Blog: Thoughts & Insights
October 16, 2013
When was the last time you heard a performer blame an accompanist for ruining his or her audition? How about the last time you witnessed someone trying to back-phrase and the pianist followed them instead of continuing at a tempo in which the singer could riff? For most musical theatre professionals, the answer to either of these questions is undoubtedly under a year; maybe it is even a matter of months or weeks! In the field of musical theatre, the role of the accompanist has been so neglected that directors, actors, and even accompanists themselves have a vague idea of what should be expected. Too often directors, music directors, and performers are spending time telling the accompanist what they need from them. When does the director ever tell the master electrician how to hang the lights? In a musical theatre audition, the accompanist ought to be the most knowledgeable person about the music, aside from perhaps the music director. The accompanist should set the parameters of the brief meeting he has with the actor prior to the audition and then virtually disappear. The pianist should be equally as focused as the actor and inherently a step ahead of them, with regard to the music. This paradigm shift requires a realization among all the participants of the audition process that there are specialized skills that musical theatre audition accompanists must possess in order to be effective; these skills require practice and experience, but they are attainable and must be considered requisites for the job. Musical theatre accompanists must take up the responsibility of supporting the performer; the only way to do that is to know the repertoire, think like a singer, and play the material in a stylistically appropriate and musical way.
In a typical audition situation, the singer enters the room and heads straight to the piano. In a “conservatory-trained” manner, the performer then runs through a seemingly rehearsed litany as he or she nervously unfolds the sheet music from the binder; some will commit the crime of snapping a tempo at the pianist, while others will attempt to conduct or sing at their desired pace. Many performers will mention a cue for the pianist to begin playing, such as a head nod or a simple look up, and then take center stage to begin their performance. After the song is finished, the best of the best will amicably say “thank you” to the accompanist as they grab their music and leave the room. The only requirements seem to be that the pianist shows up on time, sight-reads the music fairly efficiently, tolerates any musical deficiencies that the performer exhibits, and leaves their mailing address for the check. In this conventional scenario, it is almost is as if the accompanist were a pet being told what to do, when to do it, and then receiving a treat for a job well done; in some cases, the pianist receives the treat (“thank you”) even if he or she has perfectly butchered the song! A paradigm shift is crucial in the audition room so that the performer can put his best foot forward and feel supported by the accompanist the entire time. A musical theatre accompanist must approach his role in auditions as a professional so that he can engage as an active participant in the process.
In order to redefine the role of the accompanist in a musical theatre audition, we must identify the one major pitfall that a vast number of working pianists have: the misconception that anyone who plays piano is cut out for this work. Dan Stetzel, Professor of Musical Theatre at Chicago’s Roosevelt University, says, “Many competent players think they can handle this work until they try it.” What they may not realize is that there are requisite skills that accompanists must possess that are unique to playing for singers, and more specifically, singers in the genre of musical theatre. Thus, the job of the musical theatre accompanist must be filled by someone who understands what is needed to support the singing actor in an audition situation.
The type of personality that the pianist should take on is friendly, flexible, and professional. The actor and staff must feel that the pianist is positive, collaborative, confident, and capable. However, an overly friendly or talkative accompanist can waste time, undermining the goal of a smooth and swift audition process. A common misconception amongst pianists is that they should remain consistently cheerful so as to calm the nerves of the performer. The fact of the matter is that the actor wants to focus on giving a first class audition and getting the part; an accompanist who is confident and focuses on communicating effectively about the audition music has a much better chance of putting the actor at ease. Contrarily, we have all heard stories about jaded and unpleasant accompanists who don’t so much as smile, let alone look up from the music to coordinate with the singer’s breaths. An artful balance is necessary so that everyone in the audition room has a positive experience.
In my next three consecutive blog posts, I will examine the specific skills that I believe a musical theatre accompanist should possess before being hired to play auditions adequately.
September 1, 2013
I consider myself extremely fortunate to be in the midst of rehearsals for In the Heights at the same time that my very first professional website is going live! In an effort to keep it short (there’s a lot of work to be done!) and poignant, check out this awesome video of Rachel Rockwell talking about this fantastic upcoming production:
IN THE HEIGHTS begins September 11th and runs through October 6th. To get your tickets now, call 630-896-6666 or click here.