the time. So I would say generally, as an experience, don’t think that you’re going to learn it quickly, especially if you’ve trained as a soloist, because you have to learn to be patient and to be passive, and that’s quite hard for a lot of pianists to do – to be passive, because the piano is often in front and leads the rhythm.

Angelina: It sounds like you’re saying that an accompanist has to be passive and has to be a soloist in the same piece. That must be quite hard, I would imagine?

Elizabeth: Yes, it is and quite often when I’m listening to an accompanist, I can hear just how much they have of each element. And there are some who will only accompany – I’m not one of those because I was a trained soloist – but those people who only accompany because that’s what they’ve always done, are particularly perceptive and passive in their musical approach. And then soloist is the other extreme. I try to put a foot in each camp, if I can.

Angelina: Before we start talking more in-depth about accompanying for singers, it would be interesting to find out what the difference is between accompanying for other instrumentalists as opposed to accompanying for singers?

Elizabeth: There’s quite a lot of difference, because a singer is more immediate – a singer lives more in the emotional world and require a faster response. And I feel when you’re accompanying for a singer, you have to be almost on the same level as the singer, perhaps breathing with the singer, watching the singer very carefully, so that you can dove-tail what they’re doing into what you’re doing, because of that immediacy. In other words, I think your reactions have to be faster with a singer than with instrumentalists.

On the good side, when you’re watching a singer in action, you can usually tell how long a phrase is going to be. Instrumentalists can take you by surprise, or they can rattle along or they can drive you through prestissimo sections without you being able to breathe.

As a singer, there is a limit to how fast you can sing, isn’t there? If I said to you,” Angelina, sing me a page of demi-semi quavers at a speed of 160 or something like that…” it would be quite tricky, because it’s not something the voice naturally does. Whereas you could take a clarinetist or a flutist and they could rattle through it and you wouldn’t know where you were. So it’s a different skill-set. I think because of the phrasing in singing you can predict a little bit more what you’re going to do. With instrumentalists sometimes the tempo can get very crazy, very metronomic and you’ve got to be right behind that. Very rarely, do I have that experience with a singer.

Angelina: To follow on from that, I want to ask you a few more questions. During my career, I have worked with many pianists, and in my experience, there is a very clear difference between pianists who are accompanists, and those who are pianists only or soloists. So what in your opinion, makes a good accompanist?

Elizabeth: I think a good accompanist is someone who has respect for the person that they’re working with, and by that I mean giving their musical opinions equal weight to their own. I think a good accompanist is someone who reads a lot into the person with whom they’re working. For example, everyone is different, and this is what’s exciting when you work as an accompanist, and it’s exciting to get onto the same wave-length with where they’re going with the piece of music they’re performing and matching your own sense of dynamics and features and textures to the person in front of you. It takes years to do and there’s quite an art to it – and I’d say I’m still working on it!

Angelina: It sounds like there’s some psychology involved in how you need to approach people? Not just as a musician, but as a person?

Elizabeth: Yes, if a person walks into my music studio, and they’re not feeling comfortable, they’re not going to be able to produce what they want and I think you have to get people to feel really comfy – so if you have suggestions for change, for example, and they feel comfortable with you as a person, they might then consider your ideas. But if they think they’re up against a dictator, it can get very fraught and can end up with you not being asked to accompany again. Also, accompanists are sometimes required to take the lead and guide, depending on who it is you’re accompanying. I’ve had people walk through the door saying “I want to play this. Show me what to do.” So first we’ll read it through, then I’ll piece it together and put forward my conception of it, and ask “do you agree with this?” So you can put a work of art together with another person and the audience would be none-the-wiser that the accompanist had put it together – it can work either way.

Angelina: Do you find you have to divide your attention between what you’re doing and what the other performer is doing? And how difficult is that?

Elizabeth: It does depend on the score. If you have a very difficult score, it’s more difficult. Often I’m already reading two lines, sometimes very fast, and sometimes I have another very complex line or two, that I’m reading simultaneously. So sometimes, I’ll just say to the other player “I’m absolutely enveloped in my own part here – you’re going to have to look after yourself.” Which is a bit of a no-no for an accompanist to do, but they always understand when I say that, because people bring me difficult stuff that no-one else seems to be able to play. So it’s not all as predictable as you would think. There are a lot of tricks the accompanist has to rely on. For example, if something is a bit too unreachable or inaccessible to both players, the accompanist, such as myself, would improvise, or change the score, or simplify the score or rearrange the score, often on the spot. We don’t all confess to that, but I regard it as part of the job. Say for example you have a performance in two days and you’re confronted with somebody who can’t manage a certain section, there are creative ways around it, for example twisting the tempo, changing things to do with the piano, so that it overpowers the player by prior arrangement, or vice versa. So there are various little tricks. And that’s what I like – the art of accompanying is not what it seems – it’s not just somebody sitting down at the piano and playing what’s on the page – not at all.

