How to Handle It When You Are Cut From a Production

disappointment

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:

1) First things first: grieve. You’re gonna’ feel anxious, sad, angry, or whateva. You’ve got to get through those emotions. Call your BFF. Go do a hundred jumping jacks. Punch the pillows on your new ottoman. Just don’t hurt the piano.

Things will get better. We’ve all got about 75 years on this planet, if we’re lucky. There’s always more fun in the future. Until you’re dead, and then it won’t matter.

2) Ask what else you can do for the production. So you can’t play piano for the show. Big deal. Maybe you can help carry props, construct the set, or do make-up. Or just bake brownies for everyone. Many producers are dying for free labor.

Remember, always, always, the show is bigger than you. It’s bigger than the whole cast. Bigger than the director, bigger than the moon. Musical theater is the most important thing in the universe, and its value is at a scale many orders of magnitude greater than any mere human.

So continuing to work for the production is a good idea for many reasons:

  • You might learn a new skill.
  • The show still makes use of your talents and efforts.
  • You feel good because you’re still contributing.
  • You’re still spending your time doing musical theater.
  • You keep good relations with the staff and cast.
  • It’s the classy thing to do…

…and so on.

WARNING: This may not be the best option do when you got cut because of a major personality clash. In that situation, it’s probably best just… to… back… away… and find another company.

3) Learn the score anyway. Yes. If it was Sunday in the Park with George that defeated you, then practice it until you can play perfectly even Chromolume #7. This might take time, maybe even years, if the problem was that your technique was not up to snuff. But don’t give up on that score. Love it and cradle it and then, someday when you can play it, you go back to the producer and say, “Hey! Look what I can do!” And maybe she’ll hire you again.

4) Evaluate what went wrong — but gently. OK. Art isn’t easy; this is a big, but important, step.

It’s rarely entirely your fault when you get cut from a production, and it’s not necessarily even a sign that you’re technically deficient. There are a million factors that go into the accompanist-production relationship: which methods the singers are using to learn their material, what kind of pianists the director has worked with before (and is expecting), whether the rehearsals are scheduled too late at night for you to be at your best… and you can probably come up with ten more right off the top of your head. All these factors sometimes can combine to create just the wrong constellation for you in particular, in any particular production. I put that in italics to emphasize that just because you are cut from a show does not mean that you cannot do another one in the future. It’s just that the stars didn’t align this time.

So of course, it’s a natural cognitive tendency after a traumatic event, like getting cut from a musical theater show, to replay it over and over in your mind. That’s your brain trying to figure out what went wrong so it doesn’t happen again. Don’t fight this. You can distract yourself with video games or beer or the latest episode of Glee, but sooner or later, you’re going to come back to the question of why you got cut. Better sooner rather than later. (If you’re so upset that you absolutely need to some emergency distraction or you’ll end up in a psych ward, then by all means, distract yourself.)

During such evaluations, one really good strategy is to verbalize your thoughts. I tend to do this in writing, in my journal, but you can do it by talking to your piano teacher or recording it into your iPhone. By whatever means you’ve got, verbalizing what happened will help you get through this cognitive processing faster.

Here are the questions to ask yourself:

  • What factors were out of my control? An insanely difficult score, an equally insane alto, or a really bad piano are all the kinds of things that you couldn’t do anything about. Those things are not your fault. Many people, when they get cut from a production, have a tendency to blame themselves, rather than see the big picture. So look at the big picture, and go ahead, make that list of all the things that went wrong that you couldn’t do anything about. Remember, also, that there are always factors unrelated to the production that could have caused you to get cut. Did relatives arrive from Tampa, did someone steal your crocodile skin wallet, or were you undergoing heart surgery? These are the kinds of things you can’t prevent and can affect your performance.
  • What was in my control? Did I practice enough? Was I quality practicing? Did I show up to rehearsals on time? Did I eat well and get enough sleep? Did I communicate well with the director and other staff? Et cetera, et cetera. It’s in domains like these that we can pinpoint, sometimes, some of the things that, if we could go back in time, we’d have done differently. But note that even things like the quality and amount of practicing are sometimes not subject to your control. If you’ve been trying to pass organic chemistry and do the night shift at IHOP, you probably didn’t have adequate time to practice well.
  • Am I overanalyzing? Here’s what overanalyzing looks like: “it’s my fault for trying to pass organic chemistry and work at IHOP and do the show at the same time, I took too much on, I bit off more than I could chew, I screwed up the production, I don’t know where my life is going… bad pianist! Bad pianist!” You can keep this kind of reasoning up ad infinitum until you spiral off into blaming yourself for being alive (that’s your mother’s fault).

Pinpoint just two or three little, specific things that you could improve. Do not interpret this as the most dramatic event of your life, so you must immediately correct a huge, horrible mistake. You didn’t make a huge, horrible mistake. (Unless you did something like assault the tenor with a music stand. Mistake.)

Here are some examples of the kinds of little things that I’m talking about:

  • You need to work on fingerings for difficult chord passages.
  • You need to learn to count meter changes better.
  • You need to get to rehearsals five minutes earlier so that you can zen out before you start.

