The 7 Signs of an Amateur Accompanist

Instructor
Jonny May
Quick Tip
Level 2
19:39

Learning Focus
  • Accompanying
  • Groove
Music Style
  • Contemporary
  • Fundamentals
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Do you ever feel that your piano accompaniment sounds repetitive or boring? Or maybe you feel your sound is missing something or feels amateurish compared to the professional recordings you listen to. This is quite a common issue for beginner pianists and those early on in their musical journey. Interestingly, many pianists fall under the same accompaniment traps, which in this lesson we’ll call the “7 signs of an amateur accompanist.” 

Nobody wants a monotone piano accompaniment on their song. So let’s learn not only how to spot these amateur accompaniment problems, but also how to fix them with professional piano accompaniment techniques. This will apply whether you’re a singer or songwriter trying to create your own accompaniment on the piano, or an aspiring professional pianist. The techniques discussed in this lesson will help you to improve your piano skills and take you to the next level!

In this lesson, you’ll learn:

  • The 7 signs of an amateur accompanist
  • Solutions to getting a more professional accompaniment sound
  • Awesome piano techniques such as interesting left-hand patterns, rhythmic patterns, fills, and techniques for richer harmony
  • The bigger picture, how to put all the techniques together and create a professional arrangement of a song
  • Sheet music PDF of the lesson and backing tracks for practicing included

Excited? Let’s dive in!

Sign of Amateur Accompanist #1: 1-5-1-5 Left Hand

The first sign of amateur accompaniment is a very vanilla technique of rocking back and forth on the root and 5th (and possibly an octave of the root) of a chord in the left hand. While this may work for a little while and is a good place to start with in terms of left-hand patterns, it can easily become boring after a while!

Amateur piano accompanists might be stuck on using the 1-5-1-5 pattern in the left hand
Amateur piano accompanists might be stuck on using the 1-5-1-5 pattern in the left hand

Fix: Spread it out!

You’ll have much richer accompaniment if you vary up the chord tones and possibly even add passing tones! In this example, we modified the pattern to the following formula: 1-5-3-5-2-5-3-5.

Try spreading out the left hand accompaniment for a better sound, and incorporate other chord tones and passing tones
Try spreading out the left-hand accompaniment for a better sound, and incorporate other chord tones and passing tones

This creates much more resonance and motion and even creates a beautiful countermelody in the left hand. These are the things high-level pros are constantly trying to achieve.

Sign of Amateur Accompanist #2: Chording Right Hand

What do we mean by chording? Basically, chording is when someone sits at the piano and tirelessly repeats chords over and over. Usually, they might be playing a half note or whole note value.

Amateur piano accompanists might simply repeat chords blocked together over and over
Amateur piano accompanists might simply repeat chords blocked together over and over

 Fix: Patterned Harmony

Instead of just playing simple blocked chords the whole time, try incorporating a pattern in the right hand. These patterns can usually be cut and pasted to any chord in the song. The example below takes the chord and breaks up the outer notes of the chord from the inner middle note using the following pattern: outer-inner-inner-outer (repeat).

A much better right hand accompaniment option on piano is to use patterned harmony as shown in the example above
A much better right-hand accompaniment option on the piano is to use patterned harmony as shown in the example above

TIP: You might have noticed that when changing chords you can go into it a little early as shown above. This creates a little less monotony with a technique we call anticipation. 

If you want to learn more left and right-hand grooves and patterns as shown above, then check out Pop & Contemporary Piano Accompaniment Patterns (Beginner/Intermediate, Intermediate/Advanced). That course contains 48 awesome pop accompaniments to learn!

Sign of Amateur Accompanist #3: No “Money Notes”

Another big sign of an amateur accompanist is that they only stick to the basic 3 notes for each chord. This is a sure-fire way to end up lacking much color and depth compared to the pro pianists.

Basic triad chords with no money notes
Basic triad chords with no money notes

Fix: Add the One Chord Wonder

What is the one chord wonder? It is a simple 3 note chord that you can actually use over any chord in the key and instantly inject tons of color into the music. In the key of C, the notes would be C, D, and G. There are two positions of this chord, one with the C on the bottom, and the other with the C on top.

The two positions of the one chord wonder
The two positions of the one chord wonder

Note: The technical name for this chord is called a Csus2 for you theory nerds 🤓

Check out the one chord wonder in action on the chord progression, we’ve used it in the first position on the first 2 measures and in the second position on the last 2 measures. Again, this structure can practically be used over any chord in C!

An example of using the one chord wonder over various chords in the key of C to add more rich harmony to our piano accompaniment
An example of using the one chord wonder over various chords in the key of C to add more rich harmony to our piano accompaniment

If you want to learn more about the one chord wonder and ways to use it, then check out the course Pop & Contemporary Piano Accompaniment: The One Chord Wonder.

Sign of Amateur Accompanist #4: No Melodic Fills

Playing repetitive chords with no melodic fills in between the phrases is also one of the biggest signs of an amateur piano accompanist. Fills can really help a singer to sound good by bridging the gap between the spaces the singer/lead instrumentalist leaves.

