Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Outdoor Weddings and Pianists

My very first gig in San Antonio turned out to be a wedding gig I got through PianoAccompanists.com – a handy site, I must say! It was to be a very simple venture: the singers wanted me to accompany one song, and also asked if I had my own equipment to bring to the event.  I responded that I had no equipment, unfortunately, but if they could somehow borrow an instrument, I’d be happy to do the event, plus a rehearsal scheduled earlier the same day, for $100*. 

They managed to borrow an instrument from the sound guy, and requested I contact him to ensure I could work with what he had on hand.  My requests:  a keyboard with over 4 octaves (his keyboard had 5), a keyboard stand, a music stand, a sustain pedal and a bench.  He okayed my list, and it was all set . . . I thought. 

The event turned out to be an outdoor wedding – and while it was a gorgeous day, it was windy enough to cause my music to whip around crazily, occasionally snatching up the sheets and whirling them around the courtyard with the energy of a manic toddler.  

The other issue was the sustain pedal, which apparently was not among the music swag that was borrowed.  Non-pianists never quite understand how hard it is to compensate musically without a pedal – and honestly, most pianists don’t know how much they rely on said pedal until it is unavailable.  Its only when one tries to finger pedal ‘Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring’ (with the rest of the flowing, legato wedding favorites) that it truly sinks in – that pedal is important.  

Luckily, I had solutions for both problems: a spare sustain pedal in the trunk of my car, as well as scotch tape and monster paper clips, which attached my music to a binder.  Fortunately, the clips eliminated the need for me to slap the music down continuously with one hand.  The only thing I was not prepared for were the unnaturally large and bloodthirsty mosquitos gnawing on my legs and feet.  I didn’t have anything in my car for them, sadly.

Taking this gig into account, and other experiences as well, I thought I'd put together a list for freelancers who want to anticipate any and all musical emergencies:

The Pianist Emergency Kit
3 ring binder
3 hole puncher
Large binder clips
Scotch tape
White-out pen
Music stand
Extra metronome
Adjustable piano bench
Sustain pedal (something along these lines)

Any list suggestions from other freelancers are welcome!

*I considered this somewhat of a lowball offer.  Usually my minimum for a wedding is a $125 flat fee, not including a rehearsal.  But for this case, it was one easy song, a nearby location, 2 hours of my time (plus I’m still not even sure what is normal in this area, blah blah blah)

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Freelancing links

Written by Dr Karen Lonsdale

By composer Cheryl B Engelhardt

Found on Musician Wages.com, a great resource about working as a musician.  

5 Tips to Keep Your Gig
Written by Trevor Coen

Found on Musician Wages.com 

Written by double bassist Jason Heath

A NYT article by Allan Kozinn  

A pdf offered by the Eastman School of Music by Dr. Adrian Daly

All of Joshua Nemith’s posts with label Music as a Career

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Interior Monologue

Have you ever wondered what a pianist is thinking during a performance?  It's fascinating to watch an artist elegantly hovering over the keyboard, in perfect sync with their accomplice – but what is going through their mind? 

In the interest of full disclosure, here is a brief glimpse into the mind of a performing pianist:

"… I hope there’s leftover pizza at home … yes, breathe … that was a really nice phrase … wow, he’s never taken a breathe there, before … aaannd that phrase was wretched … fer-STUCKT not fer-struckt … turn the page TURN THE PAGE, Susan, I will cut you … oh good, thanks for remembering to give me a sec there … why is there a buzzing sound coming from my left? … crap, missed that fingering … whoops - missed note, pedal pedal, get rid of the sounds … my left foot is killing me - stupid shoe … Really, REALLY I messed that up after we went through it a billion times?!! … great, my ex is here to see this … "

And so on.  Now you know.

Pianos, pianos, pianos - in art

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

On the Personal Front . . .

So it turns out that my move to Florida is instead a brief visit, a 2 month stop along the way to San Antonio, Texas.  Over the past few weeks I’ve barely touched the piano, mainly because I don’t have one at the moment. What I have been doing: watching a lot of (occasionally bad) TV, Crossfitting and taking surf lessons.  

