Blog: Thoughts & Insights
February 14, 2015
Well, well, well….would you look who’s blogging again! A week or so ago, I did a video interview with Jim Jarvis (VP of Marketing and Sales at the Paramount Theatre in Aurora). Toward the end of our time together, he brought up my blog, saying something about how I post cool stuff and “recently” had posted something about a famous person’s birthday… It turns out that “recently” was October of 2013. Yes, seventeen months ago was my most “recent” blog. How embarrassing.
It dawned on me that due to the pervasive nature of the Paramount’s Facebook presence, there may be thousands–if millions–of people visiting this infamous blog Jim spoke of. 😎 And thus, it inspired me to start writing again. This time around, my posts may not always be hugely impressive or lengthy. Perhaps a short historical theatre tidbit or a recent revelation I’ve had. Today: an update. I figure those who were devout “Tom Vendafreddo Blog Fans” must not have a CLUE what I’ve been up to in the last 17 months.
Since October of 2013, I…
- -Moved to Olathe, KS for several months and played Jinx in Forever Plaid. I also played accordion, melodica, and piano. Oh, and donned a fake mustache for the Ed Sullivan sequence.
- -Took an amazing trip to Melbourne, Australia, where I taught master classes and coachings at Ian White Management and Patrick Studios Australia, performed in a Cabaret with famed Australian Grisabella/Elphaba Erin Cornell, and fell in love with a new city halfway across the world. No, I did not see any kangaroos or gigantic spiders.
- -Music Directed and accompanied Northwestern University’s Senior Musical Theatre showcase which was performed at the off-Broadway Second Stage Theatre.
- -Joined the cast of Chicago Shakespeare Theatre’s Road Show for the final two weeks of their run as onstage pianist. A few days before the show closed, Mr. Stephen Sondheim was in the audience and thoroughly enjoyed the show. (I have a fancy personalized typed letter to prove it!)
- -Went to my own version of summer camp, meaning I was in Godspell at the Marriott Theatre over the summer, working with a supremely talented cast of wonderful artists.
- -Conducted my first Bernstein show, On the Town, at the Marriott Theatre.
- -Became the Founding Artistic Director of the Chicago Artists Chorale – a brand new choral ensemble for any professional Chicago theatre artists who do not have a choral home. On December 16, 2014, a 50-voiced choir comprised of actors, designers, directors, sign language interpreters, puppeteers, drag queens, etc. performed a concert at the Chicago Temple in the Loop for an audience of 250 people! (We are about ready to start up our Spring session, and I could not be more excited.)
- -Music Directed and Conducted Mary Poppins – the most successful selling show in the Paramount Theatre’s rich Aurora-based history.
- -Music Directed and Conducted The Who’s Tommy at the Paramount Theatre.
- -Continued to brainwash my (now almost 4-year old) niece Chloe. And by “brainwash” I mean encourage her love for music and theatre. I swear, without prompting, she will willingly break into ANY song from the Sound of Music, The Wizard of Oz, or the latest Iggy Azalea album. No, I’m not kidding.
So there you have it: I’ve barely been busy in the last seventeen months; you haven’t missed much. In truth, the past year and a half has been absolutely amazing. Just when I thought my siblings would stop getting on my case for having over 2,500 Facebook friends (“How could you possibly know that many people??”), I am blessed to make new connections every single day. The Chicago Artists Chorale not only allowed me to meet new artists, but also cultivate relationships with artists that were formerly just acquaintances.
I will be back soon – hopefully not seventeen months from now – and look forward to it.
Thanks for reading,
October 24, 2013
Today would have been Moss Hart’s 109th birthday. This man wrote and staged some of my most favorites works in Broadway history including You Can’t Take It With You (1936), The Man Who Came to Dinner (1939), Lady in the Dark (1941), and My Fair Lady (1956). While it would be easy to gush about the classic 1936 farce, the most renowned of Kaufman and Hart’s playwriting collaborations, or the lush and beautiful Lerner/Loewe/Hart masterpiece, the work I’m most grateful for is Lady in the Dark.
In 1941, the likes of Moss Hart, Kurt Weill, Ira Gershwin, Sam Harris, and Albertina Rasch came together to create what I consider the “First Next to Normal on Broadway.” The show, starring a 43-year old Gertrude Lawrence as Liza Elliott, examined a taboo subject of the time: psychoanalysis. A show like Lady in the Dark is a predecessor to the ‘concept musical’ from the late 1960s and 1970s (Cabaret in 1966, Hair in 1968, Company in 1970, and the list goes on…) as the story takes place in the form of three extended dream sequences. Thus, the narrative formula that was developing in musical theatre in the 1940s was broken, and it opened the door for many other interesting and artistically conceptual ways to tell a story.
Today, some say that movies are becoming the sole source material for “new” Broadway musicals or that the ‘Juke Box Musical’ is now the only commercial angle from which to sell tickets. I say, “Where are all the Moss Harts out there?!” My birthday wish for Master Hart is that more contemporary creators become willing to take a risk and change the course of the broadway musical!
Check out this great picture from the New York Public Library’s new (free!) online photo gallery. It’s Moss Hart with his wife Kitty Carlisle outside the theatre for Jerome Robbins’ Ballet in 1961!
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!
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.
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!