Angelina: Do you ever have that kind of arrangement with singers?

Elizabeth: With operatic repertoire – no. I just give them exactly what they’re going to hear in the orchestra – exactly what is in the score. But with lighter music, yes you can. You can completely rearrange a score. And I’ve had funny things said to me, for instance, like “I have sung this before, but it didn’t sound like that.”

Angelina: But I’ll bet they prefer that, because I have had experience of working with many other accompanists and also with you for many years and you do something other accompanists don’t – you have a way of presenting rhythm to a singer without the clump-clump that you sometimes get with pianists.

Elizabeth: I think I know what that is. Many pianists do that and I’ve done it myself – it’s where you sort of impose a beat almost from on top of the keys and you hear a percussive clanking. You get it in waltzes and polkas, for examples, where you can hear the pianist doing this, but for a singer, it’s not very good, and in fact, in lots of contexts, it’s not good. You should already be on the key and feeling the rhythm, so I actually put the rhythm into my body. And I play from on the key and I move inside the bar, rather than impose my beat on the first of every bar.

There are various types of time-keeping. If you’re teaching a grade two for example, how to clap time, you might do that imposing kind of primitive beat-keeping, I call it. But actually intrinsically adding rhythm, and drive and movement into the bar, is a different thing. It’s a different technique of playing. I learnt it from my Russian teacher, but I have amalgamated it with different types of playing as well. But I do know what you’re saying: you mean when you’re being beaten around the head by the rhythm, rather than having it delivered to you.

Angelina: Yes, and it makes it very difficult then for a singer to sing legato lines, because you are so aware of the clunking rhythm following you around.

Elizabeth: Well, it’s the age-old question for the piano: is it a percussion instrument or is it a lyrical stringed instrument. The fact is it is both. But when you are with a singer, you would prefer it to be on the lyrical side, even when you are keeping a very strong beat, it shouldn’t be banged, because that desensitizes the performance.

Angelina: I would like to concentrate on your work with professional operatic singers, primarily because of our work together and because of my own experiences with accompanists and how rare it is to find a good one. So my question is this: After the singer has presented you with a marked-up score and the tempo at which they’d like to sing the piece, as an accompanist, how then do you start working with the singer?

Elizabeth: Firstly, we have to accept that the singer is leading the show. Then I look at what concept the singer has for the piece, what tempo, what texture they’re after and what type of support they’re after. They can be after a very bland support or a full orchestral type of support underneath them. We’ll discuss all that and then we would run through everything and perhaps isolate areas where we’d have to put the ensemble together more than the rest of the piece. But mainly with singers it has to do with texture and balance and whether the singer is feeling that the pianist is breathing with them at the same points, whether the pianist is feeling the phrase in the same way. And that is absolutely key to whether or not a singer will come back and use you again.

Angelina: Talking about breathing: I do find that good accompanists almost seem to breathe with the singer and almost have a kind of internal duet going on with the singer, in order, I presume, to have a better understanding of the phrasing and the ornaments being used by the singer. Do you find yourself doing that, too?

Elizabeth: Yes, I find I climb into the singer’s self and trying to feel it. Of course you have to operate at some objective distance as well, so there’s bouncing between the two worlds of empathy and sympathy, as it were.

But the other thing with singers is that they tend to lead the piano, because they have an altogether bigger sound. An operatic singer has a bigger sound than a little piano. Even a large Steinway cannot compete with a large operatic voice. When there is a hitting of a top note or there’s a soaring of a top note, the singer becomes enveloped in their own top note, and their head is echoing with it, they can’t hear the piano anymore. At that point, you have to watch the singer like a hawk until they climb down off their top note, because they will not hear what’s happening in the piano. On the recording they’ll hear it at a distance later on, but when enveloped in their own sound they can’t hear the piano and I think the pianist has to be aware of that and not criticize the singer for not being able to hear the piano at certain points, because that’s the nature of the voice.

Angelina: It’s interesting that you understand that, because most people who are not also singers themselves, find that really hard to understand.

