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Conducting The Pit From The Piano

November 5, 2010

Conducting from the piano can be really great, or really really awful. If you’re a pianist, conducting from the piano allows you to use your best skill to its highest advantage: if everything goes south, you can still salvage it by just PLAYING SOMETHING! But a pianist with no skills DIRECTING from the piano is a nightmare for the other pit players. I have had many a conversation with drummers and guitarists in particular who are driven nuts by pianist MDs who give them nothing to guide them through their tempos. You need to master a couple of techniques in order to be an effective piano MD:

1) The Head Nod: It’s just like the conducting pattern you learned in music school, except you’re using your head. Upbeat is always a nod up, Downbeat is always a nod down.

2) The Sniff: Breathe in just before the entrance. Particularly effective when combined with the head nod.

3) Conduct with your non-playing hand. If you have measure after measure with only a left hand part, for goodness sake, pick up your right hand and conduct! It’s hard to do, so try it at home first.

4) If there are tempo changes, please go through them thoroughly with your group before hand, and use head nods to get through them.

5) Look around and make eye contact 2 or 3 seconds before you start. Try and make a little visual contact with everybody so they know you’re about to begin the next number.

Put yourself in your player’s shoes. They don’t know this show like you do. All of a sudden, out of nowhere, they’re starting, it’s speeding up, it’s slowing down, am I in 2 or 4? Where do I come in? And you look up for guidance and the piano player is glued to the music and the head is just motionless. It’s maddening! Don’t be that guy (or gal).

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