Blog: Thoughts & Insights
October 22, 2013
“Technical skills,” fifth on the list, come from classical playing and refer to the art of piano technique. Some may question my judgment by placing technical facility fifth on a list of nine skills in order of importance, when an accompanist’s primary job is to accurately play the notes on the page. Yes, accompanists should know their scales and be able to play as musically and fluidly as possible with the proper technique; however, well-known music director Michael MacAssey (b’way nat’l tours of Avenue Q and Titanic: The Musical) asserts, “I would rather see a pianist breathing with and supporting a singer than know that they are using the proper fingering.” Perhaps piano technique is lower on my list due to the fact that technical skills have more to do with the pianist, rather than one that is directly related to what the singing actor and what he is trying to achieve in the audition. For example, a pianist would be better off improvising the chord progression in the climax of the song “Reflection” from Mulan so that he can provide the proper dynamic when the singer enters again after a breath, instead of focusing on playing four quarter notes in beat two, quintuplets on beat three, and sextuplets on beat four. A lot of what makes an accompanist successful in the audition room is the proper order of priorities; technical skills are not the highest priority in providing a strong foundation for the singer. If an actor is brave enough to bring “Franklin Shepard, Inc.” from Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along to an audition one of the pianist’s lowest priorities would probably be to play every note on the page with the proper wrist action. Instead, he should most likely place rhythmic consistency at the top of his list. I recognize that proper technical training will most certainly work in tandem with the accompanist’s desire to support the performer; I am simply making the case that the pianist should place the performer’s success, not their own at the top of the priority list during those split-second decisions that are often made during the audition process.
Sixth on the list of skills for a good accompanist is time management. If a singer is working with the accompanist for longer than 30-45 seconds, something is wrong. Pianists should not expect to play through the whole piece when talking it over with the actor; if they have a question about a new tempo or a transition, they should jump right to that section and only play a few bars. Further, the pianist should not spend time asking questions to which they already know the answer, or can gather by simply listening to the singer as they perform. For example, asking a question like, “How much will you slow up here?” is utterly unproductive. If the accompanist is listening intently to how the singer is phrasing that part of the song, he will know “how much” he or she wants to slow down. Similarly, there is no need to waste time reading things back to the actor that are writtenon the page: “Now let’s see, we’re in 4/4 time with an easy swing….” Instead of wasting time stating the obvious, the pianist could have already played the bass line and some chords for the singer and asked, “Is this tempo about right?” Knowledge of the musical theatre repertoire will prove advantageous here because the more the accompanist knows about the styles, eras, and composers, the less he needs to inquire from the actor about how it should be played.
The final three skills move away from the absolutely essential; however, they are skills that are nonetheless important as pianists will often be called upon to use them either because of the actor’s lack of preparation or the wishes of the music or casting director.
Skill seven is score reduction. Occasionally, an actor will approach the pianist with a version of the song containing much of the orchestration either interwoven into two staves for piano or spread out among two or three extra staves. Though it is not common, such arrangements do exist, and pianists must be ready to work with them. In order to effectively support the singer in this case, a pianist must focus on the bass line and the basic inner voices; they should not attempt to play much of the “auxiliary” instrumentation on the page. If the pianist is familiar with the song, and happens to know the oboe line in the middle of Sondheim’s “Giants in the Sky,” then by all means, play it! However, if the pianist has never heard the piece before, let’s consider how they should reduce all of the information on the page to a practical accompaniment. Examine this excerpt of “Spanish Rose” from the piano-conductor’s score of Bye, Bye Birdie.
The doubled melody, piccolo, muted brass, guitar, and drums are all notated, and it is physically impossible to play everything. On sight, the accompanist should reduce this down to a simple tango, focusing mainly on the bass and guitar parts, devoid of ornamentation:
With this strong foundation, the singer will feel connected to the beat and will certainly not miss the piccolo or muted brass. Though this skill is perhaps not a requisite to playing for auditions, it is highly desirable. In addition, it should be mentioned that accompanists must consider the orchestration of any piece they are playing, even when it is from a vocal selections book with none of the orchestration marked. A walking string bass line cannot be played legato, and thus will require less pedal and more separation between notes. Similarly, the famous falling thirty-second notes in Rodger’s and Hammerstein’s “We Kiss in a Shadow” cannot be played too quickly; though a pianist can easily manage those notes, a flutist would need a bit more freedom to finger every individual note and maintain the legato line.