Elizabeth: True. But I worked some years ago with a Russian bass, whose pianissimo was my forte and his forte was right off the scale. He asked whether I could get the piano texture up much louder so that he could hear it, but I had to tell him that the piano is not big enough. And this is often the case. With an orchestra he would have been fine, but I had actually bottomed out on my sound. You see, a singer is carrying the same instrument around with them – they know what it does. A pianist is moving around playing on different instruments and some instruments can’t cope – it’s not only the accompanists. So all you singers out there, please be aware of that – sometimes the piano is not good enough.

Angelina: But sometimes even with an orchestra, you can’t hear when you’re in the throws of a big sound.

Elizabeth: That’s true and that’s actually what I was going to say: with singers, unlike with instrumentalists, you read the body language. So when the singer is at the top dynamically and pitch-wise, you have to watch the singer like a hawk. And I think that’s why you have to feel with a singer, because they can’t hear you just at that point and as they climb down off a phrase or leave it, then they’re back in the world again. So it’s fascinating.

Angelina: We’re obviously talking about acoustic performances. I’d just like to ask also something I’ve thought about for a long time and I don’t think this question has ever been put to an accompanist before – do you feel resentful that despite your hard work, in the end the singer seems to get all the glory?

Elizabeth: To be honest, in the past I think I used to feel that. I don’t have a problem with it anymore, because I honestly believe you choose to be an accompanist because you want to be one. Some of the time you’ll be in the fore-ground and at other times you’ll be completely passively in the background, and you have to be prepared to be any or all of those things. But I do think that singers take the brunt of it – they’re facing the audience, the audience can read them like a book, they’re in a vulnerable situation and the pianist is in a much more privileged position in many ways. But having said that, a pianist is sitting down, always sideways to the audience – there’s a limit to how much presence and drama you can have and therefore, it is the job of the singer to have that charisma and presence. And after the performance people will flock to the singer to say: “It was wonderful, dahling!” And I might wonder around like a spare part afterwards, but it’s enough for one other pianist perhaps to come up to me and say: “I know how you got through that.” I think it’s its own reward. Pianists are pianists, singers are singers and it’ll be a pity if they tried to ape each other – different worlds, but they do blend at a certain point and I think there’s a lot of fascination to watching a singer in action.

Angelina: Is it very different to accompany for classical pieces as opposed to more pop-type music? Is there huge difference between the two genres of music for an accompanist.

Elizabeth: Personally, I don’t think so, though in the pop sphere often you’ll not get such harmonic complexity. And there is possibly more room for improvization as well within the accompaniment, whereas with classical music it is a prescribed part. You might mess about with it nevertheless, but very discreetly whereas with a pop score you might be re-making it as you’re playing it.

Angelina: It’s one thing to learn to play the piano, to be a soloist, but it really is a completely different thing to learn to be a good accompanist?

Elizabeth: Yes, because you’re editing, mixing, arranging as you go, but you have to be seen to be not doing that. So it must be discreet. A lot depends on the performance you’ve got while you’re in it, or how much support your singer might be needing from you, or not be needing from you right at that moment. So I think a lot of instinct comes into play to do with the balance of the piano against the voice. And the balance depends on the timbre of the voice that you’re working with, whether you’ve got a male or female voice. Obviously with a strong male voice, you’d be adding more treble into the mix and vice versa with a female voice, but with a female voice, not to bring out the bass ahead of time – it always has to be slipped into the mix, underneath the voice – at least, that’s how I see it. I think if you hear a bit of accompaniment that’s not working, it’ll be because the accompanist is not putting in the bass at the right level or at the right place, so you’ve got both of those issues to think about.

Angelina: Another question that might be interesting to ask is, I’m thinking you might not always get a rehearsal period with a singer? Or not for very long? So that’s another challenge to overcome, especially if it’s someone you’ve not ever performed with before?

Elizabeth: Yes, when that happens or when I have very little time to warm-up with somebody, what I do is try to make a very quick assessment of what sort of performer they are, what sort of personality they are, whether they’re going to be really out in front or whether they’re going to be wanting somebody supporting them or leading them. Again, that’s very interesting, because it’s a little bit of psychology or you could go by hearsay or reputation as well, because all singers are different and that’s very interesting to me.

Angelina: Let’s listen to what happens for the singer when the piano is being ‘banged.’ (This was recorded ‘live’ during our interview, so please listen to the example on either the YouTube videos or go to the little audio clip at the top of the page.)

