Sunday, July 19, 2009

From Academia to Freelance . . . Down the Rabbit Hole

When I traded academia for the freelance world, I found that traipsing through the new terrain was trickier than I expected. Successful navigation required some mental reprogramming. And gas money. 

There's No Place Like Home
In general, academia is orderly. Repertoire, rehearsals and recitals are planned and scheduled in advance. Everyone comes to the same location, the music building, where rehearsal spaces are free, well lit, and furnished with pianos and stands. Scores and CDs can be plucked from the library, office supplies ransacked from the cabinet, and musical input is supplied (solicited or not) by knowledgeable colleagues. Dead composers write most of the performed repertoire. The artistic merit of the performed repertoire is rarely questionable. Collaborative partners have training, often extensive training, and are focused on their work. On the whole, the gig allows musicians to sound their best and I was accustomed to that feeling of security.

Buckle Your Seatbelt, Dorothy
The freelance world runs differently than academia. Advance notice of repertoire is rare (especially with vocalists), making public sightreading a standard exercise in humility. Requests for transposition occur more frequently, especially for musical theatre repertoire. Audition playing has its challenges, as I mentioned in a
previous blog. Repertoire is all over the map - knowing styles, being able to read charts, translate musical theatre orchestral reductions into viable accompaniments are different skills than simply reading dots on a page. Listening to recordings of the repertoire is essential, because unlike classical music, most written musical theatre and pop music is 'loosely translated'. The recording of a performance often becomes more important than what the composer scribbled down - which is weird after years in academia of viewing the little black dots' placement as crucial. Of course, there are composers who actually write for the piano, and accurately transcribe their ideas: their stuff can be performed as is. Bless them.

No Time to Say Hello Goodbye
Working in the theatre world you gain a new appreciation for the skill of 'time management', because in theatre, there is never enough time to cover all the details. You must prioritize and cover what
must be done. From there, you rely upon the professionalism of coworkers, that they will do the necessary homework to get the job done and done right. The saying 'Hurry up and Wait' is especially apt for theatre work. It is helpful to bring a book, a laptop - anything you can use to fill in the dead time. I try to keep my ipod constantly updated with new music, so I can actively use dead time (in rehearsal and in transit) to learn new repertoire.

You Don't Need a Bench, Do You?
Workplaces can range from havens to hovels. I have performed in bad lighting, no lighting, sorry versions of piano benches heightened via phone book, and on ridiculously rough pianos that drew blood after I executed a glissando. Sound equipment sometimes doesn't work properly - or it works fine, but no one is competent at the soundboard. Transportation is an ongoing issue, as locations tend to multiply when you have over 7 gigs - and 3 separate locations are in one day. Extensive road travel is wearing - as is getting lost on a regular basis (hello, gps unit). Finding parking can be a headache, depending on your location. DC parking is a migraine.

Stranger in a Strange Land
Age ranges are wider outside of academia - you are dealing with the full age spectrum, each with their differing challenges and attitudes: children, teenagers, older men and women. You may have to work with musicians with no formal training (often singers and guitarists). That lack of common knowledge can be frustrating when trying to ascertain key signatures or tempos. Occasionally there is no written music available, and you are issued a CD instead. Some gigs have you providing music to people who have no direct understanding of it - choreographers are notorious for their lack of musicianship (they speak in code, like "I need 7 counts of 8"

You Want That on a Silver Platter?
The transition from academia to freelance challenges deeply held convictions of how things ought to be doneYou should not have to sound mediocre due to circumstances. You should get the music in advance. You should have enough time to learn the music. You should have rehearsals before you perform with someone. You should have an instrument in tune with itself. You should not have to specially arrange music when already written out music is available. Holding on to all these 'shoulds' can create resentment, stress or rage . Be professional and avoid these negative emotions by letting go of your past reality. Then glom on to the present one.

There is No Spoon

Whether you like it or not, your emotions can be transparent in your playing: discomfort and dissatisfaction cannot be broadcast, because the music suffers. To remain in the profession, your attitudes must be professional - even if circumstances utterly suck. You are hired to play. Even if you had virtually no time to learn the piece, you wanted to play something else, you hate the composer, the monitors aren't working right or the piano is out of tune - it is in your best interest to view every performance as an opportunity. Mentally bend yourself and slip into a zone where you can perform to the best of your abilities. Somehow, you have to enjoy your performance, or your audience probably won't, either.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Life of a tour musician/pianist

I finally found something about what it is like to be a pianist on a musical theatre tour. It's a travelogue covering about two years, organized by month and location:

Also, a website that I like,, just came out with an article of practical thoughts on traveling as a musician.


