In On the Job Training, Thoughts on Writing

There are lots of different ways to accompany choral music.

Piano, organ, brass ensemble, symphonic orchestra, rhythm section, bluegrass band, and every thinkable combination between. But the large majority of choral anthems are accompanied by piano alone. And the quality of that accompaniment is crucial to the success of the anthem. The accompaniment can even make the difference between blockbuster and lackluster sales.

A capella writing aside, a choral anthem’s accompaniment is more than cursory support for the choral parts.  It is an equal partner to the choir,  providing a foundational framework as well as a lot of the “color” of the arrangement. It sets the mood, provides countermelodies, supplies rhythmic energy, supports modulations, heightens dynamics, and adds flourish, power, and nuance to the composition. If one ever hopes to be a successful choral arranger/composer, the ability to craft a well-written, creative accompaniment is a “must have” skill. Without it, you are forever at the mercy of editors and hired guns to do the heavy lifting of writing piano parts. Farming that work out to others comes at a price. You will either have to literally pay out of pocket, or, worse, see your music morph into something the accompaniment writer imagined, rather than what you wanted.

“But I can’t play the piano very well! How can I possibly write a good accompaniment?”

My most popular and best-selling choral piece is an arrangement of “Jesus Paid It All.” The arrangement is known for it’s romantic, flowing, and somewhat challenging piano accompaniment. Countless pianists have told me how much they enjoy playing it, and they are always surprised to learn that I cannot play it myself. My own piano skills are rudimentary at best, and fading with every passing year. But consider this:  I cannot play the violin, the trumpet, the guitar, nor the piccolo, either. Nor can I sing soprano, alto, or tenor. (I can barely sing bass.) But I can hear them all in my head, and I know how to write for them. The same goes for the piano. If I can hear it in my head I can find it at the piano, and I can write it down.

I am no musical genius. If I can do it, then so can you.

A word of caution: With the “playback” features in Finale, Sibelius, and Dorico, it’s easy to fool ourselves into thinking whatever we write down is actually playable. But a machine can play things that would be impossible for a human to play. So I subject my accompaniments to the “Two Measure Test.” If I can play across the bar lines of any two bars in the accompaniment without straining my hands, chances are a good pianist can play it with little trouble. If there is any doubt in my mind, I will ask a pianist-friend to test drive the piano part for me. If he or she makes suggestions, I definitely take heed and make changes. Some of my piano accompaniments are more difficult than others. But regardless their level of difficulty, I want them all to be playable. I work very hard to write piano parts that lay well under the hands.  I don’t always succeed, but I don’t often fail.

These days, choirs are sometimes accompanied by orchestras or bands, and the piano accompaniment is, necessarily and rightly, set aside in performance where piano becomes part of a larger ensemble. But in rehearsals, the accompaniment is still crucial. and those Sundays when the band or the orchestra isn’t there, the piano is once again the sole support of the choir.

A Part 2 may be necessary for this blog, to talk about those piano accompaniments that are essentially a transcription of a larger orchestration. And there is the question of the pipe organ. And added instruments. But typically, the piano remains at the root of it all. So for now, know this: If you write choral music and don’t wish to be dependent on others to finish your work, you need to develop creative piano writing skills.

Showing 10 comments
  • Barbara Billingsley
    Reply

    Well said. And well-written for your compositions, also. I always love playing (and hearing) your work. I am one of your greatest fans and the piano accompaniments are a big part of that. It’s a joy to play accompaniments that accomplish all those things you have listed. (And, it’s heart-breaking to hear someone butcher accompaniments and sabotage those beautiful singing parts….)
    Barbara

  • Dan Heath
    Reply

    We couldn’t agree more and we have enjoyed your choral arrangements for a long time. The entire arrangement of “Jesus Paid it All” is one of our favorites and I love hearing my wife play it. For most of my career I sought pieces with great orchestrations but most of your works are outstanding with just the piano accompaniment. Thanks for your great contributions to church music.
    Dan Heath

  • Rich Cass
    Reply

    You lost me at, “I am no musical genius.” but then drew me back again at, “I cannot play…trumpet…”. The latter may be true (wink, wink from the trumpet section) but the former is certainly not. And I’ve never met a trumpet part in a Rob Sterling arrangement I didn’t like.

    May the Lord continue to bless you and your music career / ministry, sir.

    • Robert Sterling
      Reply

      I’ve met a couple of musicians who were probably geniuses. Trust me, I’m not one. I’m not weird enough! 🙂 Thx for the comment.

  • Travis Boyd
    Reply

    Thanks for this post. So many new anthems have no suitable accompaniment and rely upon a track or a rhythm section to supply the “energy” to drive the piece. Directors should consider this carefully when selecting new music. Don’t just listen to the studio demo. Listen to it being accompanied only by the piano. This will give a truer picture of what it will sound like when it is done by “live” musicians.

    • Robert Sterling
      Reply

      The trend to use rhythm sections really does put a fly in the ointment, doesn’t it? Because a proper rhythm chart leaves so much to the players’ imaginations & creativity, one never really knows what to expect as a result. And the modern choral demo recording, while necessary for sales, really isn’t a true indicator of what it will sound like when played by any given live rhythm section. Maybe that’s why some churches use trax.

  • Wanda Cooley
    Reply

    Yes, it can sound difficult, but the challenge is to write ‘under the hand’, as you say, with attention to well-traveled bridges between registers, so that it plays securely. Now I’m learning to get rid of non-essential notes to thin the texture. Wonder what will be ‘next’ to focus on?

    Thank you Brad Nix for the ‘don’t double the third of the chord when in first inversion rule’ brought to life….and Joseph M. for ‘how to share busy notes rhythmically between the hands’ to simplify playing.

    I’d love to go more in-depth on this topic.

  • Diane Hannibal
    Reply

    Robert, I read your blob about accompaniments. Mine are getting better. Even Joe said that. I tend to pull out pieces of music by accomplished composers that are in a similar style as my piece and get ideas from them. Some work really well and others need a little extra effort on my part to make them work. That is something I have been working very hard to improve. Thanks for the thoughts. Wes can still sleep in the bedroom. It’s really okay.

    • Robert Sterling
      Reply

      Glad to know Wes isn’t in the dog house. And it does take a lot of work to write a great piano accompaniment. Even talented pianists don’t necessarily write the best accompaniments.

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