Blog: Thoughts & Insights
October 21, 2013
My post on October 16, 2013 was an introduction to a series of skills I believe should be requirements for musical theatre audition accompanists. Here is a continuation on the top, delving into some specifics:
There are nine skills that I believe to be essential for the musical theatre audition accompanist. In order of priority, they are knowledge of the musical theatre repertoire, rhythmic and metrical consistency, anticipating the performer’s next move, breathing and phrasing like a singer, technical skills, time management, score reduction, improvisation and chord reading, and transposition. I will discuss each skill in order of importance to the audition process and occasionally expound on the reason for its placement within the prioritized list; however, it should be noted that the priority of the skills could easily change depending on the circumstances of the audition situation. Perhaps the most important tenet to acknowledge in this exploration, is that the performer’s needs at the audition should dictate virtually everything that the accompanist does at the keyboard.
The skill that is most invaluable to any accompanist is knowledge of the musical theatre repertoire. This does not necessarily mean knowing the largest number of shows. More importantly, a musical theatre accompanist should be familiar with a variety of musical styles from different eras as well as composers. A musical theatre accompanist should be well versed in a variety of styles, including rock, jazz, folk, opera, operetta, pop, and world music (a blanket term for countless other styles that occur in the musical theatre repertoire). He should have a working knowledge of the evolution of musical theatre from the turn of the century and be familiar with as many of the prominent composers as possible, beginning with Gilbert and Sullivan, George M. Cohan, Victor Herbert, Jerome Kern, Sigmund Romberg, and Rudolph Friml, up to Stephen Sondheim, Stephen Schwartz, Adam Guettel and the new generation of composers currently working on Broadway. He should know that a shuffle is swung and that a tango is not. He should be aware that the music of Arlen, Weill, and Coleman will be more harmonically complex than it appears on the page. Should a singer bring a Jason Robert Brown piece to the audition with which the accompanist is unfamiliar, he should assume (if he knows other songs by the composer) that it will be rhythmically challenging, require a consistent tempo and a dry texture (virtually pedal-free), and probably need some improvisation or simplification as playing every note on the page will not be a top priority. Similarly, if the actor puts the title song from Gershwin’s Of Thee I Sing in front of the pianist, they should be prepared to emulate a rich, full orchestration of strings and brass, using the sustain pedal more often, as it is much like accompanying an operatic aria. These stylistic distinctions can help support the actor’s audition to such a degree that it is possible for the performer to give a better audition in the audition room than the one he had prepared at home.
As a result of an increased knowledge of the repertoire, perhaps the greatest modification would occur during the brief interaction between actor and pianist before the actual singing begins. Wouldn’t it be preferable if the accompanist—someone trained in playing for performers—led the brief discussion, rather than wait for the performer—who may have limited musical skills—to give him the necessary information? The pianist’s first question to the actor should be, “What are you singing today?” If the actor responds, “Good Morning Baltimore,” before she even opens her binder, the trained musical theatre accompanist knows she will probably start near or after the bridge; they also know that she will need a steady 60’s rock beat, very little pedal, no doubling of the melody—though her arrangement, either from the full score or vocal selections book, will notate the melody in the piano line—a huge crescendo into the key change, and a good listening ear for any new riffs towards the end of the cut. Why then should pianists sit on the bench wasting time listening to the nervous actor’s disquisition when they already innately have the information that they need? If the accompanist were simply to ask a few direct questions to the actor, he would learn everything he needed to know to support her performance; consequently, the actor would realize that the accompanist knows the music and is ready to capably support them through the audition.
The second accompanist skill that is crucial for the singer’s success is rhythmic and metrical consistency. The majority of music being sung at musical theatre auditions was written after 1950 and therefore is probably less operatic in nature. Because of this, whether the song is an up-tempo or ballad, the singer will rely heavily on a steady beat; more often than not, when the “sensitive” accompanist tries to follow the singer, a crisis occurs. A refined performer will make stylistic choices to back-phrase, riff, or change small melodic fragments. He or she may also choose to take some liberties with tempi (more so in ballads), particularly when heading into the bridge or nearing final cadences. For the former, the performer will usually expect at least a slight accelerando, and for the latter, a ritardando. Pianists should realize that these “ebbs” and “flows” are only to add musicality at particular times, and the pianist needs to be sensitive and flexible to help support the actor’s musical choices. However, ebbing and flowing every time the singer takes the smallest liberty in the middle of a phrase will only inhibit the performer’s freedom.
One would be remiss to not mention the importance of the third accompanist skill, anticipating the singer’s next move. It is not enough to have good piano skills and knowledge of the repertoire. Learning to watch and listen to the performer during the performance is another skill that comes with experience and is crucial to the actor’s success. With regard to tempo, texture, dynamics, phrasing, improvisation, and a variety of other facets of the performance, the person at the piano must have keen eyes and ears. Perhaps the music is not well marked and the singer is going to speed up or jump from mezzo piano to fortissimo; the accompanist’s job is to ‘jump’ with the performer so that she feels supported and “safe” in every endeavor. In this way, the production staff should get the impression that every performer’s music is impeccably marked, thanks to the pianist’s dexterity. This skill is not something that can be formally taught; however, with experience comes knowledge of the repertoire, affording the accompanist this level of expertise.
The simplest way to gain information about what the singer plans to do next is to pay attention to the he or she breathes. If he takes a smaller, quicker breath, the chances are that he is planning a shorter phrase length and/or a breath somewhere in the middle of the phrase. On the other hand, if he seems to take in a larger breath, he probably plans to lengthen the phrase, or at least make it through one full phrase without another inhalation. In the latter instance, a skilled pianist will move the accompaniment just slightly so that the more nervous performer will feel his next breath happening sooner. Usually when a singer is nervous, he has a more difficult time with breath control; thus, if the pianist gathers that the singer plans to combine a couple phrases in one breath, it makes sense to create momentum so that the singer feels this almost subliminal support from the accompanist.
The topic of breathing is very important and directly relates to the fourth accompanist skill. When playing for a singer, the accompanist should breath with them and then phrase the accompaniment accordingly. For example, in the ad-lib section at the beginning of “I Got Life” from Hair, the singer is going to speak-sing through most of the opening passage. As a result, the phrases will most likely move somewhat quickly, with an occasional stop or ritardando for comedic effect. The same can be said about earlier Broadway songs that follow the Verse-Chorus form; during the verse, phrase lengths will likely be shorter and more erratic than those of the song proper. If the accompanist is not paying attention, there is a good possibility he will miss the subtlety of what the actor is doing.
Tune in tomorrow for a continuation on this topic!