Thursday, July 9, 2009

Patron Saint for Working Pianists

In a previous blog I mentioned prayer as a last-ditch effort to avoid art song slaughter. Further reflection led to the idea of the patron saint: some religions include prayer to saints, who then intercede in heaven on behalf of their chosen patronage of a craft, activity or person. Catholicism has a patron saint for musicians, Saint Cecilia, who apparently sang to God as she lay dying (after surviving suffocation, being boiled alive, and a botched beheading). She is an excellent role model for never giving up, but I don't think she can effectively advocate for the special needs of today's musicians, who find themselves infrequently boiled alive.

I have decided to appoint Saint Gregory Thaumaturgus, also known as Gregory the Wonder Worker, as the patron saint for collaborative pianists. His intercessions deal mainly with impossible, desperate and lost causes (also earthquakes and floods). Collaborative pianists tend to be a hardy bunch; our pleas for intercession will occur only when extraordinary effort has failed to save a stupid situation. And we can't worm out of the gig.

Collaborative pianists develop supernatural abilities to deal with most musical malfunctions. ESP (the musical anticipation of almost anything) and teleportation (following a partner to a totally unrelated part of the piece) keep many performances on track. We can cue entrances with a sharp *sniff* until audience members think we suffer incredible allergies. We can highlight pitch cues in a clear-but-subtle manner. We can rein in a galloping tempo with a deliberate left hand. We can lean the tempo forward through singer's held notes when their air is flagging, and pause long enough for their deep gulp of air afterwards. But we cannot alter a performer's ability to publicly remember a piece's melody or lyrics, cause ensemble pitch retention within an a cappella piece, or correct an instrumentalists' intonation. Sometimes the circumstances are that the show must go on, but it really, really shouldn't.

So it may be advantageous to appeal to this patron saint of the desperate, forgotten, impossible and lost causes. Because if Saint Gregory can stop floods and earthquakes, he can avert onstage disasters as well.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Make your Audition Pianist happy

It is astonishing to me how many singers sabotage their own audition.

The process of auditioning is costly. To remain in top marketable form, singers need regular lessons, coachings and/or classes. On the day of each audition, time and attention is invested to dress and groom appropriately, warm up, travel to the location, find the correct room, and wait for the correct time. Additionally, the audition takes time away from actively earning money. It is an exciting, often nervewracking, event in every singer's life.

And these same people who have invested so much time, energy and finances arrive . . .
. . . and immediately handicap the pianist who accompanies them. With their own music.

It really is a simple situation to fix - it just takes some attention and some office supplies.

Many of the following comments are universal in dealing with audition pianists, but I am thinking specifically of Musical Theatre auditions. They usually involve a monologue and one or two 16 measure cuts of a song (ballad and/or uptempo). Occasionally the whole song is requested.

Suicide by Song Selection
Finding the elusive combination of a song that you like, with a melody that highlights your voice, with an age appropriate character that fits your body type and personality, that is not overdone (the list continues) and has an easily played accompaniment can be tough. Unfortunately, unless the piece lies within [whoever is at the keyboard]'s capabilities, the audition will suffer (or be suffocated). Weird time signature changes, tough key signatures and lightening-quick tempos should all be red flags. Work with a pianist and ask if it is difficult. Which leads me to the next common error:

Wrong chords and keys
Always have a professional accompanist test your sheet music, for this very good reason: mistakes occur often in sheet music, especially random downloads from the internet. The music could be in the wrong key, it could be different than your recorded version (different intro and ending, for example), or it could be a very bad arrangement, period. So allow yourself plenty of time to prep your piece with a pianist before you perform it - an audition is not a good place to try something brand new.

Lost in Translation
Auditioning with a pop or rock song you love may seem like a great idea . . . until you hear it performed using only a piano. Some songs simply don't 'work' with a keyboard, and need drums and a guitar for it to come off well. Yet another reason to work with a pianist ahead of time and pick your song carefully.

