Behind the scenes: Meet Michael

Behind the scenes: Meet Michael

In a quiet part of rural England, you’ll find a small collaboration of passionate people who set out to democratise access to high quality piano accompaniments through the world wide web.

Picture of Michael, Your Accompanist himself
Michael, Your Accompanist himself

Early in April 2007, we launched as a resource for the singers all over the world who wanted authentic piano accompaniments for learning and rehearsal. Our aim was to provide information-age tools for singers working with a broad range of historical repertoire and genres, and to promote everyday enjoyment of singing in settings where piano skills might not be readily available.

“I’m always amazed to think that right now I might be accompanying someone thousands of miles away!” says Your Accompanist himself, Michael Baron, a British pianist and organist, the man behind every single track.

“We get really great feedback from all over the world, and it gives us enormous satisfaction when we hear from people, especially if one of our accompaniments has helped solve a problem for someone” he says.

“We started Your Accompanist in response to singers we knew not being able to find the songs that they wanted to sing in a form they enjoyed listening to. We knew we had the combination of skills to make piano accompaniments which would deliver a rich experience that enabled singers to learn the song and something about the song: our “take” on it, if you like. We wanted to create something that could be worked with seriously, that felt as close as possible to an authentic communication coming from the piano.”

Labour of love

Since we began the site in April 2007, Michael has recorded over 4500 pieces (and almost all of them have been produced in response to requests from our customers). Quite an achievement for one musician and he shows no sign of slowing in his endeavours.  “I’m the one who plays the piano, but there are three other collaborators supplying website and customer experience skills.” says Michael.

Also on the team, there’s Helen who looks after customer and communications, and Christian who built the website, and keeps it all running smoothly. Christina, Helen’s mother and Michael’s wife, has also been an essential part of the team since we launched, she supported customers personally from day 1 and processed and managed every single new track from the recording desk onto the website. Talk about multi-tasking! Christina took a step back from the day-to-day operation in 2018 to enjoy her retirement.

“You couldn’t count the hours that have gone into it. We all always felt that we had a unique combination of talents and enthusiasms. We’re an independent small family business, it’s quite literally labour of love,” says Helen “but it’s an utterly irresistible project for all of us.”

In service of singers

Picture of Michael at the piano
Michael at the piano

“The web allows us to respond to people’s suggestions in quite a personal way. They provide us with a lot of detail about their preferences and we try to produce recordings that incorporate these but will still work for as many singers as possible. We’re always interested in what people want to sing and how. We’ve also tried to concentrate on building the widest resource we can from public domain music as so much of it is now available on-line.”

We try to get as close as we can to the real rehearsal experience for the singer, but we’re definitely not here to take the place of a live accompanist. I hope that we achieve ‘neutral’ recordings for singers so that they can carry out their initial preparation on a piece, before progressing on to working with their actual live accompanist on their own joint interpretation. If the singer already knows the song, and is familiar enough with the piano part, so much more value will be had from the time available for rehearsing together.”

Michael often records additional keys or interpretations when people request them but tries as much as possible to keep to the keys the composer indicated.

“Interpreting a song is the same as interpreting poetry. There’s no single way to do it. I just want to try to get to the composer’s musical and often poetic intention. I do try to subtly emphasise notes helpful to the singer, and aim to provide as many points of orientation as I can in tricky passages.”

A collection shared…

“I’ve got all this ancient sheet music. It’s been piling up my whole life into an enormous library. I didn’t want it to just gather dust with no one else benefitting from it. Some of it is very rare and won’t be easily found again these days.”

“It’s got all sorts of hidden gems, so if you’re ever looking for something unusual, drop us a line… I first realized that people were disposing of sheet music pretty unceremoniously when I was about 12. I saw it just discarded with the trash in the street and I couldn’t bear to see that, so I rescued it, washed my hands and played it. I’ve been collecting ever since.”

“I’m forever finding things that I’d forgotten about or didn’t know I had, and it’s been great for me to relive all those days when I found wonderful antique sheet music, brought it home and played from it the first time.”

“I’ve played most of it before in some context or another. Some of it’s very complex and I have to put in the time to get it right, but I suppose I’ve been rehearsing for this my whole life.”

A lifelong accompanist

Michael thinks he was probably born to be an accompanist. Ever since he started to play the piano as a small child, he’s been accompanying singers and instrumentalists across the whole spectrum of music making: starting with his family and then in professional classical circles, auditions, festivals and competitions at all levels, as well as in churches, schools and communities.

“I’ve learned something about accompanying from every performer I’ve ever worked with. I’ve played with some remarkable people and developed considerable knowledge of a wide variety of musical styles. As a young man in the 70s, I was probably a little old fashioned for my generation, interested mainly in the music of what you might call ‘yesteryear’. It’s meant that I had the very rare experience of accompanying some singers early in my own career who started out performing before the First World War, and still upheld their traditions.” He feels it’s time to share these experiences and perhaps preserve them in some way.

Although comfortable as a soloist, Michael recognizes that the role of an accompanist is undoubtedly collaborative but there’s more to it…

“Accompaniment should be supportive but non-dominant” he says. “It’s the same role as the orchestra in a concerto. I like giving singers the confidence to relax and sing out. It’s about providing a pressure-free basis for a performer to work with. It’s a very delicate balance. ”

You name it, Your Accompanist’ll play it

“We really want to build the same sort of musical relationship with you as we would face-to-face. We like suggestions and special requests, and we can help to tailor a piece for a specific purpose. We hope to approach the task in the same way as you would expect from your usual accompanist, with the added advantage of being able to use the music in the bath or on the bus, or at 3am if that’s what works for you.

I think there’s definitely a parallel between what we’re doing through the internet now and the work of pioneer broadcasting pianists of the 20s and 30s. I’m inspired by them: they had to play anything and everything that was put in front of them live…and that calls for a different type of musicianship than being a specialist in a particular genre or the work of a particular composer.”

The Your Accompanist catalogue certainly reflects the tastes of this versatile musical magpie, one with very agile digits and no faint heart for a technical challenge.

“My job is not to be daunted by range” he says,”but to be practical and flexible enough to play what singers request and to respond to the composer’s wishes.

Working on the site has enabled me to set the contents of my library free, as well as quite a few voices. We’ve made so many good friends all over the world now, but what we’ve done so far is just the beginning – there’s a busy time ahead.”

Michael loves to hear from the people using the Your Accompanist rehearsal tracks, so don’t hesitate to get in touch!