Blog: Thoughts & Insights
October 24, 2013
Accompanist skill number eight, again non-essential but helpful, is improvisation and chord reading. Rarely will a performer enter the room with only a lead sheet (a simple “fake book”version of the song with only the melody and chord changes notated); however, if he should, the pianist is then responsible for creating an accompaniment for the song. As the art form of musical theatre developed in America, it incorporated styles from many genres of popular music from patriotic marches to jazz, blues, folk, and rock and roll. If asked to read a lead sheet, an accompanist can best support the singer by creating a simple bass line in the left hand and rhythmic chord changes in the right hand—in the style of a jazz combo of piano, bass and drums. Hopefully, the lead sheet is marked with some indication of style to inform the pianist whether it is swung or straight, fast or slow. If the music is not marked, the singer must give the accompanist some idea of what he wants. This skill can also be helpful when sight-reading a piece that does have the accompaniment written out. The pianist’s job is to play the as if they have known it all their life, so using the chord changes as a structural guide for providing support can be essential. This requires a bit of improvisational skill, as the accompanist may not be playing every note on the page. Below is an example from Alan Menken and Tim Rice’s song “Home” from the Disney musical Beauty and the Beast:
The accompaniment is based strongly on the melody, which is further outlined with parallel thirds throughout most of the cut. Here, the pianist must use the chord symbols as a guide and be creative in choosing what he plays to support the singer. The suggested notes and rhythms that he should play are as follows:
The new accompaniment offers support to the performer in a variety of interesting ways. The chord symbols act as a guide in influencing what the pianist is now playing. Without doubling the melody, or even paralleling it by playing the thirds below it, the pianist has created a malleable accompaniment that will help him move with the singer and allow the singer much more control of the melody. Dramatically, it should seem as though the singer is introducing the thoughts; doubling the melody weakens this idea because it creates a situation where it seems the character needs the assistance of the piano to effectively communicate the lyric. When an accompanist leaves the melody to the performer, it immediately heightens the theatrical convention that the person singing is realizing or sharing this thought for the first time.
Also, in the new accompaniment of the song, the right hand never goes above the singer’s melody. It is a misconception amongst pianists (even classical singers’ accompanists) that playing into the lower notes on the keyboard will overpower the singer. The singer’s vocal folds operate at a frequency that is much higher than that of the low notes on the keyboard; therefore, enriching the accompaniment with a bass-heavy sound will not obscure the voice. The vibrations that create the vocal resonance on average will never match the wider oscillations of the bass notes on the keyboard. Contrarily, playing notes in the same tessitura as the singer—or higher—will potentially cause all of the vibrations to blend together, causing a balance problem. Another example of this concept is how a tiny instrument like the oboe can be heard clearly over a full orchestra including lower brass, winds, and strings.
Jeanine Tesori and Dick Scanlan’s song “The Girl in 14G,” written for Kristin Chenoweth and introduced on her debut CD Let Yourself Go, is notated in an exceptional piano-vocal arrangement. There are no chord symbols notated to allow the accompanist to improvise because there does not need to be. None of the melody is doubled in the accompaniment. The piano is acting as a jazz combo: rhythmic, sparse, supporting the singer, with an occasional inner voice to keep the accompaniment interesting. Still, with even a basic knowledge of chord reading, the pianist should have the chord symbols (F6 | Gm7 – C7/13 | F6 – D7/F#| Gm7 – C7/13 – C7/-13) in his or her head. Even classical music theorists would argue that it is important for accompanists to always consider the bigger picture, to which harmony is the gateway.
The ninth and final accompanist skill, which again is not essential but certainly of great benefit to possess, is the ability to transpose on sight. This is a controversial subject among pianists because most, no matter how accommodating, believe that performers must bring to the audition sheet music that is notated in the proper key. Most audition notices will even specifically state this as a policy. However, it is important for pianists to realize that musical and casting directors may very well request to hear a piece again in a different key. Of all the various music skills, this is the one that intimidates most pianists; generally speaking, jazz pianists are the only players who are expected to know the chord changes to hundreds of tunes and be able to play them in any key. Fortunately, the request is usually to transpose down or up a half step; as long as the tonic note name is the same (regardless of the # or b) all major flat keys (F, Bb, Eb, Ab, Db, Gb and Cb) can easily be transposed up and all major sharp keys (G, D, A, E, B, F#, and C#) can easily be transposed down. C-Major can also be transposed up or down very easily. This allows the accompanist sixteen possible transpositions that can be accomplished fairly easily.
The concept is that as long as both the original and transposed versions of the song have the same tonic note name (i.e. E Major to E-flat Major), the accompanist still plays every note that he sees on the page, simply erasing the key signature of four sharps from his mind and replacing it with three flats. Also, if any of the four sharped notes in E Major have natural signs, they must be lowered; so when transposing to E-flat Major, the pianist must imagine them as flats. The same technique applies when transposing from a flat key to a sharp key with the same note name as the tonic (i.e. G-flat Major to G Major). However, in this case, any of the six flatted notes that have natural signs must be raised and thus should be thought of as sharps when transposing. Though transposition in most cases is not an essential skill, in many musical and casting directors’ minds it does separate a skilled accompanist from an exceptional one. This particular skill challenges the musicianship of any pianist. Ultimately, the more experience a player has with improvisation, transposition, and score reduction, the more versatile, flexible, and available he will be in assisting the singing actor in the audition process.
Musical theatre accompanying is a specialized field that deserves much more attention and training opportunities. Defining and exploring the skills necessary to be an effective audition accompanist is the first step in clarifying the role of the accompanist. Players must know that they are indeed critical to the audition process and truly have the power to make or break a performer’s audition. It is time for musical theatre accompanists to take up the responsibility of supporting the performer; the performer should not be responsible for telling the accompanist how to do his job, especially because the singing actor often does not know how to accurately convey details regarding how he wants the music to be played (sorry actor friends, but it’s so often true!). If accompanists fully realize what is required of them and the impact they have on actors in an audition situation, they will better execute their job by competently performing all nine of the skills outlined in this arguably verbose blog post.
Thanks for reading. Check back soon for something far less technical!