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?

1) Breathe. Zen master say: all concentration begins with breathing. If you don’t relax, you’re just gonna’ flub it up more.

2) Hit the bass notes, for goodness’ sake. Like I’ve said before, in 99% of cases, it’s the bass line that’s going to guide the singer. Don’t want the singer to get mad at you? Hit the bass notes!

3) In the down times (while the director is instructing the actors), practice the music silently with your fingers on the keyboard. Or, if you’re lucky enough to be in a space where it doesn’t bother anyone, and you’ve got a soft pedal, use it. Do not think that you can get away with this with headphones on an electronic keyboard. I don’t care how amazing or expensive your headphones are, this always carries the risk that you won’t hear the director when he asks you to start playing again, giving you the impression of unreliability.

4) Try to get a sense of the harmonic structure of the piece. Glance it over and see what the chord progressions are. If you can hit those, you’re usually golden. Remember, this is rehearsal piano, and your ultimate goals are to try to a) mimic the orchestra as much as possible, and b) guide the singers along their merry roll. You don’t have to hit every note as it’s written in the score. You just have to support the production as much as possible.

5) Glissandos. I’m serious. As cheeseball and low-handed a tactic this is, there are bars in many songs where you have a big orchestra crescendo or some kind of arpeggio and you can mask it with a well-timed glissando. This is particularly useful when you’ve got a big, fast, impossible-to-sight-read set of rising chords. A lot of actors will think that the glissando was written into the score, and non-pianists are somehow always impressed by glissandos, which is, of course, ridiculous, because glissandos are pretty much the easiest thing to play.

6) In the right hand, hit the singer’s melody instead of the orchestra reduction. It’s rehearsal. They’re still learning the piece anyway. If you can’t fumble through the reduction, then at least help them along by giving them a string of notes to follow. No one almost ever faults you for this, except for the very rare narcissistic diva who wants to prove she can sing the song without extra support.

7) Don’t pray. Petitionary prayer has never worked for me in this circumstance. Dieties do not forgive unprepared pianists.

That’s all I’ve got, but there has to be more good advice. Anyone?

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