Archive for April, 2011

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Focus

April 29, 2011

We live in a focus-less society, or rather, a society with so many things to look at that or brains have adapted to shift focus continually. But music, and music directing especially, is a long-term focus game. The longer I music direct, the more I realize how important my focus is and how pretty much every mistake I make can be traced back to a lack of focus.

When you’re music directing, and particularly if you’re directing from the piano, you will need a focus broad enough to include the actors, the players, and your own playing, but no broader. I find if I start thinking about the previous scene’s mistakes, the next scene’s potential pitfalls, or a disagreement I had with another team member, I am dangerously out of my ability to multitask. I recently completed a run of a show in which I was playing almost constantly. I dialed my brain back a few seconds from each flub I made for a week or so, and found that I had pretty consistently been thinking about my career and whether my music directing met a professional standard during the moments before I forgot how many times I had repeated a section, or didn’t change a patch. To my shame, occasionally I was thinking about how I looked in the monitor.

Now certainly, keeping tabs on your professional standards is a good idea. (that’s what this blog is about, to a certain degree) But when you’re at the helm of the orchestra, there is only one focus: the scene at hand and the music that operates in and for it. The same holds true for a general chorus rehearsal. As I accompany choirs, sometimes I see a director clearly focused strongly on the music as he gives instruction, and then when he runs the section, he does not appear to hear whether or not the mistakes have been corrected. I find myself doing the same thing. When I’m beating time, my mind wanders to topics tangentially related to the thing at hand: “what will I do next? How much time is left? Is my fly open?” All good things to think about, but again, the focus needs to continually be drawn back to the task, and the central focal point MUST always be the music and its function. And if you find yourself preening, focusing on your image, as I have now and then, you’ve lost. This isn’t about how good you look. It’s about the music.

It seems like such an easy task. After all, you’ve been practicing this music for months; you know it better than anyone in the room, why shouldn’t you be able to do it with a laser sharp focus? Well, to give you just one concrete example; I completed the essay you’re currently reading over the course of 3 days, a few sentences at a time. Simultaneously, I wrote a piece of music for a tenor, arranged for the purchase of some orchestral music, answered some e-mails, texted my wife, took an occasional nap, negotiated the timing for a commission, and broke to teach some students. At each point, I had complete control over how much of which task I was thinking about, and if I became bored with one task, I quickly toggled to the other. This is how our minds work these days. We even operate fast moving heavy machinery every day while simultaneously listening to the radio, checking our e-mail, and talking to people on the phone!

The theatre is not that place. Theatre music demands your attention, and does not allow you the luxury of choosing what you pay attention to. And further, there can be no autopilot in the theatre, everything that happens is so fluid. A track of yesterday’s performance is not going to line up with tonight’s performance. There is only one way out, and that’s deeper into the music as it functions in the scene. You do have control of the thoughts that pass through your head. Take that control and apply it to being exactly in the moment of the piece and nowhere else.

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‘Joke Night’

April 22, 2011

Some schools have a ‘Joke Night’ on closing night. I have at one time or another participated in joke night, (and Mozart did too, evidently, during the Magic Flute)

This from one of his letters:

“…when Papageno’s aria with the Glockenspiel came on, at that moment I went backstage because today I had a kind of urge to play the Glockenspiel myself. – So I played this joke: just when Shickaneder [playing Papageno] came to a pause, I played an arpeggio – he was startled – looked into the scenery and saw me – the 2nd time he came to that spot, I didn’t play – and this time he stopped as well and did not go on singing – I guessed what he was thinking and played another chord – at that he gave his Glockenspiel a slap and shouted “shut up” – everybody laughed. – I think through this joke many in the audience became aware for the first time that Papageno doesn’t play the Glockenspiel himself.”

But even so, I have to say that Joke Night goes against everything the theatre is about. When you fool around with the play, you destroy the experience for the audience, you cheapen the amount of work that has gone into the piece, and you go out with a whimper instead of a bang. There are a couple of ways to channel the impish energy of a cast that may dissipate some of that impulse:

1) At your closing night party, have your most creative people put together a parody of one of the songs, or send up the show in some way or another.