That kind of stuff. Little things that you can actually, practically fix.

5) Fix those things. What’s amazing is that sometimes, if we just improve one or two small things, our quality as a pianist goes up tremendously. I don’t know why this is so. It’s some kind of weird psychological phenomenon. Often there’s just a couple of mountains blocking us, and when we climb over them, we’re in the Promised Land (or Switzerland, if it’s The Sound of Music). That’s when we go from good pianist to great pianist. And that’s what you want to be. A great pianist.

6) Go find another show to play for ASAP — ideally, one you know you can handle. So, steps 5 and 6 don’t have to be in order. You can be fixing your mistakes while starting South Pacific. But get out there, either while continuing to contribute to the show you got cut from, or right after, and rebuild your confidence. Hopefully, the new show is easier for you than the previous one. Find something fun and breezy. Your anxiety level is going to be up, due to the trauma, so now isn’t the time to challenge yourself with a score on the level of the Ligeti Étude Nr. 1 ”Désordre (If you have not seen this video, watch it NOW, it will blow your mind. Bet the guy they replaced you with can’t do that!).

7) Make yourself a chocolate sundae. Actually, that should be step one. It’s biologically impossible to be sad when you’re eating a chocolate sundae. Scientists have proven that definitively.

2 thoughts on “How to Handle It When You Are Cut From a Production

  1. Daniel Gittler

    Many great points here. The closest (so far, knock on wood) that I’ve come to being kicked off of a production was in my freshman year of high school, where I was the rehearsal accompanist for West Side Story. Let that sink in. A freshman. Rehearsal Accompanist. West Side Story. Leonard Bernstein. West Side Story. FRESHMAN. Okay. Moving on. There were many things I could not do, and being young and naïve, I thought that I was good enough for my age that everyone thought it was amazing. And then they brought in a second rehearsal accompanist, who then ended up playing most of the time and for whom I turned pages. So I kinda figured I obviously wasn’t good enough, but then again, I couldn’t blame them – I was playing measures with such odd rhythms that there were times that one measure would take up two entire lines (see Dance at the Gym). My two triumphs were 1: being able to play the “Tonight” quintet memorized, and 2: being able to play the orchestration reduction of the “Tonight” melody over the piano chords in the accompaniment during both the underscoring and the quintet.

    A question I’d like to raise is what if you know that you SHOULD be cut from the show because your playing is only detrimental but the producer(s) continue on encouraging you to play for it during the times that you wish you could drop out without seriously harming the show even more than you might be doing. This is currently my situation with Light in the Piazza, and while I’m gritting my teeth and hoping no one cares awfully about the awful mistakes that I’m constantly making, I feel like the producers should just come up to me and let me go and that’ll put us both out of our figurative misery (despite the fact that playing the music when it comes out right feels amazing and makes up for all the mistakes).

    I don’t know if you’d suggest these same methods for coping with knowing that you’re a bad choice but not being let go, but so far what I’ve done is realize that there are simply parts of the score that I cannot, and will not be able to, play not matter how much practice I put into it without beginning to create unhealthy living situations for myself (i.e. no sleep, no food, no bathing). With that in mind, I take what I DO know and make it BETTER so that in some senses the good outweighs the bad. In the parts I don’t know, I (and I hate to say it) will most likely make something up. When in rehearsals, it’s common knowledge that what the rehearsal pianist plays isn’t what you’ll necessarily hear from the sitzprobe onward with the full orchestra, so why not take advantage of it. If you can make it sound good underneath the correct vocal lines, it’s better than fudging your way through the only one-in-ten-times-correctly written accompaniment. While I don’t recommend this always, it’s something that I unfortunately have to resort to (can I help it if my audition accompanist instincts kick in and I just want them to sound the best even if that means changing the song a little so that I can play something that sounds nice underneath them?).

    And then there of course comes the forced obsession, where I pretend like I enjoy listening to the soundtrack over and over and try to understand what the song wants me to do. And if that doesn’t help, I sit down, score in front of me, breathe, look it in the eye (figuratively), and (still figuratively) say “let’s dance,” and I just play it. And it sounds horrible. So then I do it again. And again. And again. And while there are bad parts, I get used to the music in front of me, so it doesn’t come as much of a shock to me each time I see the giant runs that go through both hands while still having to play a syncopated rhythm in the left hand.

    Just my thoughts!

    Reply
    1. Erik Joseph Campano Post author

      I’ve been trying to find the time all week to give this comment a full reply but let me just say for the moment:

      a) it’s impressive that you were able to do Tonight’s melody over the underscoring in the first place, at any age, even more so as a freshperson

      b) Piazza is hard. Someone is not necessarily going to be able to play it better than you. So if you think you should be cut, you might be wrong. Or right — they might have a top-level pianist waiting in the wings. The quick answer to this question is: communication. Find out what you think the directors think of your playing.

      c) I think you’re heroic for the way that you keep going in the face of a tough score, and the methods you use above. As for pretending you like the music… learn to love it. Musical theater is the world’s greatest art form, and all of it, all of it, is likeable just by virtue of the fact that it’s musical theater.

      There’s more to say about your post! Very insightful!

      Reply

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