Right now I’m watching Anthony Bourdain, No Reservations on Netflix.  I’m madly jealous throughout most of it, except when he has to eat an eyeball or some such to be polite. I love the way he travels and experiences the culture with locals, foregoing the touristy stuff. All the different foods he gets to sample look amazing (except in the episode with the bushman where he had to eat food cooked in dirt*).  

Crossfit is something I’ve started since I left my personal trainer in VA. Basically, I join a bunch of other people who have gathered together in a place that looks like someone’s gutted garage, and do a lot of painful things - running, pushups, situps, burpees, and olympic lifts. There's no air conditioning and its generally really hard.  Somehow its also addictive, believe it or not.   

As for the surfing lessons, I have really enjoyed them.  I'm not good at it, but I enjoy the whole ‘throw-self-into-the-moment-and-just-do-it’ aspect. My experience went something like this: with the grace and poise of a beached manatee, I’d flop atop the surfboard and listen to George, a grizzled, tanned old dude, deliver a steady patter about everything I did wrong the last time. The first day he’d count me off with a “3-2-1 – go” and I would jump up, rather slowly, into an awkward stance, vaguely unsteady but upright. Over the next few days, I got better - remember, keep the core tight, don’t look down, pop up and bend knees to the surfing stance with shoulder aiming to the left. Gliding along the ocean, adjusting to the wave’s forward momentum, is delightful. There’s a certain serenity to be found in the ocean - until you slam face-first into the water and spend about 10 minutes pushing against the waves, doggedly dragging the surfboard past the ‘break zone’. Then it kinda sucks. I tried to write a haiku about the whole experience - this is what I ended up with:

White fingered ocean
Fighting ev’ry move I make
Bitchsmacked by nature

Fall semester is right around the corner, so I'm hoping to get to Texas sooner, rather than later.  Still TBD though . . . sigh.

*and I quote - ”dirt, fur and crap a part of every bite” - Anthony Bourdain

Sunday, August 5, 2012

The Last Four Years, Part II

Job #4 High School Choral Gig
For the first two years in VA, I accompanied a high school choral program in Woodbridge. They used me to accompany choir classes, juries, auditions, festivals, their musical and also to organize and computerize their choral music library. Classes started early, typically by 8am and went until 2:15.  Probably the best thing about the gig was that it doesn't get in the way of most evening rehearsals.  

What I liked about the gig: There was a variety of choral music to play - madrigals, pop/rock, classical, jazzish stuff and spirituals.  The music was mostly sight-readable, and I found it an excellent way to work on 4+ parts score-reading abilities.  

I personally did not enjoy working as a high school staff assistant flunky - mainly because so much of the job consisted of policing, attendance taking and testing.  I found the music school environment (Job #3) much more to my liking.  Be aware: in both environments, the students never shut up. While at the high school I often wished for duct tape to cover rogue nonstop mouths and for scissors to cut the men's hair from growing directly into their eyes.
Location: 40 minutes away  Stability level: Dependent on school year

Job #5 Professional Theatre Gigs
An invite to play at First Stage Theatre held a few firsts for me - my first ‘professional’ level work (not educationally related), first time playing an AL Webber score that I’ve never heard of, and the first time I was actually onstage with the actors.  I found the work very enjoyable, and got to work with about 5 separate bassists in the area - each time explaining the score to them, cueing in the musical numbers, etc.  Being onstage was very hot, I’m not sure how the actors can stand the constant lights and heat. I loved playing for a full house almost every night.  

A random contact I made at George Mason U led to working with the In Series.  They hired me after they heard me play, although it was commented that it’d look like they were using ‘child labor’ (here’s an example of where looking young can be held against you).  With them I got to play Barber’s “A Hand of Bridge” and a zarzuela, as well as lots of other random music from the 1920s-30s.  Rehearsals and performances were all held in DC, with 1 hour minimum drive and occasionally non-existent parking.     

Job #6 University Freelancing Gigs
When I moved to Northern Virginia, I immediately thought I’d hit the university jackpot:  American University, George Washington University, Catholic University, Howard U, George Mason U . . . little did I know that things were not as they seemed.  All but George Mason U were impossible to get to (until you’ve driven through DC you have no idea how awful it is to traverse).   