2) If your show runs for 2 weeks, have a brush up rehearsal the second weekend with no costumes or pit or audience, just running through the show as fast as possible. The goofiness will happen on its own.

Don’t spoil the integrity of your production for the sake of a few laughs. Finish strong!

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How To Be A Good Musical Theatre Pianist

April 15, 2011

Being a pianist for a musical requires a different skill set from the classical pianist or the rock pianist. It requires sensitivity and flexibility, you need to be a good reader and a good listener. It isn’t about hitting all the notes correctly or even improvising fluently, it’s about playing what’s needed exactly when it’s needed.

A few points:

1) The ability to sight read well is necessary to the theatre pianist. Most people are taught to work for perfection in all areas during their years of piano instruction, which requires many hours of practicing the same piece over and over until the kinks are all worked out. Learning to sight read also requires hours of practice, but the hours need to be spent reading things you’ve never seen before, and not stopping to fix anything. Get a huge stack of scores from a library or a friend and devote time every day to reading those scores at a moderate tempo, without ever going back to correct anything. Try not to drop any beats, and work to read several beats ahead of what you’re actually playing at any given moment. As you’re doing this, try to work out what is most important and play that first, adding the other details as you find you are able. Developing this skill is the bedrock of practical piano playing upon which many of the other skills rely.

2) A theatre pianist is frequently called upon to play music with more notes than are physically possible to execute. The part may include the bassline, the offbeat chords of the second violins, the melody, and a piping countermelody an octave above. This kind of music is not for the literal-minded; you’ll have to leave some of it out. Ask yourself: What kinds of details are necessary for the performers to hear during this rehearsal? Probably you’ll need the bassline and the melody. Do they know the melody? Leave it out and play the comp chords in the top of the bass clef. Or add the countermelody. Try to imagine the full texture and intelligently play just what is necessary. And then be creative with your playing. Really try and evoke that cello or trombone with your thumb in the left hand. Articulate the woodwind passages with the panache the actual players would. Once you know the bones of the piece, make a real effort to play it in style, with character and verve.

3) Along those lines, the theatre pianist isn’t an expert at all styles, but can play passably in many different genres, from classical and romantic music to jazz, to gospel, to rock, to country. Know how to play swing rhythms, how phrasing works in various genres, and pay attention to what genre the music is in. Lerner and Loewe are going to be different than Stiles and Drew. Sondheim is going to require the clarity of the counterpoint, where Michel Legrand is going to need a very French use of the pedal. You don’t need to be an expert, but you need to have a passing familiarity with many different styles. Jack of all trades, master of none.

4) A theatre pianist listens to the other performers. I don’t care how beautiful your scale work is, or how quickly and accurately you play stride piano; if you’re not listening to the singers, you’re useless as a player in a pit or a rehearsal. And when you get into that pit and the other instruments are playing, you need to be listening enough not to just mindlessly double instruments that are carrying their sections perfectly well.

5) A theatre pianist has a thick skin. When things rush, everyone turns to the pianist and says, “You’re playing too fast! It’s killing us up here” even if it was the singers who got things moving too quickly. The theatre pianist knows what really happened, but smiles and says, “I’ll take it a couple of notches slower this time.” If you are easily offended, playing theatre piano is not your thing. And if it was you that was rushing, a collaborative pianist has the humility to say: “it was me. I’ll fix it.”

6) Ideally, a theatre pianist is able to transpose at sight, although in reality this happens very infrequently. In practice, much of this kind of thing relies not so much on transposing from the page to the piano with note-perfect accuracy, but a knowledge of keyboard harmony that allows the player to recreate the style and chord progression roughly in the new key until somebody has the time to go and transpose it properly. And with the proliferation of electronic keyboards, it’s frequently done with the push of a button. As you are able, try moving pieces a half step and then a step in either direction. Often it can be done by just imagining a new key signature.

