13 Ways to Prevent Piano Panic

Hell, by 15th C. painter Hans Memling

Hell, by Hans Memling, 15th C.

Piano panic sucks, but for the collaborative pianist, it sucks even more. Because if a collaborative pianist can’t perform, nobody can perform. Those singers, that pit orchestra, are absolutely depending on you to at least plunk something out. It’s your community responsibility, as a musical theater accompanist in particular, not to panic. Much more than a soloist. If a soloist panicks, it’s embarassing; but if you panick, it can bring down the show and thus set back progress in the greatest art form in human history, musical theater.

Ah, but who hasn’t had piano panic? Whether at your 2nd grade recital or 2nd to last performance on Broadway, sooner or later, every pianist has this moment when they become profoundly self-conscious and aware of the fact that they’re playing the piano and are potentially capable of screwing up royally. That’s where all piano panic begins: when you stop being engrossed in the music, and, mentally, sort of, step back behind the bench and, shocked, see yourself playing. It’s all quite Zen. Buddhist masters have taught for millenia that the root of suffering is in self-consciousness.

Ah, but the Buddhist masters had a solution to the problem, and so do musical theater pianists. Let me teach it to you, young grasshopper.

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How to Move Your Eyes When Accompanying Musical Theater

eyeGretchen Saathoff has posted a very insightful analysis (hahaha no pun intended) of what our eyes are doing when we play the piano. Go read it, and then come back here. Gretchen’s principles apply specifically to our devastatingly important craft, that is, musical theater piano, perhaps the most important pillar holding up the massive artistic edifice called the human experience.

Let’s take Gretchen’s insights piece by piece and see what we can glean from them.

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How to Handle It When You Are Cut From a Production


Disappointment, by Charles Leblanc Stewart, an American artist who lived in turn-of-the-century Paris. See, even sadness can be beautiful.

You knew something was wrong the moment you opened the score. Maybe it was the quintuplets in that second act aria. Or that impossible chord sequence in the opening number. Or the sheer amount of notes you had to learn, in so little time. [cue ominous music] 

You immediately started practicing hard and ceaselessly. You broke up with your boyfriend to have more time for the show. You skipped meals and sleep getting the fingering right in the finale. You had the soundtrack on your headphones all day long, in the subway, at the gym, standing in line at Starbucks. But you just never got it together.

And then the day comes… [cue even ominouser music]          [I know that's not a word.]

The producer sits down next to you at the piano and says, with genuine kindness and empathy, “you know, we might want to consider the option of finding an accompanist whose skills better match this particular score. Thank you for all the work you’ve done.”

You gracefully defer. But inside, you’re screaming to yourself: “You loser! You just got cut from the production! You’re a horrible pianist and it’s time to forget musical theater and move to Seattle!

Stop, man. Breathe. This happens to every piano accompanist, every one, at some point in his or her life. Every good one, anyway. It doesn’t mean your piano days are done. In fact, it might just be the beginning of the next great stage of your accompanying career. So here’s how to handle it:

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How to Sound Good on a Bad Piano

Yikes. They almost look like a bad set of teeth.

Yikes. They almost look like a bad set of teeth.

You are psyched for this gig. It’s your absolute favorite composer. You’ve been prepping for weeks. You’ve had the cast recording blasting on your ipod. This may very well be the highlight of your musical career!

And then, you walk into the first rehearsal– and the #@%! piano is falling apart! Broken keys, out of tune, a damper pedal that doesn’t dampen. You won’t be able to hit all the notes. You’re going to screw up the singers’ sense of pitch. Everythings going to sound plunky and the director’s going to think you’re a fraud accompanist. Right? What to do? Just… back… slowly… out… of… the… room? Not necessarily.

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Six Strategies for Better Bed Music

Image courtesy of www.newfunnypictures.com

Image courtesy of www.newfunnypictures.com

Bed music is an odd thing. It doesn’t occur in real life. It’s not like when we’re having some dramatic moment — an argument with our spouse, a hike to a mountaintop — that suddenly an orchestra swells in the distance, bringing even more passion to the experience. The psychology of underscore really deserves to be wondered about; do we need it in theater, precisely because it’s not real life — that is, because there’s literally a physical distance between the audience and the show? In real life, you experience things in your head, happening to you, as you look out at the world, and what happens to you has real-life import. It truly matters if your real-life girlfriend tells you she’s been cheating or your nation gets plunged into war. But in theater, when the curtain’s down, nothing that happened on the stage actually has any real meaning any more. So, because we know it doesn’t matter, because it’s 20 or 100 feet in front of us, because it’s not the real us that it’s happening to — for all those reasons, perhaps, we need bed music, pumping emotion into a  scene, replacing what we lose by virtue of the fact that it’s just theater.