Elizabeth: I know what you’re talking about with the ‘banging’ piano – the piano is quite a banking instrument – it’s a percussive instrument. If you’re not very, very careful, especially in romantic music, with how you’re using your hands, how you’re using the peddle, or how you’re listening, you will have this kind of booming and smacking sound coming off the piano and it must be quite disconcerting for a singer.

Angelina: Yes, it is. It is very distracting and it does feel like you’re being smacked around the head a bit, especially if there is a really banging bass coming off the piano – which you sometimes hear even during professional performances.

Elizabeth: Yes, you do and I think I know why that is. Over the years, singers have said to pianists: “I want support. Give me support.” And pianists read that as support that’s coming from the chords in the bass and sometimes they think that more is required than is actually required and that happens when they’re not using instinct properly, I’m guessing.

Angelina: Or goes against their instinct and listens to a singer who knows nothing about the piano!

Elizabeth: Or has misused the word ‘support’ because of possible cultural differences about what support really means. I think that some pianists think support means leading. And that’s a disaster for a singer when you have a pianist who knows better and is going to tell the singer what pace to start at, when to move on, when to pull back – it’s all hilarious.

Angelina: What does it take to be able to play in a very legato way? I’m sure it’s a combination of using your hands differently, of thinking differently, of working with the singer in a different way?

Elizabeth: There are a number of different techniques, and all those pianists out there will know what they are. But there is a kind of finger technique and forearm technique that produces the ‘bang’ as does the odd upright piano and if you get a marriage of those two elements, you get a very percussive sound – just to be on the kind side. And then, if you have a very good grand piano being played without using this forearm technique, but just using the shoulders, everything from ‘on’ the key – everything from ‘on’ the key, so that the pianist is not losing contact between the shoulder and the key – that can produce a very nice warm legato sound which singers like to live in.

Angelina: It’s more comfortable for us, because it feels as though if gives me the opportunity to be more creative within the piece, especially with classical music because it is often more difficult to be free and to express more of what you want to do, because these pieces are more structured and you’re often working within a particular style, which requires a specific way of singing and you can’t really come away from that.

Elizabeth: The best way I can put it technically for a pianist is that the entries into and out of the phrase should be as quiet as possible, so you should not hear a sort of pre-emptive banging coming either just before you enter a phrase or just after coming out of one. That is the essence of what accompaniment is all about. And some pianos make it easier than others to operate, but ideally, you should be coming in softly, like little footsteps, just underneath the vocal line all the time and coming out in the same way.

Angelina: And that makes for a much easier way of singing and also it makes the singer feel as though they’re in control of the piece – it makes the singer feel safe actually.

Elizabeth: Exactly, and I would say that is what support really is. And that is probably the essence of what is difficult as an accompanist – you have to be in that little zone where you’re timing yourself absolutely with the singer and not trying to lead. So you’re neither trying to lead, nor really trying to follow. You’re trying to come underneath. (This again was recorded ‘live’ during the interview – please go to the YouTube videos or the audio clip at the top of the page to hear the music.)

Elizabeth: I do think that when you’ve worked as an accompanist for a while and you’re soloing as well, what happens is that all the experience that you’ve built up as an accompanist, starts to inform the solo work. For me, when I play solo now, I’m much more relaxed than I used to be, I’m must more trusting that the quieter, less foreground type of sounds will be heard, or I let the audience work to hear them. And I treat some of my solo work as if I’m accompanying. It has brought a kind of deliberate passivity and deliberate background feeling to the solo work. This whole idea of the soloist of being a nineteenth century phenomenon with hair everywhere and a temperament to match, is not the truth. I think most pianists are a combination of introvert and extrovert, they’re often quite academic, they’re often quite emotional as well – they’re a combination of elements and I think soloists are often made too much into foreground people and not enough thought has been given to the sort of retrospective, quieter types of sound. So I think that’s the way forward for soloists.

Angelina: And obviously that will bring more shade and light and dark and texture to your playing?

Elizabeth: Yes, I think it does. And perhaps even more of an awareness that certain composers don’t particularly want you to project a line. Some pieces written for solo piano are not necessarily projected works, they’re not necessarily loud extrovert pieces of work and I think it’s easier when you’ve been an accompanist, to present things without bringing all that soloistic baggage, but just sit down is if you’re accompanying or improvising and produce a quieter sound. One lives and learns and there’s always more to learn and more to go through, or to live through. Everything is learning and you would be stupid to sit on a high horse and say: “Right, I know everything there is to know and this is what I do for a living.” And I think musicians who assume that stance will get nowhere fast, because everything is learning – you change all the time, you learn all the time, you keep learning and hopefully, as you keep learning, you’ll improve and people will want to work with you. You know, don’t retain a stance or opinion on anything that isn’t moving with the times. And you have to be honest as well, that there is more and more to learn and you can never sit down and say I’ve learnt it all.