In addition, most of the universities were insular: putting up posters led nowhere.  I found that in their cases, unless they knew you, they normally wouldn’t hire you.  Pure luck led to work at Howard U, and I found contacts at Cath U and GMU - but for the most part, the university work was sparse.

For one year I played for voice lessons at GMU, only to find that after cancellations, parking costs and food - I was essentially getting somewhere around $7 an hour.  One priceless day I received a text from a singer saying she felt “real sick” and couldn’t meet with me.  About ten minutes later I spotted her in the food court with a table of friends, eating french fries in her pajamas.  Instrumental juries turned out to be WAY more lucrative, with a much lower investment of time and bother.    

Favorite thing:  GMU’s food court had a great Indian place.    
Location: 30 min - 2 hours away  Stability level: Dependent on school year and students

Job #7 Random Freelancing Gigs
  • Playing 2 hours a day in a business building lobby for two months
  • Accompanying an elementary school choir concert  
  • Accompanying ‘Solo and ensemble’ competitions - each year I’d get a crop of high school instrumentalists to play for.  Easy money.
  • Accompanying community theatre - this kind of work only gets a stipend, but its a great way of getting experience and its fun. I played for as many shows as I could fit in my schedule: the Drowsy Chaperone, Curtains and Cabaret
  • A summer in Interlochen, MI playing for their summer theatre program
  • A summer playing for Wash National Opera Summer Institute
  • A summer in Huron, Ohio playing for their summer theatre program

Location: Anywhere and Everywhere   Stability level: It doesn’t rain but it pours

Freelancing has taught me a lot - mostly humility.  I’ve developed a high tolerance of handling the unknown.  Situations which would have been previously classified as ‘intolerable’ are now downgraded to ‘funny’. I've had lots of satisfying experiences as well as some times I considered scrapping it all and applying at a local FedEx/Kinkos. Here is one thing to avoid: 

As an independent freelancer, I almost immediately forgot how to say ‘no’ professionally – to guard personal time, and make time to have a hobby other than ‘decompressing’.  I rarely said “No” because I felt it was always better to be working.  Now I realize I often burnt myself out with too much, too often, too long, and too late. Its important to keep some kind of balance in all the craziness.

I'm planning on one more blog about freelancing, so I've been looking at blogs on the subject, as well as freelance articles (any suggestions are welcome).  I'll post those findings soon.  

In the meantime - I'm on vacation :)

Monday, July 30, 2012

The Last Four Years, Part I

It’s been four years since I switched from a full-time university staff pianist gig to living as a freelance musician.  I thought I’d share my experiences so pianists can get a feel for the depth, breadth and weirdness of the life.  As a musician, there’s always a point where you have to define success for yourself - and this lifestyle demands that you have your priorities firmly set. Because noone’s ever said, “Actually, I got into music because I love driving”.  

Since moving to the DC area, I sought out every opportunity to collaborate that I could think of. I’ve worked with a broad spectrum of talents - from the dedicated professional to the amateur, as well as the non-musician.  I’ve played in churches, high schools, theatres, community theatres, universities, the Netherlands Embassy, the Kennedy Center, an elementary school and the lobby of a business building.

In these venues, in addition to using the training of my classical piano background, I was often required to function in completely different roles than I was used to, pianistically and personality-wise.  To give you an idea what the life is like, I’ll go through and mention what the jobs were, and what additional skills I was required to learn.

Job #1: The Church Gig
This was a very reliable gig, with familiar music since I grew up in the church, but it still had its challenges.  Improvising on traditional hymns came to me pretty easily, but the contemporary christian music rankled my classically trained soul at the beginning.  I often took the charts provided and wrote out everything via Finale (by the way, another important skill I picked up and developed as a freelancer).  Only through constant performing of the pop/rock/etc pieces was I capable of really cementing an understanding and comfort with the style.  

This job also taught me about using music to create flow in a service - to enhance one moment, draw it to an end and to usher in another. ‘Mood music,’ or ‘moving music’ was music to calm, music to focus, music to keep people from craning their head around and wonder why nothing is happening.  Providing perfectly timed underscoring as pastors walk or offertory is collected is no small feat (especially when you have to look directly behind you as you are playing).  Nor is it easy to loop a song around, say, 3 times, all the while mentally yanking people towards the front when they are late.  But I did it - and helped make everything run smoothly.

