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.