Sooner or later, it happens to all of us… despite the best-laid plans, accompanists might be unavailable to fill a last-minute need or that upcoming program. You might be thinking “Yea, though I walk through the valley of death…” well, it’s not quite that bad! These solutions may not be as easy as working with an accompanist, but they can provide some welcome options when necessary.
One of the best things you can do in this emergency is to identify the constraints, resources, and action plan that best fit the situation.
First, what are the constraints?
Whether leading a worship service, singing solos, weddings or funerals, or leading congregational singing, there will be certain limitations that occur.
- How much time needs to be covered?
- How should the music function in the service?
- Is a sound system (and operator) available?
- Are you working solo, with a choir, or with a congregation?
Each of these ‘boundaries’ can actually help ‘box in’ the problem so that a solution can be more quickly found and solved.
Second, what are the resources?
DIY – do it yourself
One of the most reliable resources is you! If you don’t already play the piano, organ, or guitar, get started! It’s amazing how fast musical skills will transfer from instrument to instrument – you probably already read music, keep a steady beat, and have a grasp of musical interpretation. While you’re thinking outside the box, maybe you could ask an organist to fill in for your pianist, or a guitarist to play while the organist is unavailable. Though the music will not ‘sound the same’, you might still be able to complete your obligations.
Sing a cappella
This is actually one of my personal ‘Plan B’ favorites, but it favors a strong voice and a careful sense of pitch. You might want to keep lists of songs that work well for solo work, choir, and congregation. Make sure to vary the key if singing more than one a cappella piece to prevent listener fatigue. Look for techniques that you can use to dress up a song such as call-and-response, rounds, and verse/chorus structures. If you are leading a cappella congregational singing, practice ‘pitching’ songs by singing the lowest and highest sections to yourself before starting the song for the group. Yes, there are good reasons a cappella music still exists – it serves a variety of situations, styles, and needs.
Pre-recorded accompaniment tracks
First, just bring up your favorite search engine and look for ‘accompaniment tracks’ or ‘accompaniment tracks download free’. There will be plenty of search engine hits, and you can find additional suggestions by adding terms such as ‘liturgical’, ‘traditional’ or ‘gospel’. This approach may work a bit better with contemporary music than with traditional or liturgical styles, but there are definitely a variety of resources out there. If you live in a larger town or metropolitan area, you may be able to find tracks at Christian bookstores. Of course, selection will vary, but it’s another option to keep in mind.
If you intend to use this solution, give careful thought to how the music will be played, especially if you will be using the recordings with a choir. Simply playing the tracks through the house audio system while the choir sings will create an odd sound; you will need to investigate ‘mic-ing’ the choir, choir monitors, or a more natural-sounding replay method. In a pinch, consider playing the tracks from speakers facing the choir such that their volume approximates a ‘normal’ instrument.
Record your own
If you have very particular needs, or have an accompanist available at an earlier point, consider recording your own tracks for later use. You’ll want to be very careful about consistent tempos and your playback methods (see above), but this can help fill the gap during a vacation or similar need. If possible, work with someone who has created similar recordings before – it’s amazing how much difference this can make. Careful attention to recording technique and audio editing will help produce the best sound possible.
You might be tempted to simply play online MIDI (musical instruments digital interface) files after downloading them, but there are often issues with the way these files sound that limit their usefulness. However, if you have access to MIDI editing and production software – and the skills to accompany them – you can create interesting accompaniment for a variety of musical styles and situations. Again, you’ll want to pay attention to how these accompaniments are ‘played’ to the choir and congregation.
Vocal remover software
Be very careful here! If you read the online ads, this sounds like a viable solution. However, you could easily be violating copyrights by creating derivative works from someone else’s creative effort. As a Christian musician, you do have a moral and ethical responsibility to your congregation, so make sure not to violate copyright law. In addition, vocal removers are usually among the worst-sounding options you can choose – though the software is very sophisticated, the results are typically mediocre and just sound bad.
Find an arranger
I know this sounds crazy, but musicians who make a living at arranging music will often have recording equipment and other musical resources at their fingertips. Even if you are not directly hiring them, these talented folks can often steer you toward the connections and resources that you need to accomplish your musical tasks. They might even be accompanists!
Third, what is the plan?
No matter which resources you bring to bear, there are certain common ideas to keep in mind.
Mix up your presentation
As you prepare your worship service or musical event, give some thought to combining the available options; it will make it less obvious that an accompanist is unavailable.
Keep it simple
If you are working with restricted resources, don’t be concerned with creating overly complex presentations. It is better to do something simple well than to go down in flames with something difficult.
Plan ahead – if you can
Could I suggest you keep an ’emergency kit’ for when an accompanist is unavailable? Having the right resources on hand when needed can be a great comfort.
I hope these ideas and resources help you to plan for the next time you have an ‘unavailable’ accompanist!
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