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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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