I usually start each semester by setting a limit for how many to accompany due to the difficulty of their music/recital rep. I have been very fortunate to have a group of "usuals" that I've been employed by for the past couple of years. That is about ten to fifteen people combined in both voice and instrumental areas. Professor McQuay, who I am studying piano with, added another bit of practice time into the semester so I set my limit at about half (10-12) from usual (about 20-25 per semester) to hopefully prepare enough to make a recording and be ready for grad school auditions this fall. Not having as many individuals to cover I talked with the String Chamber professor and the Baroque Ensemble professor if I could join them if they needed more keyboard players. Apparently they are more needed than most pianists think. This was quite a learning experience.
String Chamber was an entirely new experience. It's what I wanted to do though because I'd only been a part of one ensemble like that the year before. We rehearsed three or four times and then performed. It was stressful, to say the least, (as we received updated scores...) but as we were volunteering our time and talents and on our own to rehearse we, probably could have spent a little more time together but all four of us were super busy (I was preparing for six voice recitals). So this was going to be a bit different. I was placed in a quintet of all women. It really was a lot of fun. We picked Hungarian composer/pianist, Ernst von Dohnanyi, Piano Quintet No 2 in E flat minor as our piece to study. We decided to do the first movement and possibly the third as we prepared for two recitals for the semester. That. Is. Really. Hard. Music.
The professor of this class sat by me before our last session and asked a very pertinent question, "What would you tell a first semester pianist who would be taking or who would be interested this class?" I hadn't really thought about advice I'd give but it was a great time to reflect on a few things I've learned about ensemble playing in this situation.
1 - Be prepared. Because we were in a collegiate situation, and not a professional one, we were given time to rehearse (three hours a week, two of them coached with our professor) and still have errors (notes, rhythms, counting, etc. Etc?! What am I thinking?! That's pretty much it.) but not completely incompetent of your part. At times I was personally frustrating with my own playing because the difficulty of the music was not quick to learn. There were other times where members of our group still couldn't count to four or counted their rests completely. It is part of rehearsal. It's part of life. Making mistakes. It has to be done in order to progress. I know that in our group we didn't have a lot of discrepancies but other groups were very upset that they couldn't practice together because people still hadn't gotten their notes down. When our group played for the class a few weeks into the semester we were noted as the most prepared so far. I know that a big part of that was my doing because I had hammered that music so hard at the beginning to make sure I wasn't pulling everyone down. And it may have been due to the huge presence of the piano in this piece, and my professor agreed.
2 - Be on time. Things happen. They really do, but class starts at the same time each week and everyone has their other studies, jobs, family, and social calls. Having been able to work in a more professional setting since graduating five years ago, being on time or at least ten minutes early for any rehearsal or call time is crucial, even the symphony conductor states that at every performance. People associate your appearance next to your punctuality. If you're there dressed appropriately, prepared, and punctual there's a high possibility that you'll be hired, or asked, again to work with them. Especially if you've got a special guest, who's being paid a lot of money, to coach your group(s). It really is embarrassing, and frustrating at times, to have to wait around for some one to show up almost each time late.
-You really, really don't want to start your jury with your least successful piece just because you're avoiding another one you can't really play or sing. (it's not really a mind game, just pick your most confident piece!)
- If you're playing a piece in 3/4 for your jury, make sure what you deliver is really in 3/4. (I can't follow you if you aren't in the right time signature)
- Know in advance if you're going to need to fill out any forms and whether or not you need to provide music to your jurors. (Every semester students fill out the same form and add their rep to it. Print it out the week before for Heaven's sake!) That's the last thing you should be thinking about.
- Make sure you and your collaborator know when and where your jury is. (I am not your mom. We are working together and you should inform me when your jury is and if you're not going to do it)
- Don't have your jury be the first time you perform something. Even if that means performing for a bunch of elephants at the zoo (Glenn Gould did that!), perform for someone. First performances are rarely comfortable and are not often good representations of what you can really do. (My dad always said that practice makes permanent. You can't really think that you'll be able to do your best when you're pulling it out of the air)
- It may be a jury and not a typical performance but go out and perform anyway. Everyone will be thankful. (Don't you have a personal reason for doing what you do? Share that with others)
- Dress appropriately, and don't bring your cell phone to your jury. (Even accompanists. It's like a small event/recital. The faculty and students see how you present your appearance and that's a lot of what they remember you by. Just leave your phone in the hallway. It's a max of ten minutes. Really.)
After all is said and done you'll do as well as you've prepared. I feel that most of my students I worked with this semester did that. And I'm grateful I was able to work with them. And so it goes...Adventures in Accompanying!