I also learned about problem solving with a smile - because many situations were just “the way things are”.  If nothing was going to change, I found the best thing to do was make things work, no matter what.  So if I was accompanying from wretched locations - say the soloist is completely across the room, or visibility of the conductor was nil - or there are live performance snafus or coworker miscommunications, the healthiest thing to do was to do my best, shrug and move on.

My favorite thing about this job: I loved the feel of leading a congregation of 500+ voices singing hymns.  Some downsides: finding a church sub sucks - experienced church players already have church gigs, so those who can make it often aren’t quite used to the gig.  And forget finding a pianist who can both sightread difficult music and handle reading pop charts (lots of fun to be found with sightreading pop’s bizarre vocal rhythms, as well).    

Another difficulty is the actual act of taking time off [AKA replacing oneself with a sub] to be at another gig. Juggling multiple gigs can get problematic when say, the music director feels you are getting a substitute for too many rehearsals within a certain time period.  When you are getting part time salary and you get the flu and you need to accommodate another gig - it can suck.  

Location: 15 minutes down the road.  Stability level: VERY

Job #2 The Community Music School Gig
Here I was a catch-all type pianist: voice juries, performances, honors student recordings, fund-raisers, faculty auditions, etc.  Another thing I did was work in their music library, briefly.  I was also their musical theater program music director, which I’ll go over separately.  

Juries and performance accompanying are pretty much the same everywhere, the main difference at this place was the range of ages and talent levels. There were freakishly talented 11 year olds and 60 year olds taking lessons for the first time. There was always a quick turn-around in performing - typically I’d get a brief rehearsal with anyone before a performance: about 30 minutes for instrumentalists, and 15 minutes for vocal juries.  I found that trying to establish tempi with an 8 year old shy violinist can be difficult.  Honestly, tempi were always hard to ascertain so I just kept my eyes open and hoped for the best.

In the recording sessions I learned that any great take for me would be the absolute worst for the student.  And vice versa.  

In the Levine music library, I processed the weekly check-outs/check-ins of music scores and books.  They had a pretty decent collection, but my true fascination lay in the attic-like rooms off to the side, which housed hordes of sheet music donations.  Like a musical Indiana Jones, I pawed through the dark, dusty catacombs, gleefully going through dilapidated cardboard boxes of music to extract and file usable tomes.  Definitely a great playground for a music geek.  

Locations: The rather large downside to these gigs was just getting to whichever of the five locations I was heading - driving through DC, on the I66 or the 495 Beltway up to Maryland made for hellish commutes that could range from 35 minutes to 2 hours (all depending on the time of day, traffic and random acts of god).   
Stability Level:  Steady, some busy seasons
Job #3 - Levine Musical Theatre and Music Directing Gig
In this position I played for show auditions, accompanied and led rehearsals, taught parts, helped decide instrumentation for the shows, acted as a liaison for band instrumentalists and was the keyboardist/conductor for the pit bands.  

Most of this job was everything I was never taught in school.  As a music director, I mainly learned by doing, although I additionally found it incredibly helpful to go to a couple of ‘Music Direction Workshops’.  I somehow managed it all, magically, by building upon theatre experiences and theatre contacts I’d made since moving to DC.

This job involved playing for a lot of auditions - which is always a crash course in humility, unless you have an encyclopedic knowledge of the repertoire.  I learned a huge amount of MT repertoire doing this - not just the classics (MT written before 1960, which is what most classical pianists run into).  

Music directing includes a lot of decision-making, and all the calls are based on what voices, age ranges, and abilities are staring you down in the rehearsal.  When I was first starting out, doubts would lurk in the back of my mind (that voice that questions, "Am I doing this right?" or "Was that the best call I could have made?").   I also used to worry about vocal warm-ups, which one was ‘right’ or ‘best’.  Eventually I felt much more comfortable with dividing up and assigning parts, warming the group up, etc.

Leading rehearsals involved planning out what music to teach, and how best to fill the time of the people who you are scheduled to work with. This was a challenge for me, mainly because I was working with children who often would not show up on time - or at all - for their scheduled rehearsal. So quite often I would have to instantly replan the rehearsal based on who showed up for the day.  Another issue in teaching theatre to children is figuring out how to continuously reinforce what you are teaching so that not only do they learn it correctly, but they retain it and perform the music correctly with choreography.  There’s nothing worse than, after painstakingly choosing which harmonies to teach, and to whom, watching them proceed to sing an entire song in unison while they execute their blocking and/or choreography.  