Angelina: But it’s not just learning about the instrument or learning as a musician or a singer – I think this kind of continuous learning also helps you to develop as a human being – it helps your spiritual growth.

Elizabeth: Yes, if somebody were to come and work with me and they sensed that I had closed the doors on certain ideas or that I had opinions and I wasn’t shifting from them, I think I wouldn’t get anymore work for a start. I think the world is changing so fast and you have to accept and grow with it and if you don’t, you’ll be left behind, because there’s so much more to learn in the music world. It is something I embrace and I look forward to change, I like fusions of styles and I like different types of music and I like to move with those things and I like to develop as I go.

So the next challenge is, when you’ve been there, you’ve done that, you’ve accomplished your first stage as a musician as a vocalist, you’ve been trained in a certain idiom, you know how to deliver things in that idiom, you’ve got your techniques lined up, you may be in your 20’s, 30’s, 40’s – it doesn’t matter – you’ve gone down that path, you’ve followed all the rules, and then you bottom out, because nothing stops, does it? You don’t have a plant that grows and when it reaches two feet and it’s supposed to be six foot, it stops and says: “Right, well, I don’t know what to do next?” So I think there has got to be an organic link that the human musician requires to go on to the next stage. And that is the challenge. The challenge is do you go on to the next stage, and jump out of this little area where you’re really happy, where you get your work – you might even get paid an enormous amount for it, and that’s how people know you, and you’re safe and you know what you’re doing and it’s repertoire you’ve done. Or do you say, “Right, I’m discontented now. I’ve been there, done that. What else am I supposed to be doing? Why do I feel discontented?” And of course that’s the challenge of the next stage.

Angelina: But that’s the scary bit.

Elizabeth: It’s extremely scary, because I think that’s when most people stop. That’s when they start teaching or decide to only sing or play in a certain idiom and they won’t go any further, because they’re not ‘supposed’ to. But if you look further inside yourself, if you really look inside yourself, you’ll find that you haven’t stopped growing, so why should your music stop growing? You are craving something else. It’s like you don’t eat the same stuff, twenty years down the line, as you did when you were ten. Things change. Things organically change. Your requirements change. Your own musical needs change. And there’s a little voice inside you that says: “I need to go on. I need to go to the second stage.” And personally, I think the second stage has to do with authenticity. It has to do with wanting to sound like yourself, and not like anybody else you’ve encountered. I want to find myself. That’s the human quest, isn’t it?

Angelina: Yes, and then you have to look inside for that.

Elizabeth: And there in that little chamber of exploration you will meet yourself. Do any of us want to do that? Probably not. A bit of us wants to, but the cost is going to be quite high. You’ve got to be very brave to do that. You’ve got to steel yourself and say: “I’m ready to face myself.” 

So I think the quest for authenticity has to do with facing your own demons and those can be considerable. And who wants to do that? Who would elect to do that?

Most people in ‘ordinary’ jobs don’t do that, but if you’re driven by your art, you have to. You look at all artists in all fields and the ones who get through that kind of watershed, are going on into different stuff and they’re facing their own demons head-on: their own weaknesses, their own strengths and they’re looking for their own sound. And once they’ve found their own sound, once they’ve found themselves in their own sound, everybody else has found them too, because there’s something in the sound then that they produce, that hooks into what everybody wants, as opposed to superficially performing in a certain way under somebody else’s dictat. So when you’re hearing somebody who’s definitely coming from their core, they’ve been through that, they’ve been through that challenge.

Angelina: And once you have the courage and the bravery to look inside yourself, to face your demons, to face all the things that we don’t normally get a chance to look at for ourselves, and go past that and beyond that, that’s when you start creating ‘real’ art, that really, really touches people, because something happens when you are being true to yourself that translates to other people.

Elizabeth: Yes, ‘translates’ is a good word. And others can feel authenticity because everything is lined up. If you can’t see it, you can feel it – that the person is lined-up with their real self: there isn’t a dislocation between what they are trying to put out to the world and what they’re feeling inside. There isn’t that kind of misfit…like a bad pair of specs. There’s a head-on thing and the world receives it as such. So it’s an interesting thing one has to do, or else, just give up – that option is always open.

