Maybe at some point you’ve heard someone say, or you yourself might have even thought at some point, that accompanying singers is too difficult. That can give the impression that it sometimes isn’t attractive to play continuo. But remember, it’s absolutely something that most continuo players can learn to do and all continuo players must learn and be able to do.
Simply said: if you can’t accompany singers properly, don’t play continuo.
Whether a singer is performing on stage, in a chamber setting or in a concert with orchestra, be aware that at any time, a singer can change a breath, change the phrasing, change a stage movement, there can be an error in the text or in the rhythm. As a continuo player, you have to be wired to anticipate that.
And it’s not just the notes: it’s also when, how long, how loud, how fast … these are all moving parts that have to be integrated into the whole structure of what is going on in the piece. You basically need three eyes: one on the singer, one on the score, one on the conductor. Although, that third eye should only ever have to be used sparingly, as the conductor, for example, should never be conducting recitatives in the first place.
I cannot stress enough how important that first eye is, the one on the singer: your eye has to be on the singer like a hawk, ready to react to anything unexpected that the singer may do. It’s called “live performance” for a reason: a thousand unexpected things can happen. It’s up to the continuo to make sure that everything stays together. You have to know what happens, when it happens, and how to react if something goes awry (and take my word for it, it happens more often than you think). It takes time and lots of trial and error to learn how to do that, and there isn’t really any way to teach it. After doing it for a good while, it either becomes second nature, or you might want to be doing something else rather than play continuo.
In addition, you have to take into account the phrasing of the text and its declamation, and not play accented notes on unaccented syllables (there are exceptions to this, for example if there is a dissonance that should be stressed). By the way, singers also have the responsibility to learn to not unduly accent an unaccented syllable just because it falls for example on the first beat of a measure, but that’s a whole different animal.
You also have to accept that there are times when you should not be playing at all. Fighting over every note makes no sense – sometimes, less is more. On the other hand, as rehearsals progress, your knowledge of what’s going on in the piece will progress as well, and that will allow you to decide when and where to play, and whom and whom not to accompany. In order to make those decisions, you can take into account different aspects: the mood of the piece at a particular moment, the range and volume of the voice part(s), how many people are singing at the same time, whether it’s a dialogue or a monologue, the different expressions in the piece (for example anger, sadness, despair, bliss, love, gratitude …).
And lastly, never forget that your job is to accompany. You can lead when the musical context demands it, but you still have to accompany at all times. Do not ever be a showoff: not on stage, not on Facebook, not anywhere. If a review mentions that you, in the continuo, have done something particularly eye-catching, that means the reviewer likely should be replaced, but it also means that you have not been doing your job.
It’s not about you. Get over it.
Written and added on July 14, 2017