All this philosophizing about bed music here isn’t just to mark time. There’s a purpose to this pondering. Musical theater pianists need to know how to make good bed music. This, my comrades in key-pushing, is not just a matter of blithely playing the notes on the page. It’s much, much more important. Great bed music inspires the actors, enthralls the audience, and paces the show.  Read more of “Six Strategies for Better Bed Music”

How to Be a Popular Accompanist with Singers

Want affection? Become a jock (pictured above), or a musical theater pianist.

Want affection? Become a jock (pictured above), or a musical theater pianist.

Most musical theater pianists weren’t jocks in high school. (I tried to be one by quixotically trying out for the squash team.) We didn’t have time to choose between long hours in the athletic complex or windowless music department practice rooms. But paradoxically, we’re often the target of affection. Maybe that’s because the feeling of intimacy brought on between accompanist and singer makes it perhaps the single most pleasurable activity in the world [clearing throat]. If we offer our services with sufficient skill and marketing strategies, singers will come to love us en masse, and that’s really what we do it for, right? The joy of having super-hot actors and actresses telling us how great we are?

No but seriously, having a good relationship with your singers is key to sucessful musical theater accompaniment. You need not only to be able to communicate honestly with one another and share an exhausting schedule, but there’s a certain indescribable vibe, a chemistry, that develops in the best accompanist-singer relationship, that allows you to read the nuances of his or her musical choices and respond accordingly. You’ll both learn the music technically better and enjoy the experience more. But how to let the bud at your first meeting with the a singer blossom into a beautiful flower by performance time? Read more of “How to Be a Popular Accompanist with Singers”

How to Fake It When You’re Unprepared for Rehearsal

"Duty", by English painter Edward Leighton. Notice the lute (or lute-like thing).

“Duty”, by English painter Edward Leighton. Notice the lute (or lute-like thing).

Now of course, the ideal would be that none of us would ever be unprepared for rehearsal. As piano accompanists, our craft is our ultimate raison d’être and the first, indeed divinely-sanctioned, priority in our lives. Not to have adequately practiced a score before you’re needed in rehearsal is akin to not having adequately cooked chicken before serving dinner guests or not having read the instructions before trying to use a bottle of shampoo (lather, rinse, da capo). This, of course, doesn’t count if you haven’t seen the score beforehand, but there really is only one case in which that’s acceptable: when you’re called to play at the very last minute an original score. Otherwise, you should have at least a working knowledge of all the standard musical theater scores (novices are, of course, exempt from this requirement — but if you’re one of them, get learning!) There’s no excuse not to have this knowledge; even if you live out there “in the sticks” (where the show’ll “murder ‘em” (quick: which reference?)), nowadays that there are, um, certain, um, places, in a certain, um, space called the “interwebs” or something like that where there might be people who possibly are willing to share scores inexpensively sometimes (or not).

But alas, there are perfectly vaild reasons, right? to be unprepared for rehearsal. You’re grieving the death of your goldfish and can’t play for two minutes without bursting into tears. The musical director has decided on the spot not only to transpose a song from C# to G-major (the devil’s interval!) but to reverse all the melody lines in a strict counterpoint (copyright problems, anyone?). Your long-term memory has been compromised by a lobotomy.

What to do?

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How to Relieve Pain When Marathon Piano Playing

I’m talking the physical pain. Not the pain of hearing the coloratura squeak the high B-flat. ;)

I'm your most important tool!

I’m your most important tool!

A beautiful post over at crosseyedpianist talks about how important it is for us ivory-ticklers to maintain our health. And how true it is! Haven’t we all had some pain crop up, sooner or later, because of the physical demands of our craft?

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Do you match the singer’s tempo, or try to force the singer to match yours?

Stay on tempo! (or not)

Stay on tempo! (or not)

All right, we’ve all been there. You’re in rehearsal — usually early on in the production schedule. And the singer doesn’t really know the music yet. And they’re staging and blocking the song. And then they do the version with the music.

And all of a sudden, because he has to now act while singing, your singer’s tempo starts wandering all over the place. When she’s running across the stage, she’s speeding up. Or as he tries to remember the next blocking, he slows down. What to do?

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