Angelina: Yes, but like you said earlier, if you’re an artist, you’re driven, and it is a driven-ness – nobody in their right minds would sometimes want to do the kinds of jobs we do – I mean you hear about artists who get so ill with nerves before they go on stage…

Elizabeth: But you know those people who, in their mid-lives, often disappear – I can think of lots of examples. People ask: “Where are they? Where are they?” What they’ve done is they’ve retreated into a cave and come back years later and you hear a much stronger artistic personality – either that, or they disappear. But it’s very interesting – I think they go to lick their wounds sometimes because they’ve had too much of one type of music and have not been allowed to be themselves in their music.

Angelina: That is often the case. In fact, you were telling me earlier about a recent tv show with Shirley Bassey and how wonderful she sounds now in her 70’s, having come out with a completely different sound in a way, but it’s still her.

Elizabeth: It’s a much more authentic all-rounded personality in the sound and a much more gifted and lined-up interpretation of a wider variety of things than she was doing before. But that kind of retreat into a kind of introverted cave, is sometimes a period of reassessment and re-growth and the person who emerges later, I think, is interpretatively stronger. And I can think of the pianist, Martha Argerich, rather a nervous type –  nobody knew she was – again, goes away, comes back and really wows people with the depth and insight she’d piled on during those years when nobody’d seen or heard of her for a very long time. And I don’t think it’s just going back to the drawing board, I think it’s going back to yourself.

Schumann Piano Concerto 1mov (1/3) Martha Argerich Riccardo Chailly Gewandhaus Orchestra

Angelina: That makes complete sense to me, because as artists, that’s what we do all the time anyway, but I do understand you mean by saying there comes a point where you’ve done it all – you’ve done all the techniques, you’ve done all the styles, you understand the academic stuff that’s been pounded into you, and now you have that experience to build on and to make things far more organic.

Elizabeth: And perhaps unique, too, because if you truly find your own voice, then no-body will be the same. Whereas in your earlier life, you might have come across as a clone, something which we can all say we’ve done.

Angelina: Absolute. Because you may fall in love with a certain singer and want to sound like her. Everybody does that. I certainly know of singers, who when they’re learning new repertoire, for example, find singers whom they admire, who’s singing that repertoire and then they copy them.

Elizabeth: Yes, and then at a certain point in your artistic development, copying is not what you want to do anymore.

Elizabeth playing Claire de Lune at the end of one of the North London Performance Academy’s showcases.

Elizabeth accompanying Marino Onissophorou playing “Light of Sothis” by Amy Quate on saxophone during a North London Performance Academy showcase.

Elizabeth accompanying Movin Abeywickrema playing “1st Sentimental Romance” by Stenhammer during a performance at one of the North London Performance Academy’s showcases.

For those interested in reading more about the realities of the accompanist, Elizabeth has recommended a brilliant, and at times, hilarious book: Am I Too Loud? The memoirs of a piano accompanist, by Gerald Moore.

Gerald talks humorously and demonstrates about the Art of Accompanying.

Elisabeth Schwarzkopf sings “An die Musik” by Schubert accompanied by Gerald Moore.

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Gerald Moore perform “To Music” – Rare footage!

The music for the intro and outtro of this programme has been composed and performed by Elizabeth Dockrell-Tyler.

We do not own the copyright to any of the pictures, music or videos presented in this programme, only copyright on all scripts presented within the programme, and no copyright infringement is intended.

This blog is offered to invite comments and discussion on the work presented by The Sound Bath.


About soundbath

I loved singing from a very young age and first performed in public when just seven years old. As a child, living as we did, on a farm in the middle of the Kalahari Desert - the place of my birth - we had no television and my mother played records by Mario Lanza, Guiseppe Di Stephano, Beniamino Gigli, Franco Corelli, Jussi Bjorling, Enrico Caruso and other well-known Italian opera tenors, day in and day out. I adored this music and their beautiful voices, and was convinced I would be a tenor when I grew up. But the small matter of being born a girl, shattered that dream! I trained as a soprano instead, and have been fortunate enough to sing all over the world, enjoying some wonderful moments along the way, including being invited to Buckingham Palace by Queen Elizabeth II in recognition of my contribution to the music, economy and culture of the UK.
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1 Response to The Accompanist and The Singer

  1. Renae says:

    I really enjoyed reading this article. Definitely gave me insight into becoming a better accompanist :).

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