Fix: Add Carry-In Melodies

An example of a more professional piano accompaniment using melodic fills between the gaps of the phrases
An example of a more professional piano accompaniment using melodic fills between the gaps of the phrases

As you can see, we’ve added a couple of melodies that really serve to carry us into the next phrase. It even allowed us to smoothly flow from the first position of the one-chord wonder to the second in measures 2-3.

TIP: While carry-in melodies are pretty flexible and subjective to your creative tastes, we generally aim to land on a chord tone of the chord we end up on at the very end of it. This will be much more stable than ending up on a note outside the chord.

The accompaniment carry-in melodies generally sound much better if they land on chord tones
The accompaniment carry-in melodies generally sound much better if they land on chord tones

If you want to learn more about melodic fills and improvising lines in this style, then check out Contemporary Progressions and Improv (Beginner/Intermediate, Intermediate/Advanced). 

Sign of Amateur Accompanist #5: Same Pulse the Entire Time

If you’re playing the same rhythm the entire time, that is definitely another one of the signs that you’re probably sounding like an amateur accompanist. We know that we have one underlying beat in all music we play, however, we also tend to feel a different pulse of that beat depending on what subdivisions or groups of beats we emphasize.

Fix: Think With Pulses

Here are different pulse options for your accompaniment. Each one might have various rhythms placed on top of it, some even contain syncopation or the accenting of the offbeats to create richer texture. However, it will always strongly emphasize the underlying pulse that it is outlining.

Play through these different pulse options, and especially take note of the different energy levels each pulse feel provides.

Half note pulse pop piano accompaniment
Half note pulse pop piano accompaniment

Quarter note pulse pop piano accompaniment
Quarter note pulse pop piano accompaniment

8th note pulse pop piano accompaniment
8th note pulse pop piano accompaniment

16th note pulse pop piano accompaniment
16th note pulse pop piano accompaniment

The last one with the 16th note pulse actually ties into what Jonny calls the Popstinato technique. There are many options for creating that type of soaring accompaniment feel.  You can learn about it in the Pop & Contemporary Piano Accompaniment: Popstinatos course.

Sign of Amateur Accompanist #6: Always Using the Same Range

In case you haven’t noticed, the keyboard is quite large. Take advantage of it! Being stuck in the same range the whole time will definitely get boring. How can we do that?

Fix: Think of Textures

We can think of different registers of the piano as a different texture. Each one provides its own emotion and timbre. Check out the charts below as a reference to the different emotions produced in relation to the range.

Note: C1 represents the lowest C on the piano, and every octave of C higher will be numbered incrementally.

C1-C4 range provides a dark or powerful character to the accompaniment
C1-C4 range provides a dark or powerful character to the accompaniment

C3-G5 provides a warm or happy character to the accompaniment
C3-G5 provides a warm or happy character to the accompaniment

C4 to C7 provides a gentle or tender character to the accompaniment
C4 to C7 provides a gentle or tender character to the accompaniment

Sign of Amateur Accompanist #7: No Storytelling

This is one of the most supercritical signs of an amateur accompanist versus a mature professional accompanist. If you play the same type of accompaniment for the entire song it will definitely become monotone and redundant.

Good musicians are like good storytellers. There’s a kind of emotional arc throughout the entire story. It may usually start off more mellow, set the foundation, and grow more complex and intense as the story goes on.

Fix: Think Of Energy

Just like that storyteller, we can use the techniques discussed previously in the lesson to create a larger overall story arc of emotion. This will keep us engaged throughout the entire song. How can we do that?

Let’s take an example. Most pop music repeats various sections over and over. We can use this as an opportunity to ramp up the energy(or break it down at times) on each repeat. Check out the following charts to illustrate the possibilities using the various techniques discussed in the lesson. Remember that these are just examples, and you can certainly modify the details to suit your tastes:

Pop piano accompaniment first time low energy low range whole note pulse

Pop piano accompaniment second time medium low energy lower mid-range half note pulse

Pop piano accompaniment third time medium energy mid-range quarter note pulse

Pop piano accompaniment fourth time high energy upper mid-range 8th note pulse

Pop piano accompaniment fifth time very low energy breakdown upper range whole note pulse

Pop piano accompaniment sixth time very high energy finale upper range 16th note pulse

There you have it, organizing the entire song similar to what we have above is going to give us a solid and professional sounding arrangement. 

Summing It All Up

Professional productions incorporate a vast number of techniques and tricks to keep the song interesting, but if it’s just piano and lead voice or instrument then we’ve got to pull all that weight on the piano. That’s where it’s easy for signs of an amateur piano accompanist to show. I hope that with these techniques you’ll now be able to keep a song or piece of music interesting no matter what the context.

Don’t forget you can download the PDF summarizing all the main contents of this Quick Tip. There are also several backing tracks you can use to practice these techniques using the same chord progression we’ve used throughout the lesson. If you’ve made any cool accompaniments using these techniques please send them our way! You can use our Facebook group with #proaccompaniment.

If you want a deeper dive into this and related topics, check out just some of the great courses here at Piano With Jonny:

That’s it for this Quick Tip. See you in the next one!

Blog written by Daine Jordan/Quick Tip by Jonny May

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