When it finally came to production time, I found that leading a band can be the biggest blast, ever.  It’s also incredibly strange realizing the entire pit is essentially following your head.  As a collaborative pianist, I always loved being able to ‘fix things’ on the fly - accommodating anything a performer does, and just going with it.  It’s much harder with a band, though.  Due to my young cast, I had several occasions where I would realize the singer had jumped to another part of the song - and had to go with them, shouting out the measure # they were at and hoping the band would follow.   

Picking out orchestrations and band members is another thing they don't teach you in school.  Much can depend on budgeting, and also what instrumentalists are available.  I learned to start recruiting early for the best results (!)  Because I had done a lot of community theatre playing, I had access to musicians who were comfortable in a theatre pit.  And they had plenty of people to recommend - the theatre musician world is a small world.  

Learning to program Mainstage and Korg or Kurtzweil keyboards was mostly a self-taught endeavor - time consuming, painstaking and full of swearing.  Good times.

Probably the most important thing I learned was: if a theatre director asks you “Can you do ____?”, your reaction should always be, “Yes, I’ll make it happen.”

Location: 30 min-2 hour driving time
Stability Level:  Steady, all-consuming during production weeks

Part II coming up as soon as I finish writing it.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Where do we go when we die?

Pianist’s definition of hell:
Playing for a choral rehearsal, they go over music, learn it, sing it OK, they move on. Then, they go back to the beginning of the piece and it’s like they’ve never seen the piece before . . . the clock twitches at 12:12 - but never moves forward . . .

Pianist's definition of heaven:
Playing for a choral rehearsal, the choir sings beautifully, with crisp consonants, matching vowels sounds and cutoffs as if they possess a single mind. They run through the entire thing perfectly, the hour flies by - and then you get paid a million dollars and get escorted to the destination of your choice in a limo with a martini.

The Wand-Waver and the Blame

Once upon a time there was a wand-waver, a choir, and a pianist.  The wand-waver and her singers did not like to work, even though a festival was fast approaching.  When the festival gathering occurred, the wand-waver would leave a small folded note on the judges desk, requesting the selection of one particular song due to the “inability of the pianist to perform the other pieces”.  The judges nodded and gave indulgent smiles to the poorly skilled pianist, and requested the one particular song.  The choir sang the one song it knew beautifully, and happily joined the festival.  This occurred two years in a row.  

Then one year, a judge did not see a folded up note on his table, and requested another song, one that the choir did not know.  The wand-waver smiled and asked if he had “read her note”, but the judge did not smile.  He slowly opened the note, then reluctantly called for the requested song. The wand-waver smiled because she had gotten away with her plan, yet again.  
The next day, the judge requested that the choir sing again - this time with a pianist of his choosing.  Several of the choir member’ eyes widened in alarm.  Courageously, the wand-waver whispered “Follow me!” - and she led them onstage, proceeding to wave and point her wand, mouthing the words with determination, willing them to succeed.  But her effort was for naught, for the choir could not remember what they did not know.  One by one, the singers dropped out until no one was singing anymore and only the lone pianist was heard playing.  The singers heads drooped in shame, and they were excluded from the festival with a stern warning.  The wand-waver was required to hand in her wand at the end of the year. 

The moral:
NEVER blame the pianist  

The Throat and the Tempo

Once upon a time there was a singing princess who had difficulty keeping a steady rhythm, who often would get slower and slower when she sang with any kind of accompaniment.  Occasionally she found tempos too fast for her liking, but was unable to indicate the tempo she preferred. In an attempt to help with this problem, a wise man gave her an Enchanted Box that provided a steady ticking sound.  The princess was shocked at this Enchanted Box, and was amazed at its ability to keep her music going forward at a steady pace.  She was the only one among her singing companions to carry one.  “Why”,  she asked, “are these not more common?”  Shrugs and blank looks met her query.  She lost it shortly thereafter and did not bother to replace it.

The moral:  
. . . singers.