And now, onto the actual pages of music itself. This will get you started, quick and dirty:

The Devil is in the Details (or Loose Sheet Music is Evil)
  • Music in a published book must lie flat
  • No Loose Sheet Music (music curling up and falling down on the piano can be unhelpful)
  • Sheet music should be hole-punched
  • Sheet music belongs in a 3 ring binder that allows efficient page turns
  • Sheet music should not be singled sided and hole-punched on one side (necessitating twice the amount of page turns)
  • Sheet music should be double-sided (or tape -not staple- one-sided copies back to back). An exception: if it is an odd number of pages, it can be helpful to fold out the beginning or ending page to lessen the # of page turns)
  • Sheet music should be complete (missing a page can be unhelpful)
  • Sheet music should be in the correct order
  • Sheet music should be in the correct key
  • Sheet music should include the left hand part at the bottom of the page and the singers' melody at the top of the page (copy at 93% reduction and you should be fine)
  • Sheet music should not be in plastic sleeves (glare is distracting)
  • Sheet music should be dark enough to read easily
  • Sheet music should not be run through a fax machine
  • Sheet music should not be hand-written on lined notebook paper (something I've actually been handed at an audition - it was a ballpoint pen-written, transposed Jason Robert Brown song)
Following these guidelines, your song should now be organized in a form that resembles actual music. Because the pianist usually has all of 30 seconds to mentally grasp the dots and lines on the page, it is additionally helpful to do the following:
  • Mark beginnings and endings clearly. Have the intro and the ending clearly spelled out (no requests to just make up a beginning/ending)
  • Use a highlighter or pen to draw attention to confusing repeats, codas, key changes, time changes, etc.
  • Visibly cross out measures you do not want played
  • Mark spots where the tempo speeds up or slows down
  • Mark breaths
  • General rule: the less page turns the better
  • Clearly mark the name of the song, the composer, and the tempo
  • Note any 'cue lines' if you are going straight into singing from a monologue
  • Clearly communicate your tempo (usually by quietly singing the first line)
In mentally reviewing auditions that were not successful, sometimes it helps to think of the situation in terms of cause and effect. I like to think of it in terms of crime and punishment:
  • For the crime of handing the pianist a published music book that cannot lie flat, the sentence is a ridiculously choppy performance with occasional pauses and swatting noises from the piano bench.
  • For the crime of handing the pianist a 'lead sheet' (a vocal line and chord symbols), the sentence is a unique rendition of your song that may be altogether unrecognizable to anyone else.
  • For the crime of requesting a major transposition, the sentence is a brief dirty look and a clench-jawed version of the tune which the pianist pulls from his - ear.
The saying goes that "If the audition is successful, the singer sang well. If the audition goes badly, the pianist messed up" . . . it is also true that every time a singer says, "Can you transpose this up a 3rd?", there's a pianist somewhere that cries.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Business cards for pianists

If you are a working pianist, you should have an up-to-date business card (no crossed out phone numbers or emails). They are ridiculously cheap nowadays, and it is easily done online with pre-designed templates - there are lots out there to browse through. For conventional business cards, a good starting point is Vistaprint, which has tons of basic templates. It also has a set of 'arts, music and entertainment' designs. has a set of music business cards.

123Print has a set of 'music and entertainment' business cards.

MOO has fun stuff can be interesting.

The following can be pricey, but are interesting:
A different concept you may not have considered: plastic business cards. They come in clear or frosted versions.

Metal Business cards at PlasmaDesign.

And this one is just fun:

Thursday, July 2, 2009

The Violette Vortex

Today I had a near miss with a force of nature that mainly exists onstage and in audition rooms. Many collaborative pianists have also encountered the phenomenon that a colleague of mine aptly dubbed: "The Violette Vortex".

Essentially, a singer begins Alessandro Scarlatti's Le Violette, and suddenly realizes that they are underprepared, hungry, nervous, stressed, and/or nauseous. In that moment, gravitational anomalies create an environment that will "defy gravity, bend light, scare animals, twist plant life into contorted shapes, and cause humans to feel strange". At least that's what some random website reports about vortexes. And that seems the most reasonable explanation for the following:

Repetition of wrong phrases. Missed entrances, early entrances. Absolute confusion. Anxiety and desperation heighten. Mentally the pianist prepares themself for a train wreck. The song continues . . . and then the pianist wonders - what if the song never ends? What if they keep saying, "Violette, violette, graziose, violette . . ."? How long will they keep going before admitting they are lost?

Science probably doesn't have any answers, so I suggest prayer.