7) A good theatre pianist is paying attention during rehearsals. Often a choreographer or a director will say, “take it from that spot where such-and-such happens” You need to know where that is. A lousy collaborative pianist is too busy going over passage work or making musical jokes to be bothered with knowing what’s going on in the room. The good pianist is mentally present and ready to go when called upon.

Theatrical pianism is a lifelong learning process, with a premium on flexibility, stamina, and creative thinking. The good news is that they are skills which can be learned, and even self-taught. And you’ll find that if you master these skills, you will get work, because you’ll be a true asset to any production.

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When Things Go Wrong

April 8, 2011

Call out measure numbers quietly if you have to, Call out lyrics quietly if you have to, mouth like crazy, do what you can to right the ship as unobtrusively as possible. But above all, don’t lose your cool. Be the rock of Gibraltar. When something doesn’t go as planned, you want everyone looking at you for guidance, not hiding from you.

Try not to stop. If you must stop, do it gently, give instructions quietly and clearly, and begin again.

My friend Megan Lynch told me once that if things go sideways, the group must follow the person who knows least what’s going on. The person who is lost and can’t find their place and is blindly moving ahead incorrectly will probably not regain her footing. Megan gave me that advice in the context of a brass quintet I was playing in with a wayward trombone. But it’s equally true in the theatre. Ideally everyone is listening, everyone is following. But if somebody on stage gets off, and they don’t know where they are, lock on to the person who is lost and find them. Call out measure numbers if you must. Pros are going to try and find the singer anyway, but you have to have the presence of mind to do it too. Vamps and repeats are a godsend there. You give the ‘stop’ hand sign to the singer with your left hand, while you keep the band going with the right. Then give a very strong cue to the singer to go on, and you can correct things quickly.

Another model that might be useful to you is one I learned from my father, who was an Air Force captain. He would always tell me the following list of a pilot’s priorities as he was teaching me to drive:

1) Maintain control of the aircraft

2) Assess the situation and take appropriate action

3) Land at earliest opportunity

And then when I had lurched him around with my horrible steering, my father would add: “And do think about passenger comfort”

How does that translate?

1) Maintain control of the aircraft

Don’t lose your cool. Don’t stop beating time and give up. Keep your wits about you and your hands on the wheel

2) Assess the situation and take appropriate action

What exactly happened? Who is off? How many versions of the piece are going on at this moment? Is the orchestra in one place together and the singers in another place together, or are there more than two things happening? How far out of sync are we? After you have assessed what happened, use what control you have of the forces at your disposal to align the various groups into one unit.

3) Land at the earliest opportunity

In a musical, you must carry on; you can’t cut it short. But a true recovery from a scary moment requires an acknowledgement to the performers that what happened was a frightening moment and that everyone needs to be on their guard. I find a well placed smile can be more sobering and constructive to a performer than a glare. I look at the player or the singer with a smile that says: “We made it, but just barely. Don’t let it happen again.” Shooting the look of death to a performer doesn’t inspire them to their best, it creates a fear response which is counterproductive.

…And think about passenger comfort.

Your audience is your group of passengers. On an airplane, people expect a bit of turbulence here and there. In a school show, it’s live theatre. Things don’t always go perfectly. But the audience needs to know they’re in good, secure, calm hands or the show will be a nail-biting experience. If the captain addressed the passengers of a flight with an exasperated “Folks, I don’t know if we’re going to make it, it’s crazy up here!”, the peace and comfort of the trip will be gone forever. However you solve your problem, do so as much as possible in a way that makes your audience think, “Did something just happen? Oh, I guess not.”

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Filming/Recording

April 1, 2011

Don’t. Sometimes you can get an agreement to film with your licensing materials. And I believe you may be allowed to film a performance archivally. But in this public forum, I have to give the party line. You are not allowed to record without written permission. And if you film a show and have it copied for dozens of cast members, you are probably breaking the law.